A hot date in Bologna (and other history lessons) – Frank McNally’s Italian weekend, Part II

I mentioned Bologna’s Via Malcontenti on Wednesday, and the theory that it acquired its name from a time when it was the route taken by prisoners en route to execution.

If so, their grim destination was the market square now called Piazza dell’ Otto Agosto (8th of August Square), which reminded of the penchant in Latin countries for commemorating famous dates in this way.

Naturally, it forced me to google “8th of August” and “Bologna” to see what had happened then. It turned out that the August in question was during Europe’s “year of revolutions”, 1848, when local rebels won freedom from the Austrians for a short period.

This in turn reminded me that, in Ireland, we do not commemorate dates in street names. Bologna’s 8th of August happened just 10 days after the Young Irelanders’ rebellion. But where in Ballingarry, or elsewhere, is the “Boulevard of the 29th of July”?


Then again, the (re)educational aspect of this sort of thing has a mixed history in Italy. Walking along Rome’s Via dei Fori Imperiali a day later, I passed a series of bronze statues of the Caesars and was struck by the curious shortness of their construction dates. Those were in Roman numerals, of course. But the inscriptions referred to “Anno XI”.

That was because, like the road itself, which Mussolini cut through some of the oldest parts of Rome with no regard for residents, never mind archaeology, the statues were a 20th-century creation. And they used the dictator’s new calendar, introduced in 1926, but backdated to the “March on Rome” of October 1922, which became Year One of the “Era Fascista”. Thus “Anno XI” was 1933/34 in the old money.

So Mussolini made the calendars run on time – his own – at least. As for the notion that he did the same for trains, that’s a myth. Most reconstruction of Italian rail services after the first World War predated him.

He did little to improve it, although his commitment to public transport was evident – ironically – in the event that brought him to power.

While thousands of his fellow fascists headed for the capital on foot in 1922, he himself did not walk.

As an historian of the period puts it, Mussolini’s March on Rome “was a comfortable train ride”.

I took the train there myself last weekend – one of the new privatised Italo services that now share main lines with the State-owed Trenitalia – and very comfortable it was too. This despite the fact that my ticket proclaimed me to be travelling in “Smart” class, which is the exciting new euphemism for “Economy”. It certainly wasn’t cheap, so in that respect at least, the upgraded adjective was justified.

As for punctuality, my train performed well. En route, I read in an article from Forbes magazine that when the privatised services began a few years ago, if there was a Trenitalia one scheduled for the same time, the Italo would make a point of leaving a minute early. That's taking competition a bit far, I think. Anyway, my trains to Rome were merely punctual, so I couldn't complain.

I could almost complain, as someone trying to learn Italian, that all the on-board announcements were delivered not just in the vernacular but in impeccable English too, which always overtook my own attempts to translate.

And not just any English, but disconcertingly posh English, even though it was the same voice. One moment he would be aggressively rolling his Rs in Italian, with the reverberation of a revved-up Vespa, the next he was Jacob Rees Mogg, clipping all his consonants as if they were taxable. The other weird thing was that, even while speaking his native language, the announcer resorted to English for the phrase “il train manager”. Can it be possible that there is no Italian term for this?

My last rail journey of the weekend was the reverse of Mussolini’s – from Rome to Milan, where another of the dictator’s legacies awaited. In fact, Milan’s Central Station was itself a much-delayed arrival. Construction started in 1906 but there were so many hold-ups that Il Duce was able to put his questionable stamp on the project before it opened in 1931.

The high-speed services do the trip in little more than three hours now. As it happened, mine was late, although that was impressive too in its own way.

From early on, the announcer was apologising for the fact that we were running “14 minutes” behind schedule.

I thought that might expand en route, but no, sure enough, the delay was precisely as expected.