Umarells. Slow living in a frantic world.
There is the horse whisperer, the men who stare at goats, and why not, even the man who observes construction sites. In case you hadn’t noticed, in all of our cities there is at least “a pensioner who spends his time, stereotypically with his hands clasped behind his back, watching construction sites, asking questions, offering advice, or criticizing the operations”.
This is the definition of umarell provided by the Zingarelli dictionary, a Bolognaise word used to say “little man”, popularised by the writer Danilo Masotti, author of Umarells 2.0 – “There are lots of them, they live among us; they observe us, and we observe them”.
The umarells are invisible spectators of roadworks in our cities; we have spotted them so many times without knowing what to call them, but they have even given their name – involuntarily – to a square in Bologna (Piazzetta degli Umarells) and have featured in an episode of Mickey Mouse comics. Despite their curved position along the fencing, they have gained so much notoriousness that the Italian singer Fabio Concato wrote a song about them (l’Umarell). Silent little men who gave rise to over 21 thousand posts with the specific hashtag on Instagram. But let’s take a step back (okay, first unclasp your hands): where were they first mentioned? In a blog, still alive and kicking thanks to Masotti, who made an appeal in 2005: “pick up a digital camera, look for them and send us your pictures”. Bologna, their hometown, not only recognizes them, but consecrates them thanks to the Umarèl Card, allowing them to “supervise” construction work on the Basilica of San Petronio from privileged positions, and eventually earn the “Official Umarèl” certificate to exhibit, of course, in their kitchen, where they may admire it in their house slippers. Milan has also made its contribution, with the local transportation company – ATM – posting a “Practical guide for the Milanese umarell” in the summer of 2018: a city tour of all construction sites collecting all the directions to reach them. A nice initiative, though unfortunately promoted through social networks alone: not the most popular channel among the city tattletales. Pescara has also performed pro-umarell actions, including a panel saying: “Follow the roadwork” (with the silhouette of an old man with the hands clasped behind his back) and indicating the windows in the fencing specifically designed for umarells. A company has also created a “no-action figure”, 3-D printed with bioplastic materials, to place on your workstation. “A digital senior citizen, observing digital construction sites – your PCs – and increasing your productivity by up to 10%”. But life is not always easy even for umarells, when you consider that a real estate company has imposed a rate on “peeping” their sites: 50 cents for a quick look, 2.5 euros for 10 minutes of show. Advice, criticism, and reports accepted and included in the price. The pricelist also included the possibility of a meeting with the site manager to ask for information on the work progress (10 euros), and for the most extreme umarells, a season ticket for 80 euros. None of this was true of course; it was only a brilliant advertisement campaign gone viral, developed by a company that has social phenomena – not just social networks – at heart. Why so many initiatives and all the fuss around a figure which is already well-integrated in the urban landscape? It might be that – as the manufacturer of “umarell statuettes” claims, the constant presence of an invigilator and critic stimulates productivity, making workers do better and satisfy expectations. Or it may be that they evoke a distant world where grandparents were listened to and revered like tribal chiefs. Or perhaps is it that as assiduous followers of our daily work-in-progress, we are all umarells?