Coronavirus: Italy resists disaster with cultural pursuits

‘From the point of view of solidarity, beautiful things are happening ... I feel proud to be Italian’

All across Italy people are turning to music in an effort to beat boredom, socialise and keep their spirits high as the country battles Europe's worst outbreak of coronavirus. Video: David Dunne

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In the minutes before six o’clock, Jessica Phelan climbed the stairs to the roof of her building to look out over her Rome neighbourhood. All day on social media, a hashtag had been trending: “sonic flashmob”, spreading the word that something would happen when the clock struck six.

Phelan saw neighbours emerge at balconies and windows, from apartments where they have been living in isolation under government orders to curb Europe’s worst outbreak of coronavirus, which has been killing more than 200 citizens a day in Italy’s overwhelmed hospitals.

“People started waving to each other, calling ‘ciao, ciao’,” Phelan recalled. “A bunch of people started whacking tamborines, people had maracas. It was just noise at first. But then somebody started singing Bella Ciao.”

Soon the folk song of resistance was taken up by the whole street, its haunting minor melody resonating from one balcony to another. It was a scene that repeated from Naples to Siena, as Italians turned to music and cultural expression to persevere in a time of emergency.

The ban on leaving home for all but essential reasons has caused a creative flowering. Italians have adapted with balcony performances and by live-streaming from their phones and laptop cameras to socialise, fight boredom, and keep their spirits up as they engage in a nationwide effort to stop the spread of the virus.

Italy is showing how democracies can achieve public compliance with strict quarantine measures without the sweeping powers, surveillance and manpower available to authoritarian states like China: with a grassroots movement that inspires voluntary public consent by fostering solidarity and a sense of common endeavour.

Going viral

The “sonic flashmob” or “flashmob sonoro” began in Rome when the 18-member street music band Fanfaroma found their income and ability to perform suddenly evaporate.

“We were saying on our chat group, what will we do? How can we play?” said the band’s saxophonist Luciano Belvilacqua. “Then someone said, ‘let’s go out and play on our balconies’.”

A wave of patriotism sweeps Naples. Photograph: Reuters
A wave of patriotism sweeps Naples. Photograph: Reuters

The band members began to spread the word among fellow musicians and to invite them to join in at 6pm on Friday. An invitation published on their Facebook page began to spread widely.

“We said: play what you want. It could be your child performing a song they learned at school, your grandfather banging saucepans . . . Bit by bit it became gigantic, it spread to the whole of Italy. We realised there was a huge demand for this.”

When Friday came, watching from his apartment, Belvilacqua witnessed the “sonic flashmob” take over his neighbourhood. “It was madness, it was like New Year’s Eve,” he said.

Similar initiatives flowered spontaneously in other cities. Clips of apartment buildings producing impromptu choirs lit up social media over the weekend. Italian tenor Maurizio Marchini sang Nessun dorma from his balcony in Florence. The students of Lagrania di Vercelli high school, who have been doing music lessons online for a fortnight, opened up their performances to the public.

“We discovered that culture goes further than words,” said their teacher Claudia Ferrero. “It’s something everyone can feel, like a call of duty.”

Songs of resilience that recall difficult times of the past are finding a special resonance. At noon on Saturday, one Bologna neighbourhood filled the with sound of applause after a resident broadcast from their window the Evening of Miracles, a song that recalls the town squares filling with people again after the second World War.

There is lightheartedness too. Comedian and musician Francesco Cicchella changed the lyrics of the traditional Neapolitian song Luna Rossa, or Red Moon, to tell the tale of the masks, disinfectant, and solitude of life under quarantine.

“Let’s make this go more viral than the virus!” he wrote on Facebook as he launched a recording of the song made with three friends, each singing one of the four harmonies over webcam.

“We are trying to make this period of quarantine less sad, a bit more fun,” said Cicchella.

Art and literature

The cultural movement of quarantine is broader than music. Children can call a telephone number to be told a story. Theatres stream drama. Opera house the Teatro Regio di Torino, founded in 1740, began broadcasting performances of Verdi over YouTube. The Museum of Modern Art in Bologna is publishing videos from artists showing their work. The botanic gardens launched virtual tours. Personal trainers and yoga teachers give lessons over webcam to clients in their living rooms.

A woman plays music from her balcony in Milan. Photograph: New York Times
A woman plays music from her balcony in Milan. Photograph: New York Times

Some events are grand in scale: 1,000 entertainers, musicians and cultural figures performed over their phones and laptops in 18-hour streaming marathon L’Italia chiamò (Italy called) to raise money to support the overwhelmed health system.

Others are smaller. Bologna-based writer Francesca Sanzo organised a literary “Aperiskype”: a chance to read out and discuss pieces of writing in a quarantined alternative to the evening ritual of drinks and snacks in a local bar.

“The theme is ‘what you see from your window’. Perhaps we have more time to take notice of things, now that we are all shut in our homes,” Sanzo said.

“From the point of view of solidarity, beautiful things are happening . . . I’m 46 years old, and for the first time I feel proud to be Italian.”

Ancient roots

There is an old literary precedent for the cultural flowering.

One of the foundational texts of Italian literature, Boccaccio’s Decameron, was written in the wake of the 1348 Black Death, one of the worst pandemics in human history. It is a collection of stories told by seven young women and three young men to amuse each other as they shelter in the countryside outside Florence to wait out the plague.

Taking inspiration from the work, the design and art museum Triennale di Milano is streaming nightly performances by artists, musicians and thinkers over its Instagram account.

“When events like this happen, there is a great sense of anguish. Imagine a city like Rome: noisy, full of people, full of bells. And from one day to the next it empties,” said Belvilacqua, the saxophonist.

“You need to respond in some way because otherwise people will feel too alone. Going onto the balcony to sing with other people gives you courage,” he added.

“This shows there is a great will to resist, great strength, and cultural tools that are able to confront this virus. I think when this is all over, we must reflect on the importance of culture.”

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