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Festivalfilosofia: The Italian event aiming to bring people and philosophy together

Lesson of Cacciari Massimo, Irti Natalino, Valter Malosti. Carpi, 2022.
Lesson of Cacciari Massimo, Irti Natalino, Valter Malosti. Carpi, 2022. Copyright © Luciana Poltronieri
Copyright © Luciana Poltronieri
By Alice Carnevali
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Join us on a trip to Carpi, Modena and Sassuolo in Italy where this weekend, Festivalfilosofia aims to take philosophy out of stuffy lecture halls and into public squares. Carpi-born writer Alice Carnevali shares her memories of the event and how its played a significant role in her life.

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Carpi, Modena and Sassuolo are three towns in the heart of Emilia Romagna, a region located in the north of Italy. They owe their fame to the iconic car manufacturers of Ferrari and Lamborghini, the refined taste of the balsamic vinegar and the light flavour of Lambrusco, the perfect red wine to pair with meat dishes.

However, these three cities have more to offer than just material or sensory pleasures. If you visit them between 15-17 September, your stroll through the city centres could be interrupted by existential discussions, resonating on every street corner.  And that is when you'll know that the Festivalfilosofia has started. 

Festival Filosofia 2023

Festivalfilosofia is an annual event, that brings together philosophy experts, students and curious citizens. It was established in 2001 by Fondazione Collegio San Carlo, a private organisation hosting cultural activities within local communities near Modena.

“The aim of the festival is to try and take an issue, unpack it, show its different levels of meaning, stimulate questions, and provide tools to understand contemporary issues,” explains Daniele Francesconi, the festival’s director.

Yet, what makes this event so special? 

Bringing philosophy back to agora

My first encounter with Festivalfilosofia was at the age of 14. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was enjoying ice cream with some friends in Piazza Martiri, a huge square in the centre of Carpi. We were strolling under the long arcade, when we stumbled upon an open-air conference. A woman was talking about the connection between humans and nature to a crowd of people seated under the gentle September sun. Behind her, the poster Festivalfilosofia - Natura.

Although I could not understand much, I was fascinated. Philosophy had never been a topic of discussion in my household, where daily issues dictated the law.

Listening to the philosopher made me feel privileged: I was witnessing a complicated lecture, something usually confined to university halls, where no one in my family had had the opportunity to go.

Over time, however, philosophy taught me that the event was not a privilege, but a fundamental right of which we had been deprived. 

Public places have a symbolic significance in this festival. They take philosophy back to the agora, where this discipline was born.
Daniele Francesconi
Director of the Festivalfilosofia

Agora is the public place where Greek philosophers used to organise debates to share knowledge and strengthen their audience’s critical thinking.

And although Carpi, Modena and Sassuolo are not Athens, they still come alive during the festival. Concerts, art exhibitions and conferences fill the streets, creating a vibrant atmosphere which attracts people from all over Italy. 

“These cities are not just the stage of the event. They are its protagonists,” states Francesconi. And nothing seems to capture the festival’s energy better than this metaphor.

Conference of Cesare Donatella. Sassuolo, 2022.
Conference of Cesare Donatella. Sassuolo, 2022.Serena Campanini/photo © Serena Campanini

A bridge between philosophy and the challenges of our times

In 2016, I attended what I recall as the best conference of Festivalfilosofia. The theme for that year was agonism, coinciding with the Rio Olympics. Julio Velasco, an internationally acclaimed volleyball trainer with a background in philosophy gave a lesson on teamwork. I shared that moment with my sports loving family and my best friend.

Piazza Grande in Modena was filled with people. We could not find a place to sit, so we stood for two hours, transported by Velasco’s down-to-earth explanations. From that night onward, whenever I was studying for philosophy exams, my parents would encourage me to repeat my notes aloud, listening and asking me questions on philosophical subjects.

Lesson of Julio Velasco. Modena, 2016.

Every year, participants have a wide array of choices. In each city, there are at least four free lectures per day, activities for children, movie nights and special menus at local restaurants.

The topics are intriguing and tied to current discussions. “This year’s theme is the word, a central element in the philosophical discussion of the 20th century and in our society. Communication is currently facing a crisis: we are speaking to each other less and less and we cannot listen,” Daniele Francesconi states.

Lesson of Umberto Galimberti. Modena, 2022.
Lesson of Umberto Galimberti. Modena, 2022.© Elisabetta Baracchi

Next to the Italian speakers, the festival expands its international reach with a lineup of distinguished guests. Eva Majer, a Dutch researcher specializing in inter-species communication; Anne Cheng, a prominent French sinologist; Cass Sunstein, an American scholar talking about political communication in the digital era and Sverker Johnsson, a Swedish researcher focusing on the origins of language. 

An ambitious task, but worth a try

I have been living abroad for more than four years, yet I always make an effort not to miss the festival. I cherish several memories related to it: the conferences I attended with my high school peers, my first internship in its organization, and even the lectures I skipped because of their high level of complexity. 

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Reading Don Ciotti and Gad Lerner. Modena, 2022.
Reading Don Ciotti and Gad Lerner. Modena, 2022.© Elisabetta Baracchi

Bridging political, cultural and educational gaps is an ambitious endeavour and three days are certainly not enough to achieve this goal. 

Yet, one thing is sure. This weekend, people in or visiting Carpi, Modena and Sassuolo will help to create the festival’s riveting energy. And maybe, just by simply participating into the event while eating ice cream, they might one day end up writing an article about it.

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