Salotto: Safe Socializing in Italy

Article by Tiziano Fusella

Although the COVID-19 quarantine forced people to have business and personal conversations—and celebrations, memorials, and other events—on Zoom, at least the social networks as a whole made us accustomed to exchanges via technology. Having a life during social distancing was possible. And, for a few months, it worked. It was in Bologna, northern Italy, the capital of Emilia-Romagna, known for its lovely coastal landscapes, historic architecture, and of course, exquisite foods, where someone had a better idea. Writer and style influencer Patrizia Finucci Gallo created a new way to have a salotto event (in English, salotto means a “sitting room”) so people could leave their homes and aggregate safely in the same building, even during the hardest period of the health crisis. But first, some history about the salotto. The idea of a “sitting room,” or salon, is not new in time, nor is it unique to Italy. In the eras before technology, people needed gathering places where they could socialize, converse, work and play together, gossip, connive and plan, or just have a place to go that was not specifically their own home or their place of business. While a salon was usually hosted in someone’s home, the idea behind it was to congregate, have discussions, host visitors from distant lands or guest speakers, and have a reason to dress well, to put your best face forward for what would afterwards become a good or an interesting memory. As we know from the history of French salons, every conversation that ever took place in a salotto—true or false, heralded or whispered, comic or tragic—was a little story with a thousand shades and implications. In general, stories told on those sofas were short, sometimes little more than gossip, slander, and indiscretions that involved prominent personalities such as Voltaire, Diderot, D’alembert, and other thinkers, as well as kings, queens, noblewomen and noblemen, actresses, actors and all the variegated humanity that revolved around the sumptuous court of France. At other times, topics covered were more complex, such as love, philosophy, and social problems. Arguments arose that did not fail to kindle the spirits of both ordinary people and literati. About 10 years before the quarantine of 2020, Gallo and her husband, Roberto di Caro, the war reporter for the Italian magazine L’Espresso, organized salotto events that took place in their elegant apartment near the center of Bologna, where an Art Deco room filled with books was the ideal backdrop for all kinds of conversations. When the quarantine first mandated social distancing, their salotto events moved to a new location. Gallo says, “We continued to meet in a hotel in Bologna, the Guercino, which has a private courtyard full of plants.” But even that space wasn’t enough during the toughest period of lockdown. Public places became banned. “A strategy was needed to maintain the pleasure of meeting and not giving up,” so Gallo worked with the hotel to find this solution: Each participant was assigned a single room—not for a night’s stay, but for the hours during which the salotto was planned. It gave them a nice place to go, and a reason to groom, to dress up, and to be seen in real life. The hotel’s hall was reserved for the guest in charge of conducting the salotto, a space to meet at a distance with journalists or technicians who were also involved in the event. A link via Zoom allowed participants—each in their own nearby rooms—to intervene or participate in the event. In this way the hotel became “a beehive,” says Gallo, “where each bee/person had his/her own box, but next door they could feel someone else’s presence.” Yes, the connection was made by Zoom, and people could have just stayed home. But Gallo says, “We would have lost the rituality of gathering as well as [an opportunity to wear] elegant dress.” Leaving the comfort of home, gathering, conversing—all are part of what the human souls desire. Outside activities allow for individual well-being, which then becomes collective well-being. After necessary deprivation, people realize the importance of small things—like sharing conversation, enjoying drinks together, dressing up, and going out beyond home in order to see beyond the walls of the familiar. Gallo’s “beehive” salotto worked, and it’s still working—for people to show up, to be entertained, and to keep hope for healthy, happy tomorrows.