A tour of Verdi Square in La Spezia to understand the meaning of art at school

The story of Verdi Square in La Spezia is as illustrative as ever for understanding the meaning of teaching art in school (#artschool).

These days the hashtag #arteascuola is gaining popularity on Twitter: those who participate create thoughts (somewhat along the lines of what was done in elementary school) in support of teaching art in school. A practice, that of cause-related tweets (if I may paraphrase a terminology that is all the rage in the marketing world), that is widespread because of its ease (anyone can come up with a 140-character thought) and its ability to engage. We, too, have participated, making a few retweets, but today we want to make a more substantial contribution to bring to the attention of those who are fighting for the expansion of art history hours in school (and, in some institutions, its total reinstatement) an affair that makes us realize how important art history knowledge (and its teaching) is, for some important reasons that we will have a chance to discuss.

Ilaria and I went on Saturday (two days ago) to go shopping in La Spezia, a city where we often go (we are from Carrara, so just under 30 kilometers away): as always, we left the car at the parking lot of the sports hall and took the shuttle bus that took us into the historic center (La Spezia’s traffic is one of the most chaotic and undisciplined in Italy, and to this we must add the constant difficulty in finding a parking space close to where we want to go). The shuttle, to get to the end of Via del Prione, i.e., the main street in the center of La Spezia, has to cross Piazza Verdi: this square, for months, has been at the center of a struggle between the city administration on one side and a large part of the citizenry on the other. The reason? On Feb. 4, 2010, a team led by architect Giannantonio Vannetti and French painter-sculptor Daniel Buren emerged as the winner of a competition announced by the La Spezia municipal administration for the “redevelopment” of Piazza Verdi1.

The project involved the most complete distortion of the square, which is an interesting example of 20th-century rationalist urban planning, surrounded by buildings that offer evidence of the Art Nouveau style that had spread throughout Italy in the first decades of the 20th century. The square took on the appearance we can see today in the 1930s, with the construction in 1933 of the Post Office Building, and with the installation in 1938 of the pine trees that stand in the center of the square2. Summing up briefly, the Vannetti-Buren project involves the installation of a series of colored concrete arches equipped with sprinklers (whether the square could take on the appearance of a car wash can be glossed over, as aesthetic taste is subjective), a basin filled with water, the narrowing of the area designated for traffic (it would therefore not be a complete pedestrianization), and a lowering of the level of the square itself in front of the Post Office Building: the difference in levels would be bridged with a series of steps. We present below some images documenting what the square would look like a few years after completion, what it looks like today, and what it will look like if the Vannetti-Buren project is implemented.

Piazza Verdi alla Spezia in una foto d'epoca Piazza Verdi alla Spezia come  al giorno d'oggi Piazza Verdi alla Spezia secondo il progetto Vannetti-Buren

This past Saturday, January 25, a number of citizens from the committee against the Vannetti-Buren project were present in Corso Cavour, handing out flyers with a summary of the matter to passersby. Since the summary contained in the flyer helps us get a broad idea of what was the tenor of the opposition between the city administration and the citizenry (and what were the latter’s reasons for it), we bring it to you in full:

"When you intervene on a space that is part of the history of the city is of the identity of an entire community it is necessary to initiate a broad consultation and in the time necessary for all opinions to be taken into account. This consultation on Verdi Square has never been held.

The entire project will cost about 3 million euros of which only two-thirds will be funded by the European Community. 1 million euros plus the very high maintenance costs will fall to the municipality and thus to the citizens. Moreover, to obtain funding Piazza Verdi was presented as a ’degraded area’: for us, degradation in La Spezia exists but certainly not in Piazza Verdi!

The square as a whole is under historical-architectural constraint, and the pine trees, as they are over 70 years old, as reflected in historical documents that can be easily traced but mysteriously escaped the attention of city leaders, cannot be cut down.

In the Vannetti-Buren project, the square will not be a real square as it will not be pedestrianized; it will only be a widening that can be walked on both sides by buses, cabs and authorized vehicles.

