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Pistoia, Italy’s Capital of culture 2017, shouldn’t stop questioning itself

by Alessandro Pagnini*

On January 25, the Italian Ministry of Culture chose Pistoia as the country’s Capital of Culture for 2017. There were nine contending cities: Aquileia, Como, Herculaneum, Parma, Pisa, Pistoia, Spoleto, Terni and Taranto.

Almost twenty years ago, the Accademia dei Ritrovati was founded in Pistoia, with the aim of “tracking down” fellow Pistoia citizens in the world of today and of the past. Pistoia-born film and stage director Mauro Bolognini, who doesn’t live in the city anymore, was the first dignitary.

Later, I, too have had the honor of presiding over that organization, created almost for fun and out of curiosity and civic pride.

There were many surprises in this quest. Even a famous Spanish bullfighter who turned out to be, under a false name, an immigrant from Pistoia!

In addition, we found musicians, entrepreneurs and so many artists, writers, researchers and academics that we started to think that there might be something in the air of Pistoia.

Here’s what it is: not only natural talent, genius and good schools, but also a city with an ancient and noble cultural tradition, in addition to the local administration’s commitment (Pistoia allocates for culture more than twice the national average).

These features are today acknowledged as traits of excellence, earning Pistoia the title of Italy’s Capital of Culture for 2017.

I will not quote or summarize the many ideas, already for the most part under implementation, that inspired the program chosen by the jury.

I just want to talk about what struck me the most when I read it. No emphasis, no overboard rhetoric (and this is typical of Pistoia), nor the ostentation of a thousand flowers; because it is not the number of the initiatives -- innovative in the fields of art, music, theater, libraries, museums, urban landscape -- that makes up quality.

It is, instead, the consistency of the project, the network that brings together the development of the many grassroots ideas and activities, all aimed at urban regeneration and renewal, without losing sight of the local identity in terms of entrepreneurship, businesses, employment and environment.

In an off-the-cuff interview that I gave right after the news of this extraordinary recognition was released, I summarized in a few words the content of the dossier presented by Pistoia: instead of promoting a culture for the city, it promotes a city for culture.

Just imagine: a medieval town, on top of that, very beautiful.

We are not in London, where you can see the bulldozers demolish Scotland Yard and the buildings in Charing Cross to make way for the new!

Yet, Pistoia, too, is changing before our eyes, and not because demolitions are being carried out. If anything, because new buildings are sprouting up, with a special focus on trying not to take up space and thus to redevelop areas that until recently it did not seem livable, to make marginal and neglected urban areas “visible” and viable again.

Secondly, we are transforming the use -- and therefore the perception -- of what is historical and monumental (e.g. the outstanding, ongoing transformation of the area and of the building of the old Ceppo hospital).

And it is here that I find fitting a methodological lesson as I was leafing through the documentation that accompanied the cultural program submitted by the city: that tradition, however ancient and noble, should not be preserved and tarted up like an embalmed body, but is transformed for those who live it and who want it to last.

This might sound like dully repeating once more the unending quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, of Boileau and Perrault, of tradition and progress.

However, in the paperwork for my city’s prize submission there is something really new, and that I consider “modern” (or, if you like, “rationally” Conservative) in an exemplary way: it is not Cicero’s politician, nor a popular assembly, nor artists or philosopher who design the ideal city, but it is “knowledge” instead.

And knowledge comes from culture as a whole, which does not have a limited vision nor does it delegate -- except for a purely technical reason. Nor is it local-minded or exploitative. Instead, in order to become functional, culture must constantly question its regulatory principles and criteria, and be open to compare itself “with other experiences,” and be open to partnerships from outside the Region, or even nationwide.

* President of Uniser (University Centre of Pistoia)