Sunday, September 25, 2011


This weekend in Bologna the city was celebrating Archeopolis, the 2200 years of Bononia.  During ancient Roman times, Bononia was the name of the city founded here in 189 BC.  The name probably derives from the Celtic tribe that lived here with the Etruscans before Rome came along, the Boii.  The city is also celebrating the 130th anniversary of the civic museums, so all the museums were free, too.

As a reminder of the antique patrimony, a Roman military encampment from the time of Nero (1st c. AD) has been created in the middle of Piazza Maggiore.  By coincidence, the restoration scaffolding that still hides part of the front of the Basilica di San Petronio was opened to the public starting Saturday.  So for €3, one can climb the steel stairway behind the decorative graphic shroud, getting a very close look at the building on the way up and previously impossible views from the top platform, 75 feet above the piazza. 

Pigeon's-eye view of San Patronio portal arch carvings.
Roman camp recreation in Piazza Maggiore from San Petronio scaffolding.

The camp is peopled by men (mostly) whose hobby is recreation of that period.  The uniforms and everything else are as accurate to the era as possible, and small displays within the precinct show the skills and specialties involved.  A couple of times a day the troop forms up and marches, then creates the testudo defensive formation in which the semi-cylindrical shields are held above and slightly overlapping to create a tortoise shell over the entire group.  It is a tactic credited for many Roman military successes.  I missed getting a picture, but I’ve plopped in one from the Internet.

Legionary re-enactors of Bononia

The testudo, or tortoise defensive formation.
The public is invited to view the Roman encampment.

Two ballistae and an onager, siege weapons that are powered by twisted rope tension.
Onager means wild ass, which describes the bucking of the machine when fired.
Soldiers and their helmets.

Shield and armor maker and some of his equipment.
Grain, fruit, vegetables, nuts, spices, wine, oil, bread.
Carry or scavenge everything.

Parts of the body were thought to be controlled by various deities,
but they could be influenced by various doses and annointments.

The aenetore uses a buccina to mark the hours.
Below he holds a cornu for issuing commands.

The camp commander in his tent.  A few more comforts.

The Bologna Archeological Museum is full of Roman artifacts.  Here are a few of the bits and pieces of ancient Bononia that have come to light here in modern times.  
Water spouts and valves.

Medical instruments.


Maybe the most prominent remnant of the Roman period is the basically rectangular street layout in the center of the city.  Strada Maggiore, which follows the Roman  via Aemilia, runs straight as can be through the center.  
Strada Maggiore heading east from centro.
(Viewed from the Torre Asinelli.)
But because the city has been constantly inhabited and always heavily built up, remains of Roman buildings are uncommon.  An ancient theater was found during reconstruction excavation between via Barberia and via Collegio di Spagna, some original paving stones can be seen near the Medieval Museum on via Manzoni, and we saw Roman foundations below the streets on our tour of acqua sotto le strade, but most findings have come from outside the old walls.  So it's appropriate that we get a reminder of some distant history that's not quite as obvious as its medieval and later descendants.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Permesso di Soggiorno, Parts 2, 3, and 4.

Alert (or compulsive) readers of this journal will have noted that although Permesso di Soggiorno, Part 1, appeared back on June 6th, no further news on this topic has been posted.  Allora, here is the rest of the story.  If you’re not trying to get a permesso yourself, you may find this all rather tiresome., but someone may care.

To recap, we had sent off sheafs of documents by registered mail using forms in the permesso kit obtained at and then submitted through the post office.  We had been given special coded receipts as temporary permessi along with appointments for further processing at the Questura [police headquarters] office of immigration for June 24th.

Part 2.  June 24th.
We had seen the Bologna Questura near Piazza Maggiore in the center of the city, an imposing building with an always-crowded lobby, and had assumed that that was where we would go for our appointments.  But our papers sent us instead to a rather forbidding walled compound at via Bovi Campeggi, 13/3, out near the train station: Ufficio Immigrazione della Questura di Bologna.  The place was teeming with people like us, immigrants from all over the world trying to follow the rules.  There were children playing in the courtyard, men lounging around, and always anxious newcomers in the waiting room puzzling over what exactly they were supposed to do.

Bologna Questura nel centro.

Ufficio Immigrazione della Questura di Bologna

Why were they puzzled? Because there were no instructional signs, only an abundance of closed doors, and because many, maybe most, could not speak Italian well enough to even ask each other questions, a veritable Babel.  Now and again an official would come out of a door and disappear through another, but the most any of them would say was to wait.


Our appointments were for 10:24 and 10:28 a.m., which seemed pretty precise.  As the time approached we got more nervous, afraid we’d miss our alloted times due to being in the wrong place.  But, as sometimes happens with Italian bureaucracy, if you wait long enough things work out.  In this case, a man emerged from a door and started calling out numbers: nine one eight, nine two two, nine two six... and so on, about ten sets.  But there were no numbers on our appointment papers.  Cinzia finally asked and found that the numbers were the appointment times, 9:18, 9:22, etc.  So they were about an hour behind schedule, and we had no choice but to wait...and watch new arrivals go through the same confusion and anxiety we had.

