Urban Social Life on Hold: Italian Communities and COVID-19

Marta Soligo
Univ. of Nevada – Las Vegas

When, on March 11, the Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced a strict stay-at-home order for the whole country, media worldwide broadcasted pictures of unusually empty Italian piazzas (squares). Those images, which soon became the symbol of COVID-19 in Italy, mirrored the shock of a society for whom urban social life is vital. For centuries, urban centers—especially piazzas—represented the heart of the country’s social, economic, and religious life, being the places where institutions such as city halls, churches, and courthouses are located. But, most importantly, piazzas are traditionally the places of Gemeinschaft, where many vital of social practices take place, from everyday interactions to formal public gatherings. Throughout history, in the piazzas, Italians built a sense of community, collectively applauding the end of wars, worshipping saints, protesting for their rights, or simply meeting with other members of the community. In such a context, what are the effects of the enforced lockdown on Italian society?

As soon as the government issued the stay-at-home order, people all over the country organized neighborhood-based activities. From their balconies and backyards, and for days, neighbors who before were strangers sang, worked out, and chatted together. While the news was announcing that, in some towns, the average death rate was increasing by 400%, that common effort to raise each other’s morale acquired an important social significance. During one of the most challenging situations in recent history, neighbors tried to recreate and spread among themselves a modified piazza-like atmosphere. 

Moreover, every April 25 since 1946, Italians have gathered in the piazzas to commemorate the date marking the end of Mussolini’s dictatorship. After 74 years, however, that tradition had to be put on hold. Having to cancel all the parades planned for Liberation Day, Italians decided to transform, once again, their neighborhoods into city centers. Forced to stay at home under the threat of an invisible enemy, people looked at the value of the freedom their ancestors conquered 75 years earlier with new appreciation. To honor the partisan movements who fought against Mussolini’s troops, people met on their balconies to sing “Bella Ciao,” the anti-fascist resistance anthem. Less than a week after Liberation Day, on May 1st, Italians faced a similar challenge, not being able to celebrate Labor Day. For the first time in decades, people could not gather in the piazzas to honor the most important day of the year for workers’ rights movements, in a moment in which working conditions are currently the object of heated debates. 

If neighborhood gatherings substituted Liberation Day parades, in the case of Labor Day, the media became the new piazzas. Instead of using megaphones while marching around city centers, union representatives used social media and TV programs to communicate the immediate need for worker support measures. In particular, on that day, the media became the voice of those invisible African immigrants who, for the whole lockdown, had worked uninterruptedly in Southern Italy’s fields, and in extremely poor and dangerous conditions. With the media becoming an online piazza and laptops virtual stages, those exploited laborers were finally able to make the Italian audience aware of their situation.

Balcony and virtual gatherings represented a successful alternative to the piazza, especially in terms of social solidarity. However, there are some urban cultural practices that were not only hard to substitute, but that, when lacking, led to the disorientation of entire strata of the population. After carefully following the Italian case, I could not help but notice an interesting pattern, especially in a moment, like this one, in which sociology is increasingly interested in the role of the senses. During the lockdown, I watched a large number of interviews with Italian journalists asking people about their cities being empty. The majority of interviewees mentioned sensorial urban experiences among the aspects they missed the most; such as the sound of church bells, the smell of espresso coming from the cafés, and the shaking of hands between friends in the piazza. However small and repetitive these actions might seem, they represent reference points for a large number of the population, especially in the case of vulnerable groups. One example above all are the elderly, who are at greater risk not only from a health, but also from a social perspective. Often using public spaces, such as parks and piazzas, to meet with peers, during the coronavirus the oldest strata of the population suffered from a degree of isolation that neither Skype nor FaceTime was able to offset.

At the moment I am writing, Italy is in Phase Two, so while people may now walk in the piazzas, they still have to maintain social distance, cannot drink espresso in the cafés, and are not allowed to hug or shake anyone’s hands. For almost three months now, Italians could not conduct those practices that, historically, built their sense of Gemeinschaft. Unable to undertake everyday social activities, during the lockdown, people tried to find substitutes for those elements that century after century built the country’s material and symbolic culture. But, when asked about their empty cities, Italians explained that their social and sensorial experiences cannot be replaced.

Being born and raised in Italy, I often tell my American colleagues that it is not possible to translate the meaning of the term “piazza.” I explain that the only way to understand it, is to live it. COVID-19 in Italy did not only have tragic consequences in terms of health issues. The pandemic paused, for the first time in centuries, an ongoing series of social practices deeply rooted in urban life. When, at the end of February, Italy became the epicenter of COVID-19, a social media comment by a friend captured my attention. “One day,” it read “our prime minister will announce that this nightmare is over, and we will all meet in the piazzas to celebrate.” Waiting for that day, Italians can only be patient, knowing that a cure or a vaccine against coronavirus will help heal the entire society, and not only from a health-related point of view.