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The Great Beauty of Bologna, the Flower That Risks Withering Due to Negligence

A glance is enough to admire Bologna, but its splendor could become a scarce resource if its artistic heritage is not taken care of

Portico Colleggio di Spagna, Bologna

It takes a very long journey to maintain beauty. Those who are tasked with it must be determined and must possess the talents of a marathon runner, including psychological motivation. So far, this has not been the case with Bologna’s city council. The manageable distance of its system is not the marathon. During the day, the municipality attempts to clean the city walls, and during the night there is a return to the implacably ugly. A pause, and then again, another short race begins.

Portico di via Reno, Bologna

‘I cannot tell you what an immense impression Paris made upon me. It is the most extraordinary place in the world. I was not prepared for, and really could not have believed in, its perfectly distinct and separate character.’ This was Charles Dickens’s first impression of Paris, expressed in a letter he wrote to a friend in 1844. It is cited by John Edmondson, a scholar of 19th century literature with an interest in urban space and place. The ‘character’ of a city, argues Edmondson, is the result of a complex of temporal and spatial connections that determine its unique personality. ‘Many city dwellers perceive their city in some sense as a living organism,’ he writes. ‘We call its main streets arteries. We speak of its heart, its energy, its pulse, even of its changing moods and of its spirit. For those who live and work in them, each great city has its own distinct character or identity. To begin to understand what gives a city its unique and organic life, we need to understand the role of its past, and of the interplay between that urban past and the urban present – because the city is a constantly developing construct of spatial and temporal connections, a text that is always being written.’ The beauty (or lack of beauty) of a city is a central aspect of its character and the physical manifestation of the interplay between past and present. What constitutes that beauty needs to be understood, nurtured and maintained – if it is neglected or abused, and so lost, the city will lose its identity and all that goes with it.

A wall in the historic heart of Bologna

As Aristotle stated, ‘A great city should not be confounded with a populous one’. No other places in the world are so great by reason of their beauty as the many small and medium-sized towns and the thousand and more villages of Italy. Travelling between one such place and another, it is hard not to wonder at so much beauty. If ‘beautification’ is the current of beauty that throws light on the aesthetic values of those towns and villages, enhancing their knowledge, ‘knowledgefication’ is the name we shall give to the current of knowledge that arouses a love for beauty. Together, the two currents promote a harmonious social and aesthetic order that enhances the quality of life. Policy makers and civil society have a responsibility to keep intact the beauty of the Italian cultural heritage and its landscapes, relentlessly pursuing the objective of providing power to these two currents.

A building in the historic heart of Bologna

It is commonly noted that youth and beauty are transient (‘Youth’s a stuff will not endure,’ sings the clown Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night) . Yet, a beautiful city is essentially ageless. Time comes into play with regard to safeguarding its beauty, or rediscovering and then regenerating it. It is now time for innovation in civic ethics aimed at regenerating the behaviour of individuals in the community so that the beauty of the city is generally perceived as a vital project that must be carried on incessantly. Urban beauty entrepreneurs must enter the scene as the protagonists, and among them are the local administrators – the ‘political entrepreneurs’ – who interpret the vision of the city.

Portico di via Galliera, Bologna

It is primarily the responsibility of such entrepreneurs to invest in urban beauty, which raises the value of reputation with a strong emotional impact. As noted in the Annual Report of the Reputation Institute, the attractiveness of the urban environment is foremost among the considerations that affect the way a city is perceived. An effective local administration and an advanced economy come second and third, respectively. Investing in beauty enhances the characteristics of the city, gives it charisma and strengthens its ability to negotiate with other cities around the world. The multiplier of one euro invested in beauty is potentially high. As the reputation of the city rises, more tourists, investors, scientific and artistic talents, aspiring and innovative fledgling entrepreneurs are attracted; the window of opportunity opens wider; interpersonal relationships grow in quantity and quality on an international scale; additional income is generated and standards of living are raised. If we invest today in reputation, tomorrow reputation will work for the city. We have long observed the dark and grey face of recession. Investment in reputational goods brings colour to the cheeks of the beautiful  city. To turn the economic news to pink, the city must not give up its beauty products. This is a sign of self-confidence, which along with trust in others, drives society and the economy.

