i muri non finisco mai

Vernacular Memory on the Walls of Bologna

i muri non finisco mai - Introduction

This website is best experienced on a tablet or desktop.

i muri non finisco mai [sic] is a Digital Humanities project that documents and archives writings on the walls of Bologna as sites of resistance and vernacular memory. The site is best experienced on a desktop with a stable and fast internet connection.

The city of Bologna is well known for its architectural diversity and significance, best represented by its porticoes which were recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2021. Spend time in the city, however, and what you’ll soon notice is that its colorful walls, historical facades, and porticoes are often covered in writing of all sorts, shapes, sizes, and colors. Writing that many might perceive as vandalism, vulgar graffiti of the same kind that can be found in cities around the world. Writing that defies the idealized vision the city likes to officially project about itself.

This project argues that this particular form of writing represents an important cultural manifestation: a local form of vernacular memory. To this end, the project borrows a definition and understanding of vernacular memory from the Kensington Remembers project by Gordon Coonfield at Villanova University:

“While official memory is conceived, created, and preserved “from the top down” by cultural, economic, and institutional elites, vernacular memory is “memory from below” – produced by ordinary people using whatever skills, materials, and ritual knowledge they possess to engage in the public expression of private emotions.”
Kensington Remembers

In much the same way that Kensington Remembers explores sites of vernacular memory created by residents of Philadelphia to interrogate their construction, potential meanings, and impacts, i muri non finisco mai seeks to explore how the writings on the walls of Bologna can challenge our understanding of place-making, community agency, and resistance to a seemingly never-ending and all-consuming late capitalist system.

The project collects documentation of these writings over different periods: the months of November and December 2019 and 2020, and the entirety of 2021 and 2022 (the latter with a few months off while I was away). As explained the Why? section, 2019 is when I began to think critically about what the writings on the walls might mean, while 2021-2022 are years in which I was physically present to document the walls and undertaking my studies in Digital Humanities. Further years may also be documented as I have decided to stay in Bologna for now.

i muri non finisco mai was originally produced as part of the assessment for the Laboratory course in Digital Humanities and Digital Knowledge master’s degree at the University of Bologna, a/y 21-22. It will continue to exist after it.

This project and its related data (found on github) is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License. Mapping template by HandsOnDataViz with Leaflet. All photos by Laurent Fintoni.

i muri non finisco mai - Documentation

Rethinking a daily experience through Digital Humanities praxis

This project began in late 2019 when I spent a few months in Bologna and began to see the writings on the city’s walls in a different light than I previously had. Since 2008, I have visited and worked in Bologna regularly and always viewed the writings on its walls as a sort of funny occurrence, sentences that will catch your eye the same way graffiti does and leave you with something to think or laugh about. It wasn’t hugely different than what I was used to seeing in London, where I lived at the time, but nonetheless there was something peculiar about it, if only that it seemed to appear in places where you least expected it to or that against the historical walls the words always seemed visually striking.

In 2019, the first time I’d been back in town for a meaningful period since 2013, the writings took on a new meaning: they were a form of resistance, they reclaimed a city that was clearly not for those who write on walls. There was no avoiding the writings, even if you thought they were vandalism you had to engage with them in some shape or form because they were everywhere. And they weren’t just graffiti, though there was plenty of that. The writings were also political messages, love letters, bad jokes, sexist takes, drug stories, aphorisms, poetry, threats. They told the news that the media didn’t want to tell and called out to people who might never see the message or who might feel inclined to reply while no one was looking. All this writing formed its own layer on the city’s pastel colored walls and wooden doors.

I spent two months taking all this in, capturing some of the walls, and writing about it for myself. Then a year later I returned to live in Bologna, in the midst of a pandemic and another round of lockdowns. I decided then, with the city empty in ways I’d never seen it before, that I would document these walls, if only for myself. Beginning January 1st, 2021, I decided to post one photo of a wall a day, everyday on Instagram as a creative exercise alongside a non-contextual caption inspired by the writing. About halfway through the year (and a two-year masters’ course in Digital Humanities) I attended a summer DH school online and spoke with Gordon Coonfield about his Kensington Remembers project, in which he had documented sites of memory from residents of Philadelphia which he had framed as a form of vernacular memory: a public display of private emotions unmediated by official channels. It clicked then that perhaps I was also engaged in a similar form of documentation, that the writings on the walls of Bologna were sites of resistance and of vernacular memory and that this was why they had such resonance.

