Appearing within a week of each other in late 2021, two articles in the New York Times featured the Italian cities of Brescia in the Lombardy region and Trieste in the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region. Each city was highlighted for its different experience with and response to the Covid pandemic.
In early 2020, Italy was the first country in Europe to have a major outbreak of the coronavirus. The Lombardy region, particularly the cities of Brescia and Bergamo, became the epicenter, showing the world just how devastating the pandemic would be. In the spring, Brescia’s hospitals had more coronavirus patients than any other place in Europe. And few people in Italy and in the United States will forget the images of army trucks transporting coffins to cremation sites when city morgues became overwhelmed. Brescia’s mayor recalled it as a “time of real terror.”
After the delta variant again taxed the local health system beyond its limits, the virus began to wane nationwide. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Italy undertook an aggressive vaccination drive and today has a higher percentage of the population vaccinated than in the United States. In Brescia, things are beginning to return to normal, and the city has adopted a famous ancient statue as the emblem of its recovery.
“Winged Victory” is a Roman bronze dating from the first century C.E. It was discovered in 1826 during archaeological excavations among the ruins of Brescia’s Capitolium Temple. It became a symbol of civic identity and inspiration during the city’s 1849 insurrection against Austrian forces. The poet Giosuè Carducci wrote an ode to the statue that also celebrated Brescia as the “Lioness of Italy” because of its citizens bravery during a 10-day revolt for the cause of Italian unity.
After a two-year restoration, the statue is once again on public view, and President Sergio Mattarella help inaugurate its placement in an archeological park: “This is the time of renewal, also to honor the victims; it’s the time of recovery and to plan for the future.” Images of and homages to the statue now festoon the city. Brescia’s main vaccination center has looped videos of the statue’s restoration, and one of Brescia’s metro stations features a monumental installation of the “Winged Victory.”
It is a different story nearly 330 km (more than 200 miles) to the east in the port city of Trieste. After Italy introduced Europe’s toughest and most expansive health pass, Trieste became the epicenter of protests as vaccine skeptics marched alongside dock workers who shouted that the measure infringed on their right to work. And now Trieste has emerged as a Covid hot spot linked directly to those protests, which threatens to burden the local health care system.
Trieste was once a cosmopolitan hub of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and has long had a reputation for independence. After World War II, the United States and Britain controlled Trieste, not wanting it to fall into Communist Yugoslavia’s hands. They handed it over to Italy in 1954. However, an enormous “Welcome to the Free Territory of Trieste” sign in the town center reminds viewers that some still believe that Italy illegally annexed the city. However, many people in the area do not believe there is historical relevance for Trieste’s new reputation as the center of vaccine skepticism and to its recent infection outbreaks. They believe the high rate of infection has more to do with geography. Trieste shares a border with Slovenia and is at a crossroads of Italy, Central Europe, and the Balkans. While the recent outbreak was strictly correlated to the protests, Trieste is also at the heart of Central Europe where circulation of the virus is extremely high.
Trieste shows how an unvaccinated minority—whether motivated by concerns about freedom, the right to work, or unfounded conspiracy theories—can still threaten the greater public good. Brescia, on the other hand, symbolizes the rebirth of a city that pulled together. In 2023 Brescia and Bergamo will share the title of Italy’s Capital of Culture, after other cities withdrew from the competition in order to unanimously crown the hard-hit Lombardy cities.