I watched and wept in Genoa’s ruins. But we have no idea what will happen next

Matteo Pucciarelli
This article is more than 2 years old
Once the symbol of a country on a path to prosperity, the Morandi bridge collapse is the first major challenge for the country’s populist coalition
Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini visits the scene of the Morandi bridge collapse.

Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini visits the scene of the Morandi bridge collapse.
Photograph: Piero Cruciatti/AFP/Getty Images

Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini visits the scene of the Morandi bridge collapse.
Photograph: Piero Cruciatti/AFP/Getty Images

Last modified on Tue 21 Aug 2018 06.48 EDT

About 40 minutes after the Morandi bridge collapsed I was there, under it, amid the ruins. It was pouring with rain and the road had been closed shortly before by the city police. I ran to the site. And when I caught sight of the destroyed “little Brooklyn” – as we Genovese liked to call it – I started to weep.

It was like something out of a war zone: the wreck of crushed lorries and cars, the white cloths over bodies that had only just been taken out, the twisted, incredulous faces of the first rescuers on the scene.

Ponte Morandi was a piece not only of the history of Genoa but of Italy itself. Opened in 1967, amid a remarkable era of economic growth, it was the symbol of a country that seemed to have its eye on the future. Parents knew their children, and their grandchildren, would do better than they had. There was social mobility. Battles were fought and won for rights that benefited everyone. And Genoa, a hub of state industry, was, alongside Milan and Turin, part of Italy’s famous industrial triangle.

For this reason, the collapse of the bridge last week was laden with symbolism. First, it marked the end of an era – an end that in fact began in the 1980s, when the country halted its path to prosperity and set out instead on the road to the country it is 30 years later: insecure, angry and self-destructive.

Second, Genoa itself is in a sense the cradle of today’s politics. It is the city of Beppe Grillo, the Five Star movement (M5S) founder, and it is now being governed, for the first time, by Matteo Salvini’s League, which successfully managed to snatch the city off the historically dominant left.

For the M5S-League coalition in Rome, the Morandi bridge disaster has been the first real national tragedy. And the government’s response has been instructive.

Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister, presides over an executive composed of two parties that are used to singling out an enemy – and on this occasion, too, that is precisely what they did. At least this time the chosen enemy was rich and powerful: the operator of most of Italy’s motorways, Autostrade per l’Italia. (That, and of course, Brussels, which Salvini accused of limiting Italy’s public spending and thus endangering its infrastructure. The EU’s budget commissioner reminded him that, even amid tragedy, it was “good to look at facts” – something that Salvini is often reluctant to do.)

The government’s main finger of blame, though, has been pointed at Autostrade and the Benetton family who control it. In 1999, when the long march to privatisation began, the state sold off almost 3,000km of motorway. It was a bargain for the buyers, of whom the Benettons were the most famous, and much less of a good deal for the state and motorists.

Now the populist government is accusing Autostrade of failing to take sufficient care of the viaduct and has begun proceedings to strip it of its concession. Luigi Di Maio, the deputy prime minister and leader of M5S, wrote on Facebook that Autostrade was “definitely to blame”. The company has said it is confident it could prove it had met contractual obligations.

What are the government’s weapons in this fight? Ministers don’t know if it will even be possible to revoke the concession, what the terms of contracts signed in recent years are, and what the eventual financial penalties might be. But the decision to ask Autostrade to foot the bill has brought more approval to a government which seems to understand the mood of the Italian people: confused and at the same time weighed down with resentment, the promise of that famous “better future” well and truly gone.

Almost a week since the Morandi collapsed there is no sense of what should be done. Will the bridge be reconstructed? And what of the hundreds of people displaced from their houses beside the wreckage site – where will they go?

These are questions that will be asked for a few more days. And then the country will move on to the next crisis, the next scandal, the next tragedy. Right now Genoa, and Italy, are making do in choppy waters – but no longer with the collective hope of arriving, eventually, in a safe port.

Matteo Pucciarelli is a reporter for La Repubblica, based in Genoa

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