Eventually I used all of this and the skills I learnt during my masters’ to create this website, using the same mapping technology that powers Kensington Remembers. It’ll document the walls as I experienced them and serve as a way to reflect on what they might mean, something that feels all the more important as we continue to slide towards a world where those at the bottom are afforded nothing while being told to accept more.

Laurent Fintoni, June 2022, Bologna

Simple tools to enhance the physical with digital

i muri non finisco mai was created using the following processes, inspired by my own personal experience and Digital Humanities studies:

  • Photographic documentation of the walls using an iPhone with geolocation enabled.
  • Python libraries (including exifread and pandas) to extract metadata from the images and process geolocation into a usable lat/long format alongside date and file name.
  • A Leaflet Storymaps template, taken from Hands-On Data Vizualisation. By feeding the results from the python processing into a database powered by Google spreadsheets, this template allows for the photos to be placed over open source maps and scrolled in a user-friendly, narrative way.
  • Photoshop drop actions to process images with basic cleaning and resizing.
  • Where relevant text on the walls has been translated into English.
  • Images are given a title inspired by their content, date stamped, and presented in chronological order to achieve a recreation of my own pathway to capturing them.
  • Recurring themes in the writing or photos are grouped together and color coded. Current thematic groups include: doors, gates, windows, poems, political messaging, plus/minus, and random (everything else)

The goal of this approach was to digitally recreate the way in which these writings tell a story when you walk around town. It is of course impossible to fully capture the physical experience online but the medium does allow for different types of engagement with the writings. For example one of the most common things you begin to notice when you pay regular attention to the walls is the dynamic between those who write and the city, whereby walls are regularly cleaned and soon enough find themselves written over again. Another dynamic is that of replies, corrections, and amendments to the writings. These dynamics can be made more easily visible using a digital project by capturing the evolving nature of the walls and fixing it on a digital map.

Lastly there is also a desire to give some sort of longevity to something temporary by archiving it. To not let these voices disappear.

Where do we go from here?

This website was created in June 2022 as the assessment requirements for the Laboratory course in the Digital Humanities and Digital Knowledge master’s degree at the University of Bologna, a/y 21-22.

Future potential developments and ideas include:

  • Adding yearly filters to a single map rather than having individual maps for each time period, which is the default for the template..
  • Categorising the different types of writing and enabling a filtering based on those categories (currently I've color coded categories using the template but there is no way to filter them).
  • Use of Optical Character Recognition for quicker ingestion of the text and other uses (see below). This is already possible on the iPhone using the latest iOS however it is not practical for automation outside of the phone and existing OCR libraries are not ideally suited for handwritten characters not to mention the obstacles presented by the use of non conventional surfaces such as walls instead of paper, the variety of materials used to write, and the variety of handwriting styles on display.
  • Packaging the images and text as potential machine-readable datasets that could be use for Machine Learning projects, such as a corpus for sentiment analysis or topic modelling or as the training set for prompt-driven generation of writings or of images of walls with writing on them.

With regards to the potential for ML applications, I would like to note that while some of these ideas are interesting any packaging of the material as machine-readable data should entail clear documentation of the data’s origins as well as the potential pitfalls it contains such as for example the presence of sexist and violent language in some of the messages.

Theoretical inspirations

The requirement of the Laboratory class project was to take inspiration from the workshops we attended and combine some of those ideas into a digital object.

This project takes direct inspiration from some of the ideas explored in Federico Meschini’s "Storytelling as the oldest profession in the world" workshop. First is the concept of database logic as defined by Lev Manovich in his 1998 article ‘Database as Symbolic Form.’ i muri non finisco mai is intended as a data-driven story, without a clear beginning, middle, or end but rather as what Manovich called a “collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other.” Secondly, the project makes use of the concept of scrollytelling as enabled by current web technologies where a user can interact with the story by scrolling up and down its page, or in this case its map.

From Deborah Paci’s "Digital history" workshop, this project taps into the idea that Digital Humanities can help make historical research visible in new ways through the polyvalence of digital practices. In particular, i muri… is intended as a type of digital public history whereby the work is made available first and foremost to non-academics and non-insiders and seeks to use a form of shared authority where I position myself not as an academic but as a member of the public engaging with academic ideas and potentials through my personal practice. Opportunities to expand the project to be even more in line with the idea of shared authority exist, most obviously by allowing members of the public to contribute their own photos to a map of the city.

