…Sitting atop Torre degli Asinelli, 100m up in the air above a sea of red-tiled rooftops and a ubiquity of terracotta brick medieval buildings that radiate out in all directions, affords an impressive panorama over Bologna’s characteristic medieval scenery.
Back on ground level, Bologna’s trademark portici seem to endlessly stretch out creating a web of covered passageways that irresistibly invite us to wander and get lost down the narrow medieval streets while uncovering Bologna’s appealing Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Down each street, around each corner you’re bound to stumble upon a charming medieval structure be it a picturesque portico, a graceful church, a secret window into a hidden water canal, an intriguing fortified tower, an elegant palace, or a venerable old university or library. No wonder Bologna has acquired some resonating nicknames: “La Turrita”, the towered one, reminding of its once many fortified towers, “La Grassa”, the fat one, celebrating its rich cuisine, “La Dotta”, the learned one, honoring its famous university almost one thousand years old, and “La Rossa”, the red one, alluding to the ubiquity of the terracotta medieval buildings adorned with kilometers of picturesque portici.
UNIVERSITÀ DI BOLOGNA
Unfamiliar and new to Bologna we indulge ourselves aimlessly straying down its enchanting narrow streets, bewitched by the fascinating medieval architecture and eager to discover what lays behind the next corner. Unawares we stumble upon the buildings housing faculties of the venerable Università di Bologna. We can almost feel the nearly palpable aura of centuries of intellectual and scientific studies and research radiating from the university’s buildings.
Considered the oldest university in the world in continuous operation, Università di Bologna was established in 1088, initially focused on the study of Law, gradually expanding to include Medicine and Surgery, Philosophy, Science, Arts, Astronomy, and many more. During the Middle Ages the university became an important center of European intellectual life and an auspicious greenhouse for research and significant discoveries, since here scientists could conduct research legally independent from any other power. Its fame preceded it, attracting many illustrious scholars and students including Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca, Pico della Mirandola, Paracelsus, Nicolaus Copernicus, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Giovanni Cassini, Luigi Galvani, Umberto Eco, to name but a few.
Many of its faculties are still housed in historical buildings whose imposing doorways exert a magnetic pull irresistibly attracting us to step in as if allured to take a bite from the forbidden apple of knowledge. Mingling among modern-day students, we easily slip in through the faculty door as if passing through a breach in time, and mesmerize at the massive statues piled up in the hallways and at the worn-out antique books filling the library’ shelves. Bologna’s libraries are a living testimony of the city’s cultural heritage, housing vast collections of antique and modern printed works, manuscripts, rare books and chronicles. For a fleeting moment we enjoyed a small taste of the enchanting afterglow of centuries of intellectual study.
In medieval time, Bologna’s thriving university attracted a booming number of students generating an increased demand for housing. To solve this growing need for accommodation, allegedly Bolognese built rooms extending the facades of their buildings into the streets to create extra housing space. Thus, were built throughout the city Bologna’s emblematic portici: giant and lengthy archways, some high enough to accommodate people on horseback, for nearly 45 kilometers embracing the city’s appealing medieval buildings.
These elegant, ornate, and extensive vaulted arcades enrich the cityscape, creating picturesque covered walkways all too inviting for long strolls under their appealing arches sheltered from the weather. And we too make no exception, allured by the portici’s charm, we continue to wander randomly, exploring Bologna’s medieval historical town.
The oldest portici were made of wood, while the newer ones are of brick or stone covered in plain plaster, or lavishly painted with elaborate frescos. On one portici ceiling we stumble onto one of Bologna’s hidden “secrets”: an intriguing inscription writing “panis vita, canabis protectio, vinum laetitia” that translates “bread is life, cannabis is protection, wine is happiness”. Allegedly, it honors the cultivation of hemp at a time when it was one of Bologna’s important trade product in the textile industry.
LA FINESTRELLA – PICCOLA VENEZIA
Meandering through the maze of medieval narrow streets in search of Bologna’s architectural treasures, we run across another of the city’s best kept secrets: a small window offering an unexpected glimpse of Bologna’s medieval Canale delle Moline water canal. Water canals were built throughout the city in the 12th century to power mills for textile and silk production. However, by the beginning of the 20th century most canals had been covered by asphalt, while the remaining ones were hidden from view locked between houses. La Finestrella is a small window in a red wall opening into a hidden water canal, providing a rare view of Piccola Venezia. Seen through the small window enclosed by open wooden shutters, the narrow water canal streaming between colorful houses with petite balconies proves charmingly photogenic, resembling a lifelike painting.
