Will Covid Change Italy?

The Monumental Cemetery of Bergamo during a performance of Donizetti’s Requiem in memory of Covid-19 victims, Bergamo, Italy, June 2020
Alessandro Bremec/NurPhoto/Getty Images
The Monumental Cemetery of Bergamo during a performance of Donizetti’s Requiem in memory of Covid-19 victims, Bergamo, Italy, June 2020

Viale Ernesto Pirovano in the northern Italian city of Bergamo connects the center of town to the cemetery, with its imposing neo-Egyptian portal and the peak of Monte Misma as backdrop. It is a pleasant but unremarkable cypress-lined boulevard that passes the Kia dealership and the local headquarters of the Italian Federation of Blood Donors.

This was the route down which an abnormal military convoy made its way on the night of March 18: thirty-six trucks carrying body bags and coffins for cremation across northern and central Italy, since all local facilities had been stretched beyond capacity by Covid-19. The harrowing scene was repeated throughout Lombardy. In her short book Virus Sovrano, Donatella di Cesare, a philosopher at Rome’s Sapienza University, describes footage of the convoy as “images that seem to burst from the darkness of a bellicose past, a wound never healed. Images of a denied right: the ritual of collective farewell.” They circulated internationally, so that this beautiful city and its surroundings, less than an hour’s drive from Milan, became widely known as harder-hit per capita by the coronavirus—with an estimated 4,700 deaths in a province of 1.1 million people—than any other community in the world.1

There is a much-reproduced photograph by Alex Majoli of a priest in Novara blessing the dead in the back of a truck that had just arrived from Bergamo (see illustration below). But another priest, Don Mario Carminati at the church of San Giuseppe in the Bergamo suburb of Seriate, refused such rites, instead piling up coffins in his aisles and apse. “They are not merchandise!” he insisted to me. “I knew many of them—some came to Mass here, and we took who we could from the funeral homes into the church. We received 195 coffins here and blessed them one by one, name by name, before releasing them to the military and crematoria.”

A priest blessing the coffins of Covid-19 victims from Bergamo, Novara, Italy, April 2020
Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos
A priest blessing the coffins of Covid-19 victims from Bergamo, Novara, Italy, April 2020

Fr. Carminati reflected on those days: “What I remember most is the roaring silence. Sirens, then just silence, day after day, night after night, as though it would never end.” He also looked forward: “Italy must learn from this. We met it with strength, but now understand our fragility. My greatest fear is that we carry on as before, regardless of what the virus has taught us about ourselves and…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.