When our turns finally came we were herded through a short hallway into a small inner lobby with five or six sportelli—something like box-office windows.  One by one we had short interviews where our passports and other documentation (all the originals of the copies we had mailed off weeks before plus several passport-style photos) were reviewed again and fingerprints taken—all ten fingers using a digital scanner.  While I waited for my interviewer I watched as workers in the room behind carried stacks of files from here to there.  Everywhere were piles of folders, each presumably someone’s laboriously compiled documenti to be reviewed again, approved or not, filed or sent elsewhere, on and on and on. 

Some applicants were sent off to get more or better photos (an entrepreneur had set up one of those self-service photo booths across the street), some to bring copies of work papers, and a few, like us, were sent to another outpost of the Questura to have even more fingerprints taken.  This little office of the scientific and technical branch of the police is tucked away near the city center on via Volto Santo.  Unlike the other venues, there were only a couple of people waiting.  Two women were taking the digital prints on an elaborate machine, including palm prints this time.  I can’t imagine why they wanted them.

Scientific and technical office, via Volto Santo

Once done with the fingerprint women, we went away with nothing:  no indication of what would happen next or when or if we should do something more.  No address, phone number or website.  Nothing except the original receipts from the post office with their various codes and numbers, which were our temporary permessi di soggiorno.  We assumed that something would come in the mail, and based on other experiences we’d read, we thought maybe a month would go by first.  We were wrong.

Part 3.  August 26th.
When two months had gone by without further word, Cinzia started delving into the Internet, poking into hitherto unseen corners, looking for contact information or a help line or something.  What she eventually found on the Polizia di Stato site was an online form where one could enter the code numbers from the special receipt and get a response showing the status of that application.  Amazingly, she found that mine was ready to pick up—though hers was not.  It was not obvious exactly how to proceed, but after a fruitless return trip to the forbidding compound, where the only sign said, effectively, “Pick-up By Appointment Only!”— we eventually found a web link (on the Bologna Questura site) to an appointments page, and, astoundingly, I was able to go the very next day.  (Note: the appointment page must be printed in Italian and taken with you.)

So at 10:30 a.m., August 26th, I was hopping off the “A”-line bus out on via Bovi Campeggi.  The scene was much the same as before.  People waiting for their first appointments were mystified, and the appointments were running about an hour late.  Those of us there to ritiro  (retrieve) our permessi waited for word from a different door and were only half an hour behind.  About ten of us at a time were called into another room with yet another sportello. I surrendered my appointment sheet, coded receipt, and passport and waited.  Behind the glass could be seen dozens of open bins full of buste (envelopes), apparently sorted by dates.  Eventually each of us was handed our precious Permesso di Soggiorno.  Here’s mine.  It has electronic circuity built in and came in a foil-lined envelope.

Part 4.  September 20th.
We were sure that Cinzia’s permesso couldn’t be far behind, especially with the August holidays over.  Wrong again.  When the on-line status continued to show hers still in process 10 days later, she started a new and deeper web search.  After many frustrating dead ends, she finally found an e-mail help link in the Bologna Questura section of the Polizia di Stato site that yielded a prompt and personal reply saying that the card had been produced and shipped and that it would be ready in a few days!  Hurray!  And so it turned out.  This afternoon, about 3-1/2 months down the road from when we submitted documents, the loop finally closed, and Cinzia got her Permesso di Soggiorno.  (The least useful site we consulted was for the Portale Immigrazione.  The status page there never did show any progress for us, and the toll-free information phone number connected to a singularly unhelpful woman who just said to go to the Questura.  Did I mention that you can’t call most toll-free numbers from cell phones here?  We had to borrow a land-line phone.)

Maybe the path is faster in other cities; I don’t know.  I have heard that not too far in the past it could take six months here, and I’m pretty sure that the recently adopted system of applying through the post office with a kit has improved things.  But my, oh my, they could ease so many worries and smooth out visits to the Questura by including a single sheet of instruction and advice with that kit, along with web addresses and an outline of what to expect.  From our experience we advise starting at the Polizia di Stato site, and go from there.  Surprisingly, the English language version of the site seems to be better organized and have clearer information than the Italian pages.  Once the status shows the permesso is ready, click on Le Questure sul web, choose your city, and look under servizi in the right column to find the exact process and to make a ritiro appointment.  Again, the English versions are quite different and much more useful.  The exact procedures vary by city.  This worked for us in Bologna; your mileage may vary.

I wish I could say that we’re now through with Italian bureaucracy, but with eight more months here, I’m sure that’s not the case. 