Close by, amid the narrow streets in the medieval heart of the city we run across one of the entrances to the Jewish Ghetto, a charming maze of alleys enlivened with artisan workshops and encircled by palaces that belonged to rich Jewish merchants and bankers, which tell the story of a community forced to live confined in their specific quarter by a Papal State order. The entrances to the Jewish quarter were opened in the morning, sealed at dusk, and constantly kept under watch, until a period when all Jews were expelled from the city and no Jews were allowed into Bologna for more than two centuries.
LE DUE TORRI
Exploring further on, we find ourselves walking between tightly packed colorful houses, when suddenly two tremendously high Gothic structures begin to come into view taking up the sky. Bologna’s own “leaning towers” Le Due Torri, rise in the center of Piazza di Porta Ravegnana, strategically placed like sentinels at the entrance in the city of the ancient Via Emilia.
Emblems of medieval Bologna, the city’s iconic fortified towers have been the city’s symbol for centuries. During the 12th and 13th centuries, for reasons still not entirely clear, a considerable number of towers were built punctuating Bologna’ skyline. True medieval skyscrapers, the more than a hundred towers must have created an image resembling today’s Manhattan.
The tall towers bear witness to the rivalry among the Bolognese noble families during the bloody wars between the Guelphs, supporters of the Papacy, and the Ghibellines, backers of the Holy Roman Empire. Allegedly, the noble families rivaled each other building bigger and better towers. Through their remarkable height and fortifications, the towers served defensive purposes, signaling and watching over the surrounding neighborhood. While through their grandeur, the towers were a status symbol of the social prestige, power and wealth of the noble family owning them: the higher the tower, the richer the family.
Typically, medieval Bolognese towers were structured to seat a shop on ground floor, a house on the first and second floor, and empty upstairs. Over the centuries almost all the towers collapsed falling victim to the ravages of fires, wars and lightning strikes, or were purposely demolished, fewer than twenty surviving till this day. Some of the towers still standing used to be much taller but were reduced in height to ensure their stability. Over the course of time the towers were put to different uses from tower-houses, storehouses, shops, prisons, and nowadays to bookshops and evocative guest houses.
Wandering through Bologna’s maze of medieval streets, often the towers are hidden, concealed between the tightly packed buildings, suddenly coming into sight only when directly under their tremendously grand Gothic and Renaissance structures.
The most conspicuous and famous of Bologna’s towers are Le Due Torri, the city’s main symbol: Torre degli Asinelli and Torre della Garisenda, built in the early 12th century by the affluent Asinelli family. As a more modern addition, a statue of the city’s patron saint San Petronio bestows its spiritual protection from in front of the two towers.
Torre degli Asinelli, Bologna’s tallest medieval tower and the world’s tallest leaning tower, soars almost 100m high while leaning 2.20 off vertical. 498 steps, a welcomed and unexpected training for our next high-altitude expeditions, take us to the top of the tower for an impressive panorama over the medieval city’s red rooftops. From up here scientists made experiments with gravity and studied the rotation of the Earth. Nowadays we use this vantage point to easily identify the other remaining medieval towers, which from here visibly stand out in sight. Local lore says if you climb to the top of Torre degli Asinelli you will never graduate from university. Luckily, we already have our bachelor’s degrees :))
Torre della Garisenda, the neighboring shorter twin tower, is almost half its “sister’s” height and sensibly leans with a drunken 3.2m tilt due to the subsidence of its foundation.
Dante Aligheri, who once saw Le Due Torri still intact, evoked them as evil giants submerged in the depths of hell in his Divina Comedia’s Canto dell’Inferno. Far from being offended, present day Bolognese pride themselves of this mention, displaying a marble plaque quoting Dante’s verses.
Now that we got our bearings, relatively close by we manage to find Torre Prendiparte, also known as La Coronata, the crowned one, its top being adorned by a characteristic embellishment resembling a crown. The second highest tower in Bologna, it was built by the wealthy Prendiparte family, resembling an impregnable medieval fortress with its 2.8m thick “Bolognese” red brick walls. Over time it has been used as a theological seminary, a prison for crimes against religion, and now a fascinating and evocative guest house featuring a large rooftop terrace with beautiful views over the roofs and buildings of Bologna.
