Let’s discover one of Northern Italy’s little known secrets: a region that is neither Italian nor Austrian… Or maybe it is a little bit of both.
By Alessandra Ivaldi / 20.09.2021
Trentino-Alto Adige is a tourist-friendly region in northeastern Italy. It is rich in natural beauty with alpine scenery, stunning valleys, and the bluest waters of Lake Garda you could ever see. Of course, we can’t forget to mention the charm of medieval cities such as Trento, Bolzano, and Merano. However, it isn’t just the beauty of the landscapes and tourist resorts that attracts visitors; especially people from outside Italy, who aren’t necessarily aware of the region’s turbulent past. As you travel through Trentino-Alto Adige, you can’t help but marvel at the abundance of all the people that don’t speak Italian as their mother tongue, but German instead. That said, the sharpest of observers won’t overlook other intriguing elements, such as the architecture and characteristic local products. But, let’s take it one step at a time. Why not commence our imaginary journey from Bolzano? It may not be the region’s capital, Trento, but it is another important city that will let us investigate the unique qualities of this area more closely.
Bolzano, located in a large basin that three mountain valleys converge into, has long been regarded as the boundary between the Italian and Germanic worlds. It is also known as the “Gateway to the Dolomites.” Historically, German and Italian merchants coexisted harmoniously in Bolzano, an ideal location for economic and cultural interactions between these two countries. Even today, wandering through the streets of the city centre on market days, you can’t help but be amazed by the unusual combination of customs that defines local economic activity. On the one hand, there is a stand full of typical Italian products (pasta, traditional cookies…), while, on the other hand, there is a vendor selling sausages, pretzels, and other Germanic delights.
The same goes for the shops. There are products of fine Italian craftsmanship alongside a colourful boutique selling Lederhosen and Dirndl (traditional Bavarian clothing). If you talk to the shopkeepers and residents, you will immediately notice that they prefer to speak German, instead of Italian.
The city centre is defined by the Piazza Walther, which takes its name from the monument that towers over it; dedicated to the medieval lyric poet Walther von der Vogelweide. Here, we are confronted with a fascinating mystery: why dedicate a square in Italy to a German author?
Before we address this question, let’s take a trip to Trento, the regional capital. Here, a massive statue representing the medieval poet Dante Alighieri, one of the world’s greatest symbols of Italian literature, dominates the vast area in front of the station. There would normally be nothing unusual about the presence of Dante in an Italian city square, however, the contrast with Piazza Walther’s statue in Bolzano, perplexes even the most attentive tourist.In actual fact, there is a connection between these two statues, each with deep roots in the history of Trentino-Alto Adige.
This region has not always been a united territory. Over the centuries, it has fallen under the power of different regimes many times, including the Holy Roman Empire, the occupation by Napoleon, the Habsburgs, and the Kingdom of Italy. Of course, the constant succession of new leaders did not facilitate a cohesive local population. Under the Habsburg’s dominion, for example, irredentist organisations arose that had deep roots in Italian culture and wanted to hinder Austrian efforts in the territory, even if it meant suffering brutal persecution as a result. However, once the area had been conquered by the Kingdom of Italy, the situation was reversed. The parts of the population that still felt strongly “Germanic” were ostracised. They had to endure the fascist regime’s impositions and, at times, violent acts of “Italianisation,” which had the goal of eliminating any vestiges of local Germanic culture, which Mussolini regarded as antithetical to his “values.”
Only after WWII did Italy recognise a special form of autonomy in Trentino-Alto Adige: the province of Bolzano. The region’s “most Germanic” territory remained in Italy, but only on the condition that adequate safeguards were guaranteed to South Tyrol’s German-speaking inhabitants and their historical-cultural traditions.
Of course, this turbulent past has left its mark on architecture. Let us return to Bolzano where many architectural styles can be seen in this one-of-a-kind city: Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Gothic, Neo-Romanesque, German Jugendstil, to name a few. Just beyond the Talvera river, which neighbours the “German” historic center, there are numerous structures that may be related to fascist design, proof of the regime’s attempts to “Italianise” the city.
And what about Piazza Walther? The square dates back to 1808 and has had various names since then: Maximilianplatz, in honour of King Maximilian of Bavaria, Johannsplatz, in honour of Archduke John of Austria, and so on. Walther von der Vogelweide’s monument was constructed in 1889, and the square was dedicated to him a few years later. Following the annexation to the Kingdom of Italy, the monument was dismantled, and the square was named after King Vittorio Emanuele III. After the war, it was renamed Piazza Madonna. It wasn’t until later that Walther von der Vogelweide’s name was reinstated, returning the German name to the square once again.
The two statues that appear to have been put in the centre of the cities on purpose, as if it were some kind of statement, are what is most intriguing to visitors who stop in both Bolzano and Trento! As it turns out, while Walther von der Vogelweide’s statue was constructed in 1889, Dante Alighieri’s statue was erected in 1896. The first was built to communicate the connection to Germanic civilisation and culture to the residents of Bolzano and its surrounding areas. The second was a mere response to Walther von der Vogelweide’s statue. So, in reality, it was an endeavour by Trento residents to emphasise their Italian culture. Given that during this historical period, both cities were under the control of the Austrian Empire of the Habsburgs, the two statues are a curious testimony of internal divides and the very unusual history that has made Trentino-Alto Adige the unique region that it is today. It is a cultural melting pot of Italian and Germanic traditions.