“Let‘s meet at Salaborsa“
Borrow books, films and other media or design them yourself, learn new languages, develop a talent, experience community and history live: the Social Library Salaborsa demonstrates how the library functions today as a place of knowledge – and is open to everyone.
It is Tuesday, 1:45 pm. The final preparations are made, everyone goes to his or her station. And then the last minutes pass by in silent tension. The entrance door opens at 2 pm sharp and crowds of visitors stream out of the midday heat into the pleasantly cool building. Staircases fill up and for a moment the sudden bustle reminds you of an anthill. People young and old, couples and families push their way in and secure the best seats. This scene would not sound unusual if this was a pop concert. But we are in a library!
"I love coming here and being inspired. Besides the many new books and films available to borrow, I also meet friends here. And if I must, I can also learn here with others in the group,"
Eleonara, 18-year-old student
Once the initial restlessness has died down after 20 minutes, and the silence that is so typical for libraries has set in, almost all the workstations are occupied. Visitors roam between the rows of shelves with more than 220,000 library books, people read in seating areas and older people sit at large tables, studying current daily newspapers from around the world and international magazines. Roberto from Rome has made himself comfortable in one of the armchairs. The man in his mid-fifties is in Bologna to visit his son, who is studying at the university here. For someone like Roberto, who once worked as a librarian himself, an afternoon in the alaborsa is part of every visit, "because of the special atmosphere", as he says. "The library concept works really well, and I think it's great that visitors to the city like me can be here to read and enjoy the special atmosphere too".
In the Salaborsa there is something for every age group: rooms for children from 0 to three years old, with the option for mothers to breastfeed, for example. Not only are there age-appropriate books for the youngest visitors in many of the world's languages, but also regular events such as story times, for which there is even a dedicated small grandstand for the audience – which in turn is also frequented by the next older generation of children at pre-school age. School pupils, on the other hand, have their own area for reading and learning. They can also immerse themselves in the world of books at their leisure in a libroletto, a specially made reading bed with a canopy in Bruno Munari style.
In particular, the second generation of immigrants, whose native language is not Italian, is one of the library's focus groups in the children's and young people's sector, along with Bologna residents and students. Here they are offered opportunities to learn the second language, but they can also take part in reading groups in their mother tongue, be it in Japanese, Chinese or Arabic – the most widely spoken languages among the immigrant communities. When young people began to use the library as a meeting place, the idea emerged to create a place for them to develop their own projects together. "We wanted a place that looked more like a contemporary leisure club – with computer workstations, turntables, a recording studio, casual seating areas and workshops for rap or video editing. A place where young people are accepted as they are. It is an attempt to involve them instead of driving them away," explains Liu, a library staff member. And it has worked. Also accepted are the language courses, which she talks about. "They are aimed at people who want to learn a new language or brush up on a foreign language they have already learnt and are offered by volunteer native speakers from a wide range of backgrounds". On top of that, these courses, like everything else on offer at the municipal library, are free of charge. Italy is not only the country of art, architecture and conversation, but also of design. And yet, public institutions have so far seldom made an impression in this regard. It is different in the Salaborsa. Here every visitor, regardless of origin or social class, can sit on beautiful design classics and enjoy a diligent visualisation of venerable architecture. Framed by the historical walls, cast-iron columns and a delicate coffered ceiling, contemporary design and building history manage to be combined harmoniously here.
