In early 2020, much of the world’s attention was focused on the northern Italian city of Bergamo as it became one of the first places outside China to experience a serious outbreak of Covid-19. Media images of frantic intensive care units and army vehicles carrying coffins out of overwhelmed cemeteries were a shocking illustration of the trauma that was suddenly inflicted on this normally quiet alpine city.
For many in Europe, those very images came to define the early stages of the pandemic. Three years on from Italy’s first nationwide lockdown, then, it’s easy to see the poignancy of Bergamo and its Lombardian neighbor Brescia being chosen as joint Italian Capitals of Culture (ICoC) for 2023. Over the next year, hundreds of events will take place at dozens of different venues. If the crowds at the January 21 inauguration ceremonies in both cities were any indication, participants can expect scenes that would have been unthinkable when social distancing and mask mandates were in force.
“Culture as a cure”
Given the shared experience of the pandemic across the region, this year’s edition of the Italian Capital of Culture was always likely to carry symbolic weight. But organizers of the ICoC hope it will contribute in ways that are more tangible, too. One of the festival’s themes is “culture as a cure”, and the ambition is to use the event to help repair some of the social, psychological, and economic damage caused by the pandemic and the lengthy lockdowns.
Bergamo and Brescia jointly hosting this year’s ICoC is itself an indication of the redemptive possibilities of the Capital of Culture. It is the first time in the program’s nine-year history that the hosts have been “twinned” in this way. But arguably the more significant “first” is the current suspension of the deeply entrenched rivalry between the Lombardian cities — a phenomenon that practically every region in Italy can relate to. (Animosity between Bergamo and Brescia originated in the Middle Ages, when the cities fought over territory and resources, but today the battlefields include food, dialect and, perhaps most fiercely, calcio.)
The sense that the ICoC has nurtured rare forms of unity and consensus is strengthened by the fact that this year’s event has the support of mayors across the nation, and was unanimously approved in the Italian parliament — a spirit-bolstering sign of post-pandemic solidarity, and an antidote to the current political climate of muckraking and mudslinging.
Valentia Bussi, 35, a pharmaceuticals salesperson who lives and was born in Brescia, agrees that the Capital of Culture is an opportunity to focus on the things that unite the cities. “These are two very similar cities in terms of culture, even if they are traditionally rivals. I think this will be a good opportunity to rediscover common points and create very positive synergies,” she said.
Of course, one of the things that connects Bergamo and Brescia is their similar experience of the pandemic. The combination of an urbanized population, a high number of elderly residents, and an underfunded healthcare system made Italy’s northern provinces particularly vulnerable to the virus. To date, Lombardy has suffered by far the greatest number of COVID-related deaths in Italy, with over 45 thousand (the next worst affected region is Veneto, with around 16 thousand deaths). Meanwhile, the north of Italy — and later the country as a whole — endured some of the strictest lockdown measures in the whole of Europe. The long periods of social isolation meant that even those who survived the physical dangers of the virus were likely to be affected by the mental health crisis.
In this respect, Bussi sees this year’s ICoC as both a compensation for the last few years and an opportunity for a new start: “Brescians respected the rules scrupulously and there was a long period of silence, uncertainty, and fear. After so much suffering, this event feels like a renaissance,” she said.
Others in the community, including Luca Muschio, 23, an economics student at the University of Bergamo and a volunteer for the Capital of Culture event, share Bussi’s perspective. “I think this festival is the right reward for Bergamo and Brescia after the dramatic events of the pandemic,” Muschio said during the inauguration weekend.
A redemptive legacy?
As the warmer months and the peak tourist season come around, perhaps the most important question is how successful the event will be in achieving a real sense of recovery, or, in the words of the official website, in making “culture an inclusive and empowering tool for revitalizing and regenerating communities.”
There are reasons to be cautious about the short- and long-term legacy of the ICoC. Dr. Tiziano Antognozzi, a postdoctoral researcher at IMT Lucca and a curator for the highly-successful Comics and Games festival held in the same city, is wary of the ambitious targets of major festivals like the Italian Capital of Culture. Though the optimism of locals like Bussi and Muschio is encouraging, Dr. Antognozzi believes that the breadth of the event’s objectives is a potential weakness: “Wide enterprises with a wide scope, such as the ICoC, often evade cohesive impacts on people and territories, as they might have broadly different effects in relation to different stakeholder groups.”
Evidence from events of similar scope held in single cities or areas — not just in Italy — shows that it can be difficult for positive effects to be felt evenly across social groups. This may mean that the 2023 ICoC initiatives will attract people who are already receptive to culture and the arts while struggling to engage more marginalized groups. The same concerns about inclusivity can be applied to the economic sphere, argues Dr. Antognozzi. “A big event with many attendees can be felt as good business for local shops and the hospitality industry, while getting entirely ignored in other economic areas.”
At the same time, Dr. Antognozzi insists that events like the ICoC have the potential to lead to a “renewed sense of purpose” that can “definitely have a mending effect on a wounded place.” While this year’s Capital of Culture has been welcomed by many as a respite from the despair of the last few years, it remains to be seen how widely and meaningfully this restorative process will be felt in the host cities.