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European capitals of culture: restoring conscience and identity to the old Continent

Every year the EU designates one or two cities as symbolic capitals of the cultural richness of Europe. Greek artist Melina Mercuri initiated this identitarian initiative in 1985. Athens was the first awarded capital, while Breslava (Poland), and San Sebastian (Spain), are the urban centres designated for the year 2016.

Breslavia e San Sebastiano, le Capitali europee della cultura per il 2016


It’s beautiful and inspiring to know that the person who conceived the “European City of Culture”, which in 1999 was called “European Capital of Culture”, is Melina Mercuri, a woman, a Greek citizen, an artist, a policymaker who fought for the establishment of democracy in her home Country. It’s equally significant to recall, in the light of the economic and political tempest that has swept through Greece, that Athens was designated as the first “European Capital of Culture” in 1985. The cities that will bear this title as of January 1st, for the year 2016, are Wroclaw (Breslavia) in Poland and San Sebastian, Spain.


Beauty and hope. Moreover, it’s particularly encouraging to know that at a time of prevailing blacks and greys, old Europe preserves the strength and the ability to single out additional colours through this initiative in order to keep, in the words of Romano Guardini, “its mission and its destiny thriving”. The colours of culture encourage us to believe that in spite of everything, “the European dream” won’t remain a distant memory, nor will it be engulfed by the scabs of bureaucracy, technocracy, national egoisms, mutual diffidence, fear, and globalization. This very beauty – fragile yet fruitful – keeps the flame of hope burning throughout the old Continent, and hence, worldwide.


Appreciating diversity. It could seem like nothing more than a dream. However, for example, the “Erasmus generation” stands as a token of its concreteness. Thanks to this intuition turned into reality, young people have been able to meet and appreciate diversity across European cities. Far from being jealously sealed and defended, such beauty is generously offered as a token of conviviality, creativity, and future.

Even the historical memory, in this context, acquires a different flavour

Across the squares of European cities the austere statues of the winners of wars fought by neighbouring peoples are no longer the emblems of glory, rather, they stand as an implicit – yet effective – warning to reminds visitors from European countries the sad history overcome only a few decades ago, which must never return.


The message of John Paul II. Also for this reason it is necessary to recuperate, in the thirty-year-long experience of the “European Capital of Culture”, the apparently feeble message, which instead, as Cardinal Roger Etchegaray wrote, constitutes “the lymph and vital root on which the tree grows.” John Paul II reaffirmed this reading of reality and of the future on April 21st 1986, the year after Athens was designated as first “European City of Culture” when he said that Europe’s “decisive challenge will be the quality of the living culture at the level of European consciousness. It is the frontier on which depends the future of this continent and, in a sense, of the whole world, since Europe occupies a prominent place in the cultural geography of the world.”


The fountainhead of thought. Thus “European cities” represent the frontier where European thought is born, nourished, where it gives life to new thoughts, new notions, new dialogues and new horizons. The organizers of the “European City of Culture” were aware of it already in 1991. They created a network to promote the exchange and dissemination of information, also meant for the promoters of future events, and thus they would not remain occasional initiatives but rather an integrating part of a shared European process. It wasn’t easy, since even such initiatives triggered unpredictable competitions to obtain a recognition entailing considerable economic advantages. Mindful of these risks, which they intended to prevent, EU institutions introduced new selection procedures enabling all European Countries to host, in turn, the event that as of 1999 has become the “European Capital of Culture.”


Response to crises. Today it’s important to be aware that the “European City of Culture” is a response to the two crises described by Jacques Delors in the preamble of Sébastien Maillard’s book “Qu’avons-nous fait de l’Europe?”, namely, “a crisis in mutual trust” and a “crisis in hope in the future”.

The “other” and the future await answers loaded with trust and hope.

Indeed, they are surrounded by fear and indifference, and that’s why their questions and repeatedly addressed to the realm of culture, which, messenger of beauty, long before the arts and sciences, is expressed in the dignity of humankind. Upon this very dignity, that transforms soulless places into cities, depends Europe’s destiny and commitment.

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