Portico di via Val D’Aposa, historic heart of Bologna

It is not written in the book of nature that the beauty of the city has to wither. Understanding where we are, where we would like to get to and how to get there is the mission of the intelligent city for the benefit of its inhabitants. This is a task that needs to be undertaken with the help of digital technologies together with new organizational models of urban space. The consulting firm Ernest & Young (EY) and the Public Administration Forum produce statistics on the intelligence quotient of our cities. Using 470 indicators, EY placed Bologna, Milan and Turin on the podium. The 105 indicators of the Forum have given primacy to Milan, Bologna and Venice. The many indicators examined do not tell the whole story. As Einstein maintained, ‘Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.’

It is widely held that beauty is subjective, and not measurable. That is why it is not among the indicators of smart cities and urban well-being. Beauty combined with intelligence improves the quality of living in the city. Studies carried out in the field of ‘Pulchereconomy’ (the Economics of Beauty) have shown that an aesthetically appealing city brings happiness to its residents and strengthens economic activity. The more attractive its face, the more the city has the charisma it needs to become the kind of powerful pull-factor in negotiations that can lead to outstanding commercial results. Attractive, beautiful cities enjoy higher incomes and entice investors. In short, the benefits of attractiveness as a result of urban beauty radiate across the spectrum.

Trash cans in Bologna

The ‘School of Life’, based in London and committed to the development of emotional intelligence, affirms that the beauty of the city is objective and is therefore computable. Several studies have measured increases in happiness indexes related to living in a beautiful city. The aesthetic aspect of the city, perceived as a sign of economic vitality, is also an object of measurement. After all, the city is a like a clock whose hours are counted by the swing of the pendulum that oscillates between investments for the maintenance of its beauty and the damage caused both by time, which corrodes everything and the monsters that disfigure beauty by besmirching building facades and spreading litter everywhere. The case of Bologna is emblematic. If investments in preventive and planned maintenance, including those for the education of beauty, were to be included among the indicators, the urban attractiveness of Bologna and many other cities in the Bel Paese would be jeopardised. With the injection of 58 million granted by the government to Bologna, each euro aimed at beauty conservation and beauty education would produce a multiplier effect for both tourism and foreign investment in income and job generating activities for the residents.

A wall in the historical heart of Bologna

The beauty of the city is an identity forever. And beauty attracts innovation. Plato warned that the city is what it is because our citizens are what they are. The Bolognese people are asked to respect and value the nature of the beauty of their city, shaped by past generations. For the city is also nature: the land on which it is built, the stone used to make it. We do not want to read of a Bologna ‘disconnected and scruffy’, as the New York Times wrote on 30 September 2015 in its piece on ‘36 hours in Bologna’. Nor would we like to repeat what Patrizia Gabellini, former town councillor for the environment and urban quality, declared, ‘the ugly habit of throwing rubbish everywhere and in any case [rubbish] is one of the most pervasive forms of dirt that exists in the city’. Moreover, reflecting on the beauty of the city and the pleasant impression that citizens and tourists enjoy when walking in its streets, we would like no one ever to forget that at a certain point of the day everyone is a pedestrian.

University Area in Bologna

A municipal agenda to fight discarded chewing-gum and cigarette butts, and the Mayor of Bologna’s warning that the Ecological Guards do not forgive, imposing fines on those who leave garbage on the street and under the porticoes, are no more than timid steps forward in the campaign against dirt and urban decay. This is also true of surveillance cameras and of financial incentives for private individuals who clean and repaint houses and condominiums disfigured by graffiti. In the wake of such sanctions, the good intentions of those presiding over that great common good which is the beauty of the city are not enough. Nor can technological innovation (nowadays, that of intelligent waste bins, adopted by the Municipality of Milan) alone protect beauty by catching vandals in the act. What cannot be ignored is the need for a large-scale campaign to educate people about the importance of cleanliness in community life. Taught and instilled at an early age, habits, whether good or bad, shape the personality. The beauty of Bologna will endure over the centuries if today’s parents and seniors leave to the generations of tomorrow a set of values formed by intangible goods such as love and respect for beauty. The urban police can contribute to curbing bad behaviour, provided that educating and raising awareness of the importance of urban cleanliness no longer remain unfulfilled needs.

