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Local Democracy Italian style

Hilary Wainwright savours the political and cultural dolce vita in the Adriatic town of Grottammare.

August 1, 2004
7 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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Casilda, an elderly but agile woman, accosts the former mayor in the medieval centre of the seaside Italian town of Grottammare. She shouts passionately after Massimo Rossi, a radical leftist elected for his full two terms with one of the biggest popular mandates in Italy. But she doesn’t want to complain about her house or her drains. She wants to make him stop and look at what has happened to the sculpture near her house.

Made three years ago by the Bolognese sculptor Marco Pellizzola, the sculpture is a cage, an elongated version of the bell-shaped devices used in medieval times to carry around pet falcons. The cage is empty. At night it is lit up. Clustered on top of it there used to be eight or so birds, which were seemingly free but uncertain where to go. “They face new choices,” said Pellizzola by way of explanation of the ambiguities of the piece’s title – “Prospettiva di Volo” (“the prospect of flight”). The artist chose commonplace birds – pigeons, blackbirds, swallows, and though the sculpture was first exhibited in Grottammare’s medieval main square, he subsequently moved it to a more ordinary part of the old town. The birds became easy prey to passing youth. Now there is only one sad and solitary blackbird left. Casilda wants something done. In Grottammare, an attractive town on Italy’s Adriatic coast, the municipal government is checked and part-controlled by local committees elected by open neighbourhood assemblies. The future of the town’s culture is a vital matter of everyday life.

And culture is broadly interpreted in Grottammare. It ranges from the ruins of the castle built to stave off the Saracens and the network of grottoes installed to reinforce those defences in the Middle Ages (the grottoes are now used to keep bottles of the local wines cool), to the town’s restored art nouveau-style villas and its Orange Theatre, whose last performance was in 1908 when the wooden boards of the stage were ripped up and used to make coffins during an epidemic of Spanish flu. It also includes the beach, which is now set off with a broad, palm-lined promenade with a sky-blue cycle track bordered by a trail of pink oleanders. The seafront is as impressive as Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana, but instead of swanky hotels surrounded by extreme poverty there are enticing “chalets” selling local culinary specialities like fat olives stuffed with fish and lightly fried in breadcrumbs.

Historically, when people in Europe and North America demanded the rights to democratic government in the 18th and 19th centuries, the ideologues of the then ruling aristocracies evoked fear of the mob and the threats popular rule posed to culture. In Grottammare over the past 10 years an extension of citizens” rights has been culture’s protector.

In the late 1980s local construction interests teamed up with bigger companies from Milan to turn Grottammare into an upmarket Rimini: there”d be a mega marina with the biggest yacht park on the coast – a tourist playground of big hotels with a cable car running to the medieval town. Rossi and his mates, radical teachers, doctors, journalists and community workers deeply committed to their town, got wind of this. They were well known because of their involvement with a housing rights centre and the independent local radio station Radio Creativa. Two or three of them had already been elected to the council. They mounted a successful campaign against the development plans.

“We knew people didn’t want this kind of tourism. We argued for a tranquil tourism that was about nature, culture and human relationships – not consumerism,” says Rossi, who is a notably innovative member of Rifondazione Comunista, the party that developed out of the Italian Communist Party in the 1980s and which is now heavily involved in the European Social Forum and local social forums across Italy. This group of radical socialists touched a nerve. The people of Grottammare refer to Rimini as if it were a haunting nightmare, and Rossi and company had a reputation for getting things done. In 1994 the Christian Democrats, whose clientelism had dominated the town since the 1960s, were ousted and the Participation and Solidarity (PS) coalition of untried, but also uncorrupted men and women, started work to recreate their town.

The coalition’s first task was to develop a new urban plan for a town that was becoming cluttered with concrete and which was losing its magnetism for tranquillity-seeking Romans and Milanese. (Since PS took office, the number of tourists visiting Grottammare has more than doubled from 254,000 to more than 500,000 a year.) The new government combined a professional efficiency – surveying the threats to the environment, taking sewage treatment back into municipal ownership – with participatory democracy – calling open assemblies in every neighbourhood. “We told [the people] we don’t know what to do any more than you,” says Luigi Merli, Rossi’s successor as mayor and an independent-minded socialist who runs a large vegetable market garden.

Out of these neighbourhood assemblies came committees that reported back to recalled assemblies twice a year. “Our job is to put together ideas to discuss with the council, and to check that they carry out their work,” says Morena, the president of the Ischia neighbourhood committee. She took me on a tour of the projects that her committee have worked on with the council, proudly describing the integration of tourism with the life of the town: here, a piazza designed by local children where before there was just a church and a car park; there, a space where dog owners could let their pets run free without offending the neighbours; and over there, “the 1 May park” where previously the land was abbandone. In the evening the local youth, wearing T-shirts announcing “summer party Ischia quarter”, put on a party on the beach. “We make the town better for us, and it’s better for tourists,” Morena explains.

And it’s true: tourists and citizens both benefit from Grottammare’s very un-corporate style of regulation. Work has now begun on converting the previously disused 18th century convent in the old town into 15 or so council houses. The luxurious garden of the villa-turned-town hall now hosts regular festivals, the best touring operettas from Rome, and events to celebrate the culture of the growing number of immigrants living in the town. And while I was staying in the town, I didn’t feel like an outsider at all. The mayor even gave me the keys to the town hall so I could access my email.

Sometimes the enthusiasm to recuperate the past has meant a certain airbrushing of history, however. The guidebooks wax lyrical in praise of the town’s most famous son – Felice Peretti, otherwise known as Pope Sixtus V. By all accounts, Peretti was indeed a pioneering urban planner (he would have blessed the radical socialists whose style of government is now transforming his home town), but he also ran such an authoritarian regime that the pallbearers at his funeral are said to have tipped his body into the Tiber.

Now Grottammare is providing a beacon to other municipalities searching for strategies to resist the privatisation favoured by Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. The conditions in the town make it a natural political laboratory. With a population of 15,000, it is cohesive but not parochial. A network of small and medium-sized industries and local traditions of design and invention have enabled the regional economy to weather Berlusconi’s low-tax-induced recession relatively unharmed. And, surrounded by towns of cultural interest, like Macerata with its open-air opera, Grottammare is an ideal base for creative tourism.

But there are problems, too. As PS has fulfilled its commitments, popular participation in Grottammare’s system of local government has dropped. There is talk of decentralising budgets to the neighbourhood committees to reinvigorate the process. The people of Grottammare have gained their freedom. Like the birds on top of Pellazzola’s cage (and now restored to their perch), they are ready to fly. But, with all the relaxed humour of an Italian seaside town, they are pondering where to go.

Thanks to Angela Logue, Vittorio Longhi and Derek Clarke for help with translation and more.

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Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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