Each February 14, tourists flock to Terni, Italy, hometown of third-century martyr Saint Valentine. Yet Terni’s “city of love” identity is itself rather new, as politicians seek tourist dollars to replace its once-mighty steelworks.

Saints Sylvester and Valentine, fresco in the apse of the Church of Saint George, Taisten, Puster Valley, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy, nineth century, detail. (DEA / Albert Ceolan / Getty Images)

Terni, in central Italy’s Umbria region, seems infatuated with Valentine’s Day. Barely have the plastic Christmas igloos been packed away before heart-shaped light displays appear in the Piazza Tacito to herald February’s main event. A ten-day “Choco-lentine’s Festival” is coupled with the “Festival of the Promise,” where a bishop blesses couples engaged to be married. Beamed across the sixteenth-century Palazzo Spada are the English words “Terni in Love.”

Terni’s leaders have in recent years increasingly sought tourist dollars. Saint Valentine was born here in the third century AD, before his martyrdom one long-ago February 14. Yet Terni’s festivals and historical reenactments are not age-old, and efforts to monetize the city’s most famous son only took off in the 1990s. The basilica bears Saint Valentine’s remains, but the “city of love” brand is still struggling to overcome another identity, which left a more visible mark on the city.

Terni was from the late nineteenth century a steel town, nicknamed “the Italian Manchester.” Most jobs were somehow connected to this industry. While far from Italy’s Northern industrial triangle, Terni drew in migrants from surrounding regions, who also built its early labor movement. The Socialists reached 73 percent support here in 1920 before the Fascist takeover. Terni’s steel production was closely intertwined with the defense sector, through two world wars. But Terni became known as a left-wing “workers’ city.”

Alessandro Portelli, who grew up here, is a famous scholar of “oral history.” His studies draw on hundreds of interviews with relatively little-known subjects in order to grasp how historical memory takes form. In a 1985 “biography” of Terni, he explored how these millennia-old surroundings gained a blue-collar identity. His work tells stories like how Luigi Trastulli — a twenty-one-year-old steelworker killed at a protest — became a folk martyr outshining even Saint Valentine.

In The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories, Portelli’s interviewees stirringly recounted how Trastulli was killed in clashes with police during a hard-fought 1953 strike against steel layoffs — though Trastulli died not then or there, but at a 1949 protest against Italy joining NATO. It’s almost as if in the retelling, his death “fit” better with a story where Terni’s working class defended their way of life. But today, it seems, the steel-town identity is no longer so galvanizing.

Portelli’s new book, Dal rosso al nero (From Red to Black, 2023), tells of a different reality: what its subtitle calls “the right-wing turn of a workers’ city.” In 2018’s local elections, the biggest party in Terni was the anti-immigration Lega, the first time it won any major city outside of its Northern heartlands. Up till 1990, the Communists were easily the biggest party; today, such forces barely exist. So, how did the workers’ city fall out of love with the Left?

Farewell to the Working Class?

One reason is the steep decline in steel jobs — and the inability to halt a series of downsizings and privatizations since the 1980s. For Portelli, if this was once a “factory-city” it is now a “city that, like many others, also has a factory in it somewhere.” If the steelworks still has a couple thousand employees, they are a minority of a fragmented workforce, reorganized by subcontracting. A recent round of layoffs saw more steelworkers take a €60,000 payoff than managers had even imagined.

It’s not that the workers have given up. Portelli speaks of “ten years of extraordinary workers’ struggles,” from the 2004 strike against the closing of magnetic steel production under new owners ThyssenKrupp to a forty-four-day strike in 2014. Road blockades, daily worker assemblies — but also the booing of national union leaders — showed how militancy endured. Yet it often seems that political authorities have decided on a course of managed decline for the industry.

In this sense, it’s important to remember that the party of government during the 2014 dispute was the ostensibly “center-left” Democrats. Back then its prime minister was Matteo Renzi — today head of his own liberal-centrist party — who pushed through precarizing labor-market reforms like the “Jobs Act.” One interviewee describes this experience as “worse than Silvio Berlusconi” — a direct confrontation between the neoliberalized center left and what used to be its base.