What are the sources of Bologna’s success? The ingenuity and skill of its citizens? Certainly. But how can we doubt that the beauty of the city will be conducive to its success? What is true for people is even more true for cities. There are cities that leave us cold and others that warm our heart. Beauty makes the difference. A glance at its churches, palaces and arcades is enough to show that Bologna is a beautiful city, and that its beauty is not (yet) a scarce resource. But it could become so if timely maintenance of its artistic and cultural heritage is not provided. The more we see beautiful things around us, the more they become invisible to us. That is why we often take beauty for granted. To recover from the ‘invisibility syndrome’, the millions of incoming public funds to Basilica dei Servi, the portico of San Luca and other historical artefacts in the city are a good sign. That investment is designed to keep beauty and economy together. This is no mean feat, since it is precisely the ‘pulchereconomia’ that can contribute so much to Bologna’s reputation.

Portico di via Reno, Bologna

While the UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination of the arcades of Bologna – an extraordinary historic route of about 40 kilometres – is in progress, it is good to take one step back and one step forward.  On December 28th 1816, the French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, known as Stendhal, wrote in his Voyages en Italie, published for the first time in 1826, ‘On the whole the porticoes of Bologna are far from as elegant as those of the rue Castiglione, but they are much more convenient and provide perfect shelter from the heaviest of rain.’

Two centuries later, what would Stendhal say now? Perhaps he would write that the Municipality of Bologna is a reversed Penelope. Not intending to marry Mr Common Sense, the City Council of Bologna cleans the varied shapes of graffiti on the porticoes and walls during the day, so that during the night the ‘coarse soldiery’ – the Bolognese version of the bravi as depicted by Alessandro Manzoni in his historical masterpiece The Betrothed – may have clean surfaces on which to scrawl.

If he could marry Ms City Council, Mr Common Sense would find the path to undertake the work of prevention (civic education) and repression (night patrol). Entering into marriage is, alas, something they must not do. Well then, let the owners of apartment buildings pay for the ‘doing’ of the coarse soldiery that scribbles on the walls and the ‘undoing’ of those who paint over or remove these linguistic eyesores. We may think that an annual subscription for ‘cleanliness guaranteed’, perhaps in the order of €130 to €200 per building, is a small amount; indeed, in monetary terms it is very little, although it is still a hidden tax that tends to hide the lack of care and inefficiency of the public authority. It is more if we open windows on the landscape of property rights.  These are the property rights that must be the sacrificial lamb on the altar of nonsense.

Anyone can benefit from the beautiful cityscape of palaces, arcades, monuments and many other public and private assets that decorate Bologna. Its beauty is an indivisible good, because consumption by one person does not reduce the amount available to another. It is precisely this indivisibility that the bravi have thrown away and left to rot. Beauty is also a non-excludable good – it being difficult or impossible to exclude someone from enjoying the aesthetics of the city. The succession of beautiful palaces in the historic centre and the uniqueness of the long stretches of the porticoes are a gift that the Bolognese have received from their predecessors and a novelty much appreciated by tourists. The scribblers are free hitters who raise a wall of ugliness, which distances people and even prevents them from seeing the beauty. The bravi of graffiti are therefore groups of individuals strongly motivated to carry out actions that produce divisibility and exclusion.

Under these conditions, the 100-plus Euro per building tax is the consequence of an asymmetry between the citizens who pay and the bravi who collect the advantages of the white flag that the public hand has raised on the two fronts of prevention and repression. The maintenance of beauty is a very long journey. Those who are tasked with it must be determined and must have the stamina and motivations of the marathon runner. So far, this has not been the case with the Bologna municipal administration. The distance it can manage falls well short of the marathon: the City Council is an athlete for sprint races only. During the day the municipality attempts to clean the walls; during the night there is a return to the implacably ugly. A pause, and then, again, another short race.

The story of how the beauty of Bologna has come to be in a state of decay teaches us that the interplay between ‘beautification’ and ‘knowledgefication’ is a precondition for finding paths that infuse new vitality into the body of great cities. This cannot happen if a community, its policy makers, and its individual citizens stay locked – seemingly in relative security – in the silo mentality that obscures the vision of possible futures.

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