As varied as the face of this library is, the history of the building in which it is located also reveals itself in many ways. The first walls on this site date back to before Christ, as evidenced by the archaeological finds now visible under the glass flooring panels on the ground floor. During the rule of the Visconti family in the Middle Ages, the building, as we see it today, was fortified for the first time and served as a troop headquarters and horse stable. In the following centuries, various extensions and alterations were carried out until the 16th century, when a botanical garden, where important basic research was carried out, and later a telegraph office and a post office found a home here. At the end of the 19th century, the almost rectangular building, which had in the meantime been converted into a bank, finally served as a trading venue and stock exchange – which ultimately earned it its name "Salaborsa" (stock exchange), which is still in use today. Unlike the name, the stock market was not able to hold its own. In its place, after a training centre for firefighters had been established here, a bank soon moved in and remained at this site until the seventies. Although basketball games and boxing matches even took place in the covered courtyard until into the 1960s: alongside the bank's daily business and with the best view for the spectators. From the two surrounding galleries, they always had the best view of the action. For the people of Bologna, the building, located in Piazza Maggiore opposite the Neptune Fountain, is of great importance not only because of its function as a library. For locals, the place is a meeting point, a social space that is integrated into their everyday life – and has been for many hundreds of years.
Looking down today from the upper galleries onto Piazza Coperto, the courtyard of the building named after Umberto Eco, the grid pattern of the glass flooring is particularly striking. Children use its matrix as a playground and jump from square to square without touching the spaces in between. People with stacks of books walk criss-cross over the covered patio, many of whom know each other. Then they stop for a moment and exchange reading tips with each other or arrange to meet in the evening. An Italian couple chats, tourists look around curiously and are interested in reading the display boards of a current exhibition, students sit in the café with an espresso. The present and the future live above the glass, and the past lives underneath it.
Even though the library, opened in 2001, has two friendly security guards at the entrance, there are no entrance checks. Everyone is invited to see for themselves what a social library is – and what it has to offer. That is why people in Bologna say, "Let's meet at Salaborsa!"
The squares as living rooms of the city
The city always lives in the moment.
Unfortunately, there are probably only a few squares outside Italy that succeed in transporting this feeling with the same power. Italians love their piazzas and take pride in maintaining them, just as others do their living rooms. The Piazza Maggiore in Bologna is particularly popular and forms the heart of the northern Italian city.
Just as there are furnished and empty rooms, you can also talk about furnished and unfurnished squares, historian Camillo Sitte knows. The main condition for both the square and the room is the coherence of the space1. If you stand in Piazza Maggiore, the main square of Bologna, this place immediately feels like the impressive salon of the city. Surrounded by important monumental buildings such as the Town Hall in the Palazzo Communale and the Basilica of San Petronio (in fact the largest brick church in the world), what is special about this square can be found on the ground, however. The centre of the town square is formed by a platform that is raised by 15 centimetres throughout, further emphasised by an artistic paving that stands out from the surroundings with its own pattern. And so not only every child in Bologna, but also every tourist knows immediately: Piazza Maggiore is not just any old market square, but the heart of Bologna. Especially in summer, this public square symbolises the living room of the city. Under the arcades a saxophone plays well-known melodies, several girls chase the doves across the square and a basketball team gathers in the shadow of the town hall.
This special square arrangement is complemented by the beautiful plateau of the white marble steps that rise up across the entire front of the unfinished main basilica façade. The stairs serve as a popular meeting place for young and old, visitors and locals. During the day you can sit here in the cool shade, later you can enjoy the evening sun. Luca Gamberini also enjoys coming here to write his poems. He often sits with his typewriter in the neighbouring café, sometimes on the steps too, and writes a few lines for people he meets. From the outer edge of the basilica steps, it is even possible to look one room further down: then you can see Piazza Nettuno, which adjoins at the side, with the Neptune Fountain. This square is smaller and therefore a bit more intimate. The splashing fountain occupies the centre and provides a way to cool off in the hot summer months. Those who find it too hot are lured from the square during the day by the cool interior of the Biblioteca Salaborsa. Under the glazed atrium of the former Palazzo d'Accursio, people have always enjoyed come together here. The covered square was even once used to host basketball games and boxing matches because of the surrounding galleries.
