Italian Journey: The Via Emilia adventure, from geopolitical watershed to on-the-road parody

A metaphor for Italy in the post-war years, today the Via Emilia holds together the imagery of some 20 cities, which could well be a regional megacity.

This article will be published in Domus 1081, on newsstands in July 2023.

“From Parma to Bologna, the Via Emilia has a certain poetry until the sun starts rising with reddish yawns below the horizon. More than a road, it feels like riding along a huge corridor. The doors of the houses are open. You see people washing their faces in big basins of fresh water, you see the red mouths of family ovens and you smell the bread. Even the doors of all the churches are wide open to the street, and the great coloured plaster saints greet labourers going to work, and look in amazement at this cyclist evading work, pedalling on his shiny aluminium superlight.” These are the words of journalist Giovanni Guareschi in 1941, when newspapers still tried to describe the world. For him, who was born there, the Via Emilia was more of a metaphor for Italy than a symbol, conjuring up that inexplicable “urban mirage” that survived everything and everyone.

Today it’s a highway called Strada Statale 9, but in reality it’s the Via Emilia, a straight flat strip of asphalt connecting Rimini and Piacenza, binding the imagery of 20 or so cities, which could be a regional megacity along the lines of Saskia Sassen’s thinking. 

Yet town planners, politicians and administrators have never shown signs of understanding it, unlike writers, intellectuals and singers. “The Via Emilia cut Modena in two,” wrote musician Francesco Guccini. “The road where I lived intersected it on one side. And on the other were the wide fields of the suburbs. They were a bit like Italy’s Far West: you just had to take a few steps or cross a road and there were already Indians, cowboys, horses and arrows. In short, there was adventure.”

The adventure of the Via Emilia starts from the Bridge of Tiberius, on the way out of central Rimini. Five arches in Istrian stone, a miracle of Roman architecture and engineering that, two millennia later, is still solid and gleaming. The real challenge, however, was carving the Apennine sandstone and reclaiming thousands of marshes. That feat was ordered in 187 BCE by Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, whom convention says was the last consul of the Republican era. Lepidus decided that the ancient road, first used by the Etruscans and then by the Gauls, would be ideal for Rome’s armies and merchants, as long as it was engineered and paved. From then on, the 250 kilometres connecting Rimini to Piacenza became a great geopolitical watershed used by everyone. 

Going north, the Romans travelled along it to Rimini, after the Via Flaminia through the Furlo Gorge. Going south, the Lombards and Franks left it at Fidenza, and sometimes at Parma, to reach Tuscia and further south, crossing the Monte Bardone Pass. Romebound pilgrims and Cathar mendicants from all over Europe would instead alternate it with the Via Francigena, opting for the safer and easier stretches. It was a 1,000-year success.

Leaving the province of Rimini, one crosses the Rubicon River that marked the border between Italy and Gaul. Here there’s a spot where, according to Suetonius, Julius Caesar famously said, “The die is cast.” Today it’s difficult to find, but a strange thing happens crossing the river: epic becomes folklore and the glorious stories of Rome give way to the dances of Romagna. Indeed, Savignano is the town of musician Secondo Casadei, who turned Romagna’s songs into national folk music. Like Nashville with country and New Orleans with funeral blues. 

Continuing north, we arrive in Bologna, which the Romans called Bononia as it was founded in 189 BCE by the Boii Gauls on the ancient Etruscan city of Felsina. Walking along the Via Emilia’s paving in Santa Maria Maggiore, it’s clear that its purpose was strategic. After the Boii Gauls, whom Rome wanted to subdue because they were allies of Hannibal, the Ligurians, an even more troublesome people who extended their control from western Emilia to Lunigiana, were also to be subjugated. The victory over the Ligurians validated the Senate’s immense expenditure to build the road and Lepidus was elected Pontifex Maximus.

Saint Ambrose set off towards Bologna in 393, along the riverbanks that would create the borders of the statelets disliked by foreign travellers, in particular Stendhal. The Via Emilia was even beyond dispute in the 13th century, with the undisputed centrality of Florence, preferring the Futa and Raticosa roads. It always remained the Strada Maestra, above all due to the uncertain river landscape of the Bassa (Po Valley), surviving the Renaissance, the CounterReformation, the Enlightenment and even the unification of Italy when, to travel its full length, one still had to contend with 16 customs posts and the harassment of toll collectors who outraged John Ruskin. 

The Via Emilia responded to the Fascist revolution with the revolution of bicycles. “Bicycles swarm the road like crickets,” commented writer Corrado Alvaro, who wasn’t a fan of the Via Emilia, unlike Guareschi who even used it to go to Milan. Returning from Rome, the lexicographer Alfredo Panzini used it to go to the sea at Bellaria, just like Olindo Guerrini, the velocipede poet who, in the late 19th century, forced members of the Touring Club Ciclistico Italiano to cycle the Via Emilia, laughing and sweating right up to the pact with Hitler.

After the catastrophe of the war, the Via Emilia lost its connotations. On one hand, it was plugged as the representation of the “Italian way to socialism”, which ended up on the cover of Time. On the other, it espoused the most extreme free-market positions in the name of history, but above all what writer Edmondo Berselli called “our native spirit of practicality”. A double standard was established on the Via Emilia: Soviet-style cooperative aesthetics and Route 66-style consumerism. It was a chimera destined to have disastrous results, not just in terms of architecture and urban planning but even more so on a level of identity, beyond even the Vandals. 

In just a couple of decades, churches, palaces, squares, arches, fountains and everything else explained by intellectuals such as Francesco Arcangeli and Roberto Longhi were swallowed up by petrol stations, hypermarkets, luxury car dealers and Far West-style agricultural machinery, followed by soon-to-be abandoned warehouses, uninspiring motels, tyre shops, discos, amusement arcades and senseless infrastructure. Having lost its strategic link function to the nearby Autostrada del Sole, on the Via Emilia the dynamism of one of Europe’s most productive regions gave way to another emotion closer to global suburbia.

Arriving in Sesto San Giovanni, where the Via Emilia really ends, it’s a late spring evening. Thinking back on what we have seen, the words of another singersongwriter who knew it well, Giovanni Lindo Ferretti, come to mind. “Emilia of restless nights to fill life / Emilia of quiet nights when seduction means sleeping / Emilia of nights I remember without happiness returning / Emilia of nights waiting for I no longer know which lover not to die / And it’s not you / Emilia. 

The feature Italian journey is created with the support of Jaguar Land Rover

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