Outside of the workshops this project also takes cues from other fields of study. Firstly from ethnography and anthropology, if not in absolutely practical terms (as I'm not trained in either field but rather self-taught) at least in spirit with a form of participant observation in the documentation of the walls and patterns of interaction. Secondly from two classes I took in my second year: Geography of Languages and Language and Late Capitalism. Both classes offered insights into how to critically think about both the landscape of the walls as well as the meanings of what was written. From Geography of Languages, concepts of landscape as text or as practice enable a different understanding of what the walls of the city actually represent and therefore what writing on them might mean. The walls become a cultural landscape where meaning might be hidden from some but visible to others who know, a form of what Foucault called heterotopia, with more layers of meaning and relationships than meets the eye. From Language and Late Capitalism concepts such as semiotic ideologies and landscapes open up the potential to look at the underlying assumptions of what the writings are and what function they serve as well as what register they might represent and what meanings they might index. One such line of thought I came to was regarding power. Power today is created through narratives, be they economic or political, that are offered to us as choices, unlike the propaganda of previous periods that sought to impose narratives on populations. This split is echoed in the evolution of editorial into content, with both new forms creating value for the late capitalist system. In that context, the writings on the walls of Bologna can be seen as a form of narrative that seeks to create its own value from outside of the system.

The walls of Bologna - a short story

“We are frequencies”

To write on the walls of the city is to claim it for yourself. It is to say I exist, I think, I feel. And when the city cleans its walls and washes your text away, it turns a page in its own book inviting you to come back with a new pen and a new thought. To write is to resist the passing of time.

"A quale diavolo ti vendi?"

They're remaking Bologna into a food destination. The tourists are squeezing themselves onto seats, under arches and by busy streets, to scoff fresh pasta and plates of dried meats and cheeses. They're taking photos of their food. They're taking photos of the people in the windows making pasta. A traditional skill becomes a social media memory. All the while around them is the city's most precious offering: walls covered in words, throw-ups, scribbles, and tags that offer a constantly evolving conversation between people and city.

Bologna's walls are a tapestry of oranges, pinks, reds, and yellows. And in parts of town this tapestry is covered in all sorts of writing. Occasionally you'll come across a break in the tapestry. A piece of wall has been washed, leaving behind an ill fitting box of a slightly different shade. It never matches the rest of the wall. The act of hiding the writing makes its previous existence all the more obvious, like a torn page from a book. Dark colored sprays push from under fresh coats of paint, like ink bleeding from one page to the next as you turn your diary to spill thoughts somewhere else than in your brain. To write is to escape yourself in a way. It's to claim victory over a part of yourself. Red bricks made for good backdrops.

"Follow the BPM"

"I martiri non muorono mai"

Crews shout each other across walls, arches, and back streets. Someone insults everyone's parents. Another asks a rhetorical question. Yet another claims their undying love for someone else. And on and on it goes. Who listens? Who acknowledges? To write is to put yourself out there uncertain as to what the response will be. To scribble on the walls is to take this logic to an extreme, it is to say that the city is the only medium worthy of holding an often asymmetrical conversation between writer and reader. Online or in print people can at least, potentially find you and engage. But on the walls there is no such relationship. Who writes on the walls of Bologna? Punk bestie? Students? Graffiti heads? Immigrants? Artists? I've never seen anyone do it, but I've also never seen the walls without writing on them. And neither have friends who've lived here their whole lives. It doesn't matter ultimately. The words are on the walls. They exist, like those behind them.

There's an old man who sells poems under the arches in Via Oberdan. He sits there against the wall smoking roll ups. In the middle of the old stone pavement is a box with tightly wound pieces of white paper offered to whoever wants them. All he asks for in return is a moneta, an acknowledgement that he exists and that you recognize his work. But it's about more than that. What you get for your moneta is a thought you didn't expect but might have needed to remember that you're alive. He might get a coffee out of it. He puts out way more than he asks for. Same with the invisible writers on the walls of the city. The only thing they're asking for are your eyes and a few seconds of your time.