The construction site currently open in Verdi Square is not in order as the Superintendent’s authorization from last November was suspended by the Regional Directorate of Cultural Heritage on June 17, 2013

’It is shameful that the mayors of many beautiful cities beg archistars to come and destroy the heritages of their historic centers. And they do it with pride ... the people notice the appalling monstrosity of certain buildings, certain bridges, certain statues, but their protest counts for little. There is no democratic appeal in the “architectural masterpieces” of the supposed elite’ Nikos A. Salingaros’"

Not only did the city administration disregard the opinion of the Superintendency, which was clearly against the project3 (just as contrary was Minister Massimo Bray, who suspended the construction site4). Not only has it presented the area of Verdi Square as degraded (when in fact it is not at all or, if there is any degradation, it is maintenance degradation) and attempts to justify the project as something that would serve "to restore dignity to the square , of space for public use to a place that until now has been deprived of all that"5 when it is very clear that the square already has its own historical dignity and when it is clear that the Vannetti-Buren project itself will not guarantee complete pedestrianization and thus complete public use of the square. Not only does he wave the bogeyman of the loss of European funding for the city if the project is not implemented, when it is evident that in order not to lose European funding from the 2008-2013 POR-FESR plan it would be enough to change the project by making it more sustainable, or even better to allocate the 3 million euros of the Verdi Square project to areas of La Spezia that are truly degraded (and there are some). Not only is he in favor of a project that would cut down pine trees that are almost octogenarian (and therefore subject to constraints), and to do so he would pass off the pines as having been planted in 19556 (and the 1937 documents were found by citizens who improvised as researchers just for the love of their city). In addition to all this, there is also something much more serious, which is the fact that the city administration has not listened at all to the citizenry, which is also largely composed of citizens who elected that same administration.

It is on these issues that the importance ofteaching art in school and active participation in the life of a community meet. The La Spezia affair, which, moreover, is continuing even in these days, since the La Spezia Municipality has appealed to the Regional Administrative Court (TAR) to obtain the annulment of the acts of the Minister and the Superintendency, and it was a few days ago that Italia Nostra opposed the appeal to TAR7, shows us unequivocally and incontrovertibly that a citizenry that cares about art history knows and respects it, and is animated by a strong attachment to their city, its history and identity, can lead battles against those who trample history underfoot and propose completely unnecessary interventions, which would largely burden the city’s economy, not only in the design phase but also in the maintenance phase. And these are not necessarily lost battles: the action of Minister Bray and the more recent decree of the Regional Directorate of Cultural and Landscape Heritage of Liguria (which sanctioned the historical interest of the pines in Verdi Square8) show that battles can also be won. But to do so, it is necessary to be educated in respect and participation: two concepts that are well in the minds of those who study art history with passion. This, then, is whyart in school is important: because it trains citizens, and it is only through education that impositions that are not only undemocratic (and, in general, against any system of government that provides for citizen participation), not only useless, but also harmful to the community (given their economic outlay) can be avoided. Therefore,art in school also serves to prevent battles from being won by those who do not care about our heritage and the history of our cities.

Finally, those who would like to help La Spezia and its citizens in respecting its history, rights, citizens and protection regulations can sign the petition launched by the Piazza Verdi Defense Committee, Italia Nostra and Legambiente, available by clicking on this link.


1. La Spezia: Vannetti and Buren for the redevelopment of Piazza Verdi, from Archiportale, May 3, 2010.

2. A quick history of Piazza Verdi and its constituent buildings can be found on the website Wikispedia (“Spedia” is the Latin name for La Spezia). The pine trees were planted with the authorization of Spice mayor’s resolution number 153 of December 30, 1937.

3. Copies of the Superintendent’s opinions are available on the blog Stoppa the new Verdi Square. For further discussion see also Corrado Ricci, Piazza Verdi, war on the ’save-pines’ decree, from The Nation, November 17, 2013↑

4. Paola Pierotti, Piazza Verdi in La Spezia, Minister Bray blocks the construction site with a tweet, from Construction and Territory, July 22, 2013.

5. Cf. Press release from La Spezia mayor: La Spezia Mayor Massimo Federici responds to open letter from Italia Nostra Board of Directors.

6. Cf. Are the pine trees sick? Summit between Federici and Buren, from Il Secolo XIX, chronicle of La Spezia, July 5, 2013. The text of the article is available at this link

7. Italia Nostra files an intervention ad opponendum on Piazza Verdi, from La Spezia Oggi, January 22, 2014.

8. See Claudia Bertanza, Piazza Verdi: pine trees saved, committee in celebration, from La Spezia Oggi, November 13, 2013.