But it’s telling that the charge of abandoning Terni is cast not only at neoliberals but also more avowed left-wingers and — especially nonlocal — union representatives. Portelli tells of a loss of the language of working-class strength: the steelworkers who were once “the vanguard of social change and the fight for equality,” now find themselves as mere targets of sympathy: made part of the “weak,” the “vulnerable,” those “at the bottom in an inevitably unequal society.”

Visits to the city by right-wingers are instead painted as moments of enthusiasm. Lega leader Matteo Salvini is cheered as he “speaks to the gut,” denouncing not steel bosses but the politically correct masters of the world. Journalist Anna Maria Rengo compares the chanting crowd to a Champions League game. Portelli expands on this: football fans don’t consider themselves passive onlookers, but a “twelfth man” alongside their team. Portelli cites an interview with a once-leftist worker, saying that squares packed out for Salvini stir the same emotions as Communist rallies once did.

Regeneration Projects

Still, this turn from “red to black” should be seen in relative terms. The 2022 general election in Terni mirrored the national outcome, with the right-wing coalition taking almost half the vote. But if the battalions of labor have fragmented, it’s not clear that they reformed as a nationalist bloc, still less a proud one. Portelli struggles to get any interviews with factory workers who turned to the Right. Among disappointed ex-leftists, the politically eclectic Five Star Movement seems a more common choice.

Comunardo Tobia is a gynecologist and local councilor for Five Star. Son of a Communist (his name is Italian for “Communard”), Tobia tells Portelli of his colleagues’ concern for the steelworks’ polluting effects. Such a line may have alienated some workers who feared the factory being shut down. But Portelli suggests that the plant’s declining job numbers have come with a more critical attitude toward its long legacy of pollution — and tumors.

It’s a little puzzling that this book doesn’t focus more on one major symptom of the collapse of mass, class-based parties — electoral abstention. In Terni’s 1990 local elections, the old workers’ parties still mobilized: the Communists took twenty-seven thousand votes and the Socialists seventeen thousand, out of seventy-eight thousand ballots cast. In the runoff for these same elections last May, just thirty-six thousand people voted; the 43 percent turnout was only half of 1990 numbers.

This also expresses a wider volatility. In Portelli’s words, “Those who win by the sword of protest and antipolitics also die by it” — and in last spring’s election, Terni’s right-wing coalition was itself chucked out of office, in favor of ex-paratrooper Stefano Bandecchi. This wasn’t a return to class politics: rather, Bandecchi offered to be what one local calls “a little Berlusconi,” a maverick promising an “entrepreneur’s concrete approach” that would bring investment to the city.

“We’re going to make Terni a tourism city, and give work to so many people,” Bandecchi told councillors last June, soon after his election. This meant a focus on “the city of Saint Valentine. . . . Industry, steel, and chemicals are important, and we’ll soon have meetings on those fronts: but as we said in the campaign, we must open up new paths and tourism is crucial.” A tourism-centered “new economy to relaunch our beloved Terni” especially cited the need for “urban propriety” to appease tourists.

Still, Mayor Bandecchi’s behavior put Terni in the headlines for reasons other than “decorum.” There was January’s council debate on gender violence, where he spoke of how “normal men” “give it a go” when they “see a woman’s fine ass” — leading even the right-wing opposition to denounce his “vulgarity,” and call for his resignation. Last week, he quit after just eight months in post — declaring that “if Italy needs a new Duce, here I am.” Now, he is planning to run in the European elections; Terni may have to reelect its council.

Crazy Ass Moments in Italian Politics is a popular Twitter/X account that has covered many of Bandecchi’s Trumpian antics. Its admin tells me that Bandecchi is “not a native of Terni but gained power in the city by buying the local football team.” “The impression is that he used the position of mayor to ‘climb the ladder,’ now seeking a more prestigious position.” Portelli shares a similar negative judgement, speaking of a Bandecchi who “swooped into the city in the hope of buying it for himself.”

Between the tragicomic and the merely disturbing, Bandecchi’s tenure marks a change of mentality in a city that once prided itself on its working-class differentness. In Portelli’s account, this history lives on, but it’s ever more spoken of in the past tense — a legacy of sacrifices, and enduring health complaints, that didn’t pay off with the hoped-for future. In its place comes the kitsch of the eternal past, the gaudy plastic hearts that lead tourists to the relics of Saint Valentine.

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