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A tale of two cultures: a historian’s guide to Bolzano

By Zoe Farrell (@zoeffarrell)

As part of my research fieldwork this year, I was lucky enough to be able to visit the city of Bolzano in Northern Italy. This South-Tyrolean city provides a perfect example of how small, provincial cities often have rich and diverse histories which make them prime points of study for enquiries into historical change throughout Europe.

Bolzano’s historical narrative goes back much further than might be imagined. One of the city’s most famous residents is Ötzi the Iceman. Discovered by hikers in the early 1990s, Ötzi is a mummy that has been miraculously preserved in the ice from the time of his death in the Copper Age (that is, over 5000 years ago).[1] Ötzi is now preserved in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, which is largely formed on the basis of this one man’s story, and what scientists have been able to learn about the history of the landscapes and its people from the discovery.

It was Ötzi’s location, within the glaciers above Bolzano, that meant that his body remained so well preserved over the millennia. It is to location too that I now turn to discuss Bolzano’s history. Situated near to the current-day border with Austria in Northern Italy, Bolzano lies in a valley in the Alps and at the meeting point of two of Europe’s most significant crossings – the Brenner Pass and the Via Claudia Augusta. These were, and remain, among the only routes through the Alps to the North. Bolzano also sits on a number of major rivers, including the Adige, which passes through the city, to Verona and then onto the Adriatic Sea. This meant that Bolzano was a crucial point of passage for both people and goods from the German, Austrian and Italian areas.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Bolzano became a prime location for trade. The city’s first documented market was the St Genesius market, held on the 25th August 1208. From very early on, traders from areas in Northern Italy, such as the Friuli and Padua, as well as those from German areas such as Munich, Regensburg and Augsburg, flocked to the annual markets to buy and sell goods including fabrics, oils, wine and wax.[2]

These markets were crucial not only to the city’s economy, but to the development of trade between German and Italian areas. They expanded in size and came to be known as ‘fairs’ by 1450. Now held four times a year, the fairs at Bolzano specialised in the exchange of different types of cloth. From German areas, traders brought linen and woollen cloth, and those from areas like Verona brought silk and a cloth called ‘Verona cloth’.[3] In inventories from sixteenth-century Verona, it is possible to find many references to ‘German cloth’, much of which likely came from these markets. Merchants such as Alvise Stoppa would buy large quantities of German textiles at the fairs of Bolzano and sell them at their shops (Stoppa had a shop specialising in German textiles in Verona’s Piazza della Erbe).[4] In 1488, Italian traders were even allowed to purchase houses in the city, although they did not gain citizenship.[5]

During this time, Bolzano was under the rule of the Holy Roman Empire, yet it remained a meeting point for people from many different areas, particularly for traders from German and Italian speaking lands. When the Mercantile Magistrate was founded by Claudia de Medici in 1635, it became a requirement that both Italian and German officers worked in the magistrate’s office during the fairs. This was a city that from very early on accepted the assimilation of cultures for the prosperity of the area.

After the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in the early nineteenth century, Bolzano became part of the Austrian Empire, before becoming a frontier for fighting between Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops in the first world war. After armistice in 1918, Italian troops occupied the South-Tyrolean area and by 1919, Bolzano was officially recognised as part of Italy. The area subsequently underwent an enforced programme of Italianisation before falling under the control of Nazi-Germany during the second world war. After the war, it became part of the autonomous South-Tyrol Province.[6] Today, Bolzano remains part of Northern Italy, but after years of upheaval, the integration of the German, Italian, and Austrian cultures endures.

Already by the sixteenth century, Bolzano was a well-established point of transition on the Trans-Alpine trading route. It was a place in which merchants from areas with conflicting political, religious and social beliefs could gather in the interest of trade and prosperity. Despite years of cultural enforcement and change, Bolzano remains today a region in which distinct cultures come together to create a unique, historically rich environment.

[1] ‘The Iceman’, from http://www.iceman.it/en/the-iceman/

[2] Mercantile Museum, Bolzano

[3] Mercantile Museum, Bolzano

[4] Edoardo Demo, ‘Mercanti, archive e palazzi. L’esempio degli Stoppa’, in Paola Lanaro, Paola Marini, Gian Maria Varanini, con la collaborazione di Edoardo Demo, (eds.), Edilizia private nella Verona rinascimentale (Verona, 2000), pp. 61-78.

[5] Mercantile Museum, Bolzano

[6] ‘Bolzano’, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bolzano

Image: Zoe Farrell 

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