Aside from food, the Bologna of today is also known for its street art. It never was quite as commercially appealing as food tourism, but it has brought its share of people to the city. And those who brought the walls to life with art eventually travelled farther afield. Some turned this passion into a career, garnering enough recognition to attract corporations and other interests. Eventually capital and politics were able to stake a claim to street art, to appropriate something they'd always deemed toxic and noxious, the unstoppable logic of late capitalism - forever capable of repurposing that which challenges it. Unlike street art the writing on the walls though can't be claimed (yet?), they can't be owned, they can't be replicated and sold as a magnet to stick on your fridge. Street artists with a moral center moved on. Those with an itchy pen keep coming back to the walls.

"Vergogna just eat"
“Mi diverto solo se a morire è uno sbirro”
“Noi contro loro”
"Con la Siria del nord #fuckisis"
"Erdogan assassino! La rivoluzione é un fiore che non muore mai!"
"Renzi fuori dall'Italia"
"Smash fascism defend rojava!"

Political news are always on the walls. Who needs a newspaper when you have real time news on the streets?

The week I arrived the walls were full of messages for Erdogan. None of them nice. Most of them invitations to remove the man not just from office but from reality. There were calls for solidarity with the Kurds who had yet again been double crossed by allies more interested in their own interests than in the survival of a people whose historical lands had been taken away from them by centuries of foreign involvement.

A few weeks later and most of the Turkish messages were gone, replaced instead with calls to boycott Just Eat, a food delivery service. "Shame," the walls said. Still, branded Just Eat boxes sat on bikes and on the backs of delivery people criss crossing the city. Like any form of media the walls say what some of us think but they don’t change anything. That requires action.

“Conosci la verita”

Tags and throw ups. Close your eyes and this could be New York City in the 1970s. It’s Bologna in the 2010s though. Hip-hop happened and the world has never looked the same since.

New York City had to be cleaned in order to be sold. Equally, the words on the walls of Bologna are dirt to many, the sign of a sick society where respect has been forgotten. But what could be healthier than the expression of one’s true emotions for all to see or ignore?

There is an egalitarianism built into the practice of graffiti. It is how those without can claim a piece of the infrastructure that encroaches into their lives. In the United States public spaces have been disappeared by corporate interests. In Italy they were fossilized into tourist attractions. You could argue that Italy at least still has public spaces, squares where people can congregate freely. But close attention to those spaces reveals that they aren't as public as we'd like to think, patrolled by police and security, kept clean of anything and anyone that could impact their potential to attract tourism. The writings on the walls tend to disappear the closer you get to Bologna's major tourist attractions or wealthier neighborhoods. They retract. Look around you and you'll find traces of them, you'll see them poking out from nearby alleys and back streets. There's a war going on outside.

“Atorno a me é solo un bidé di lingue sapienti nell' arte di lecare culi”

Via Dell Inferno. Ghetto Ebraico. In this small part of the historic city center the streets are cut in such a way that even Google has given up on trying to replicate them with any exactitude, much less giving you directions for how to walk through them. You gotta do it by yourself, without help. Get lost or die trying.

If you take the correct turns between Via Marzoni and Piazza San Martini there’s a large wooden door, surrounded by a layer of bricks and covered in a beautiful layer of writing. Pink tags at the top, white throw up at the bottom, blue spray in the middle, and hundreds of letters between and around them. It’s best enjoyed at night when tourists aren’t lost around you and the yellow glow of street lights gives the city a cinematic air.

To decipher some of these writings is to learn the hieroglyphs of modernity. The curves of cultures. The prose of reality. All caps. Cursive. English. Italian. Dialetto. Writing in turn confident, innocent, maniacal, decrepit, vicious, proud, sad, angry, pleading. History is layered, today’s open wounds are yesterday’s cauterized cuts. The writing on the door is just as dense. When it comes to throwing up a tag in this city there are no rules, no rites of passages, no respect. Or maybe there are and what we’re looking at is artistic warfare waged in real time. You’d have to ask those with the pens.

"Show me the paletta"

To those unfamiliar with daily life in modern Italian cities, Bologna probably feels a little chaotic at first: whether crossing the street, ordering a coffee, or queuing at the supermarket life here as a certain background intensity that can jar. People shouting and smiling and drinking and smoking and standing in your way as you walk within private spaces given to the public for the benefit of history. There’s method to the madness everywhere you look in Italy. Same goes for the writing on the walls of Bologna. You can walk around and look at the architecture and the centuries of history woven together like a jigsaw of stone and wood. Or you can just walk around and read the walls.

"Se non siete sicuri, non conoscete la realtà"

Laurent Fintoni, Bologna, November 2019.