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Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Battle of Valle Giulia

We have been known to drag visitors to a site familiar to many Romans but entirely unknown to tourists: the School (the Italians say Facolta', or Faculty) of Architecture, which fronts on via Gramsci, with the slope of Parioli above, Villa Borghese below, and the quartiere (quarter) of Flaminio just a ten-minute walk toward the Tiber. Valle Giulia refers not only to the general area, which also includes the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna (National Gallery of Modern Art) and several national academies and cultural centers, including those of Great Britain, Japan, and Romania, but also to the Faculty of Architecture itself, housed in an unassuming, late-modernist building. Inside (and you can walk in and poke around), you may find (assuming it's still there) a photo exhibit on the history of the place and, especially in warm weather on the large patio in back, you can feel and glimpse the energy and creativity of the current generation of architecture students.

Still, the reason we're suggesting you find your way to Valle Giulia has more to do with the front of the building, and events that took place there and on the hillside, more than forty years ago, on a sunny Friday in the early spring of 1968. In February of that year, students had occupied the building. (See photo below.) Their demands and concerns were similar to those of college and graduate students everywhere in the 1960s, whether at Berkeley in 1964 (the site of the Free Speech Movement) or Columbia in 1968. They were opposed to the authoritarian and hierarchical methods and structures then common in higher education, and to a university that was accessible largely to the privileged; they wanted a share in decision-making and more egalitarian access to the university. They also believed that the architectural school--and other parts of the University of Rome--were in the business of draining the students of their capacities for oppositional and critical thought, while producing pacified citizens who would accept subordinate roles. Some students--especially those on the political right--looked at all police as "Fascists," and wanted them out of the University. School officials felt differently, and on February 29, police ended the student occupation and established a police presence in and around the building. The stage was set for the "Battle of Valle Guilia." (If all you want is a short video showing some of the conflict, and a famous Italian song that goes with it, scroll down to the YouTube url. For background, read on.)

On Friday, March 1, some 4,000 students rallied in Piazza di Spagna (at the bottom of the Spanish Steps), perhaps a mile from Valle Giulia. About half went from there to Citta' Universitaria (the main campus of the University of Rome) and half down via Babuino, through Piazza del Popolo, up via Flaminia, and right, up the hill on viale Belle Arti to the Piazza Thorvaldsen, a stone's throw from the Faculty of Architecture, determined to liberate the building from the police--although they had never before done anything like that. Many were dressed in coats and ties; most of the men had short hair; and the overwhelming majority were unarmed, though some took apart wooden benches for clubs as the march proceeded.

What they expected and what they found when they arrived--besides large numbers of police and carabinieri--is hard to say. One student remembered a friend saying, "Nothing can happen today: the Socialists are in the government." Another recalled that the police were "ready for war," and "organized," while another said "they were few, and not very warlike. Indeed, what really struck me was that they were old....Old, and few, and relaxed, too, like us. " The photo at right was taken on the hill just below the school, with the art gallery in the distance. The sign "Fuori D'Avack" names the rector, whom the students wanted to resign.

"We stepped on to the gate," that last student continued, "as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and suddenly they attacked us." Others say the students launched the assault, throwing eggs and then rocks. The police responded with tear gas--the canisters could be deadly if fired straight rather than up in the air--and, at first, with isolated beatings. When a young man went down and another went to help him, gesturing as if he deserved immunity for his "Red Cross" action, "he was beat up mercilessly," according to one account, "because rules don't hold anymore, this is not a sport." As the fighting intensified, police in Fiat jeeps in the piazza drove in circles while hitting students with clubs. The photograph below left was claimed by both left and right; it appeared on posters sold in left-oriented Feltrinelli bookstores, but the right claimed that the first line of students pictured in the photo were from its camp. According to one account--not necessarily trustworthy--only about 200 students, most of them rightists, engaged in real fighting, while many of those on the left sought the security of nearby gardens or supported the confrontation from a distance.

The photo at the top of this post captures the intensity of the hand-to-hand fighting, but also--in the background--the curiously removed attitude of some of the police.

The students won the Battle of Valle Giulia.... "At last we entered the School of Architecture," one student recalled. "There were a few policemen in the hall, and Oreste [Scalzone, one of the leaders] made a very amusing speech--amusing to think about now. That is, he granted them immunity if they went out with their hands up. Literally. 'Don't be afraid,' he said: 'You shall not be hurt, just raise your hands and go.' The cops were kind of surprised, too. It was fun. And it wasn't militaristic; it was the power of politics against the power of weapons; because we were completely unarmed but--the feeling was, we had scored, we had made fools of them, we were home free." At a considerable cost. Some 150 policemen and 480 students were injured. (The photo above is of a wounded student on the grounds of the Japanese Cultural Institute, across via Gramsci from the Faculty of Architecture). More than 200 were arrested or detained. Eight police vehicles were burned. Because most police did not have firearms, and those that did did not use them, no one was killed.

The sense of having achieved an historic victory came through, about a year later, in the words of the song "Valle Giulia," written by singer/songwriter Paolo Pietrangeli and recorded with folksinger Giovanna Marini in 1969. It can be heard (in Italian, of course), as the accompaniment to the following VIDEO, which offers a sense of the chaos and fury of events that day. There are many verses (and an Italian friend of ours calls it "positively ugly"), but two elements of the song stand out to this day. One is the chorus, probably a reworking of slogans chanted by the marchers as they approached Valle Giulia: "No alla scuola dei padroni! Via il governo, dimissioni!/Down with the bosses' schools! Out with the government, resign now!" The second testifies to the courage the confrontation required, and to the sense that something extraordinary had happened: "They drew their batons/and hammered us like they always do/and suddenly it happened/a new thing, a new thing/"Non siam[o] scappati piu', non siam[o]scappati piu'/we didn't run away anymore/we didn't run away anymore."

....But they may have lost the war. The joy of the students must have been tempered in June, 1968, when Pier Paolo Pasolini, the celebrity leftist poet and filmmaker, then living in Rome, raised doubts about the Battle of Valle Giulia in "Il PCI ai giovani" (The Communist Party to the young people), published by the magazine L'Espresso. Pasolini, who had not been present at the Battle, argued that the mostly middle-class demonstrators had chosen the wrong enemy and abandoned the cause that mattered most. "At Valle Giulia yesterday," he wrote, "there was a fragment of the class struggle; you my friends (although in the right) were the rich; and the policemen (although in the wrong) were the poor." And in a set of chilling lines, he took sides: "When yesterday at Valle Giulia you and the policemen were throwing blows, I sympathized with the policemen! Because policemen are sons of the poor, they come from urban or rural outskirts." It would be too much to say that Pasolini was right or wrong, but the remarks hit home. Some students turned away from the University and toward the workers at Apollon, a Tiburtina factory that was threatened with closing. A high school student recalled, "I was instinctively aligned with the students, but a healthy doubt arrived in my mind, thanks to Pasolini."

Many of the recollections quoted above are from Alessandro Portelli's The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), which has a brief but important chapter on the events at Valle Giulia. The book is available from and at many libraries.


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