Roberto e Cinzia

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Venezia: Regata Storica

The first Sunday in September each year features the Historical Regatta on the Grand Canal in Venice.  By good fortune we were invited by friends to watch this spectacle from the Palazzo Loredàn dell’Ambasciatore where they were staying in rented apartments.  The palazzo was built in Gothic style in the late 1400s and is on the Dorsoduro side of the Grand Canal about half way between the Accadèmia bridge and palazzo Ca’ Fóscari, where the boat races finish.  Because it is so costly to maintain these palazzi, many have been converted into hotels or divided into vacation apartments.  Often one or more floors are leased for art or commercial displays.  Somewhat incongruously it seemed to me, the ground floor and back garden of Palazzo Loredàn currently feature a few large sculptures by a New Zealand artist, several of which include grand pianos.  In fact there were a couple of women pianists from N.Z. who took turns playing Beethoven sonatas and other classical works on a huge red piano sculpted with Maori symbols.  Here are some pictures of the palazzo, including one taken during the 1928 Regata Storica.

Palazzo Loredàn Ambasciatore (two boats tied up in front), and below a similar view from the 1928 regatta.

Piano with Maori motifs on the piano terra of the palazzo.
You should know by now that you have to take a little history lesson before I get to the main event.  The Venetian regattas likely date back at least to the 1300s, when commercial and military mariners of the Republic held impromptu contests among themselves to relieve boredom and just for fun.  The authorities saw an opportunity to maintain physical readiness and conduct training with the result that formal races were organized.  Our word “regatta” comes directly from the Venetian “regata” meaning a competitive event raced in boats—which in turn may come from “riga” (line), “aurigare” (to compete in a race), and/or “ramigium” (rowing). 

Detail labeled "REGATA",  Jacopo de' Barbari, 1500

Regata Storica, Canaletto, 1740

Carlo Naya regatta photo from 1881.
In centuries past races were often timed to religious or civic festivals.  The first regatta for women rowers seems to have been in 1493 in honor of the visiting wife of the Duke of Milan, Beatrice d’Este, and though not always a part of the larger regattas, women continued their competitions.  The intervention of Napoleon, the Austrians and other vicissitudes of history have interrupted and altered the races over time, but in 1841 they were formalized to the current system, più o meno.  Here are a couple of historic photos showing the vast attendance along the Grand Canal in 1897, and a regata delle donne (race of the women) from 1932, apparently before they had become accepted competitors in the regular line-up.  These days there are regattas of various kinds several times during the year, including one, the vogalonga, with a course of about 18 miles, from the bacino di San Marco in central Venice out to the island of Burano in the northern lagoon and back.  That’s a lot of rowing.  Incidentally, the standing position for Venetian rowing followed from the need to keep the eyes as high above the water as possible to pick out the channels through the shoals, bars and shallows of the lagoon.

Regata delle Donne, 1932

The event we attended is known as the Regata Storica in part because it includes processions of historic craft, both practical and formal.  First the Grand Canal and the busy Basin of San Marco waterway past Piazza San Marco out to the public gardens is closed to general traffic.  So all the tour boats, vaporetti water buses, private water taxis and commercial barges and scows tie up or clear out, leaving an eerily calm and quiet scene on the water.  Then the corteo (procession) begins with various working boats:  barges bringing produce to the market, a small sailing fishing boat, a peasant family.  [I apologize for the rather dim photos.  The heavy overcast and occasional sprinkles kept the rowers cool but did nothing good for the photographic record.]

A nice selection of ceremonial boats and those of nobility followed the peasantry, including four 8-oared galeoni with lustrous gold or silver sculptures at stem and stern.  Many of these fancy craft are maintained and rowed by schools, clubs or cities around the Venetian lagoon.

Next came dozens and dozens of boats in many styles from rowing clubs.

Finally came the true regate, the races.  There were three short ones for kids 10-14 years old out of our sight down by the Rialto bridge, but the four main contests went right past us, having started over a mile away to our right near the public gardens.  They continued around the bends of the canal, under the Rialto bridge, around a turning point down near the train station, and back to the finish line to our left at Ca’ Foscari having covered perhaps 3 miles all told.  Here is a link to a page describing the various kinds of boats in the races, the pupparin rowed by two young men, the mascareta for two women, the caorlina with six oarsmen (the stern starboard oar also steers), and finally the light and quick gondolino for two men.  In the first pictures below can be seen the finish pavilion, or machina, that was set up on a barge to our left.  (Also trucks and equipment of the Italian TV system RAI on another barge.)

Women racers approach under the Ponte Accadèmia

Six-oared caorline come under the bridge.
Working very hard...

Nine gondolini vie for glory and the bandiera rosso.
It’s a minor point, but I was engaged by the boat colors.  The nine colors are celeste (light blue), viola (lavender), arancio (orange), verde (green), rosa (pink),  canarin (canary yellow), marron (brown), rosso (red), and bianco (white).  In order to forestall a perception that one particular color seems fated to win year after year, each team’s boat is repainted to a new color each year.  Another set of colors are used for the bandiere (pennants) given to the top four placing boats: 1st is red, 2nd white, 3rd green, and 4th blue.  Before the unification of Italy in the 1860s, when the red, white and green of the Italian flag became popular and patriotic, the pennant colors were, in order, red, light blue, green and yellow (adorned with a pig for sluggishness).

The next day the Grand Canal was back to normal, boats of all kinds going in all directions.