Students meet every evening on Piazza Verdi. A popular meeting place and venue for concerts and other cultural events is Piazza Santo Stefano, which is only a few streets away. The triangular city square owes its name to the Basilica of Santo Stefano, which is made up of several Romanesque buildings. Piazza Santo Stefano also has a symmetrical pavement, and this living room arrangement is complemented by a flanking colonnade on the long side. However, the undisputed highlight in the public space of Bologna remains the annual cult festival "Sotto le Stelle del Cinema", which, with a large screen and a thousand chairs, transforms Piazza Maggiore into a unique open-air cinema from mid-June to mid-August. In 2019 even Francis Ford Coppola was a guest, something of which all of Bologna is particularly proud. In the evening, when the wind slowly cools the city square between the large, magnificent buildings, the ground still radiates the warmth of the day. When people stare spellbound at the screen and the stars twinkle above their heads, Piazza Maggiore no longer feels like a public square. Camillo Sitte would certainly have watched restored film classics like Easy Rider here – or composed his thoughts about the beauty of the city whilst sitting on the steps.
Love your city
Bologna, that is good food, music and: amore, plenty of amore. One man who loves his city above all else is 33-year-old Luca Gamberini. And the contemporary poet is happy to pass on this love: digitally on Instagram (#poesieespresse), in analogue form and live right on the spot. The poet can be found in the squares and streets of Bologna, where Luca writes short poems for people who meet him by chance.
Poetry happens in the here and now," says the Bologna-born man. Today Luca is sitting on the edge of Piazza Maggiore under the arcades in the sunlight, waiting for people who might need some cheering up. "Would you like a poem that I will write for you?" This direct, surprising and unusual question can throw everyday life off course for a moment. And clear your head. Martha is pleased about the unplanned meeting with Luca: the two know each other from Piazza Maggiore, and Luca has already written her a poem a few times. Baci, Baci, a quick chat, the two of them laugh together. Because she only has a little time today, they agree to meet the next day. Martha disappears in a hurry between the people who are pushing their way through the narrow alley.
"Poetry happens in the here and now."
Luca, 33-year-old poet
The open space of the square attracts tourists from the shadows into the light. Luca Gamberini is sitting casually on the steps under the arcades and is talking to two young Americans studying in Bologna. He likes to talk to people, hear their stories and help the odd passer-by to get over a bad day with a few well-considered lines. He writes his poems as quickly as the Italians drink their espresso, hence the name: Espresso Poetry. Gamberini sets his letters, syllables and words to the rhythm of the city and types them directly into the keyboard of his Olivetti. Every day the young banker writes at least one poem, which he then passes on. His words are transformed into a gesture of communion. "I firmly believe that poetry produces beauty that everyone should be able to enjoy. And I believe that making someone smile is a good thing."
Luca himself is often approached, at least about his beautiful typewriter. But sometimes he picks passers-by out of the crowd himself and offers them a spontaneous poem. Once they have slowed down, the people approached react irritated at first, give the man and his typewriter an interested look and then open their hearts. "It doesn't always work, but most of the time," says Gamberini. He finds it especially good to share his poetry and to be in close contact with people. For some passers-by, he also composes the appropriate lines on request, while for others he offers his own thoughts, which hopefully make the day sweeter for people. He is a good listener, but also a good talker. And he likes to talk – after all, he is Italian.
Piazza Santo Stefano and Piazza Maggiore are Luca's favourite places in his hometown, where he is often seen. And he has already had so many interesting encounters on the two squares, which have sometimes turned into acquaintances. Like other residents, the young poet also sees Bologna as his second mother. An unconditi onal, deep love fills his eyes when he talks about Bologna. "Everyone should have a Bologna." A city that, at best, leaves no one alone.
One Ground for your home
The glass floor in the foyer of the Salaborsa Library in Bologna offers a view of ancient Roman ruins. The unusual, linear structure of the glass blocks in contrast to the curves of the coffered ceiling and the surrounding gallery served as inspiration for the engineered wood flooring "Bologna" in dark, smoked oak wood with laser engraving.