Two more towers lay conspicuous in sight around Bologna’s central square, Piazza Maggiore: Torre Accursi or Torre dell’Orologio, the clock tower on the corner of Palazzo D’Accursio, and Torre dell’Arengo rising above Palazzo del Podestà, the bell tower, which was once used to warn citizens of calamities or of the start of public meetings. Other towers still standing are less conspicuous and harder to find, as they don’t easily stand out between the tightly packed medieval neighborhoods.
In our treasure hunt for Bolognese towers, unawares we end up in the very heart of Bologna’s historical town: Piazza Maggiore, a picturesque square enclosed by ornate medieval Renaissance buildings: Basilica di San Petronio, Palazzo dei Notai, Palazzo d’Accursio, Palazzo del Podestà and Palazzo dei Bianchi.
Palazzo d’Accursio or Palazzo Comunale, the historical seat of the city government, has for centuries been the center of Bologna’s public life. Its beautiful façade features above its entrance a bronze statue of Bologna’s own Pope Gregorius XIII best known for introducing the Gregorian calendar. At the base of the walls can still be seen the ancient measurement units that were used by medieval artisans and merchants: the arm, the pole and staff, the Bolognese foot. Once the home of the affluent Master of Law Accursio, nowadays part of the palace houses the municipal library Biblioteca Salaborsa, with a picturesque reading hall inside a covered courtyard, piazza coperta, surrounded by three levels of open arches supported by thin columns and a scenic ceiling embellished with skylights, while its glass floors expose ancient Roman ruins.
Across the square, Palazzo del Podestà hides another of Bologna’s secrets: the Whispering Corners. Under Torre dell’Arengo lays Portico del Podestà, a cross vault with an outstanding acoustic effect: if you whisper into one of its corners you can be heard in the diagonally opposite corner without anyone else being able to listen to the conversation. This feature was used by medieval monks to confess lepers.
FONTANA DEL NETTUNO
Adjacent to Palazzo del Podestà lays another of Bologna’s landmarks: Fontana del Nettuno. Commissioned to celebrate the election of Pope Pius IV, Giambologna sculpted a bronze statue depicting Neptune, nicknamed by locals as “the giant”. Considered indecent at the time due to its well-endowed private parts, the muscled sea god rises naked at the center of a three-stepped fountain above four angles and four sirens, which embody the four known continents at that time. The statue was meant to symbolize the power of the Pope who ruled the world like Neptune ruled the seas. Not only an aesthetic addition to the square, Fontana del Nettuno had a practical purpose as a water supply for local merchants, and more recently the trident held by Neptune in his hand has served as the inspiration for the logo of Maserati car company.
BASILICA DI SAN PETRONIO
Counter-balancing Palazzo del Podestà across the square is Basilica di San Petronio. Dedicated to city’s patron saint, San Petronio, Bologna’s bishop in the 5th century, it is the largest brick cathedral in the world. Work began on the basilica in the late 14th century and it still remains unfinished, its main façade never being completed. In the 16th century a new Latin-cross layout plan was proposed with the intent to outdo Rome’s Basilica Papale di San Pietro, however Pope Pius IV stopped the constructions of the megalomaniac project.
The façade is extremely plain: a white and pink marble base adorned with bas-reliefs depicting saints, empty niches meant to house statues never sculpted and three bare wooden doors, and a dark brick upper part void of any embellishment. In contrast, the Gothic interior is much more impressive than the exterior. The three aisles are separated by tall pillars supporting the pointed arched ceiling, while the sides are embellished with the intricate stained glass of the 22 chapels each beautifully decorated with murals. On the floor is astronomer Giovanni Cassini’s famous sundial. 67.7m long it was used to indicate the day of the year, as well as in determining the length of the solar year. One of the largest astronomical instruments in the world, allowing measurements that were for the time uniquely precise, this sundial was instrumental in discovering the anomalies of the Julian calendar and led to the creation of the leap year.
Maybe more drawn by the charm of the narrow medieval alleys than by the basilica’s austere exterior, we curiously begin to encircle the church only to find ourselves detoured by the sight of a magnificently decorated portici leading away from the basilica. Strolling fascinated down this embellished portici, a grand doorway, lavishly decorated and widely opened into a picturesque courtyard magnetically allures us to step in and discover what lays awaiting inside. The beautiful paved courtyard is surrounded by a two-story archway adorned by an elegant mignon clock-tower. The ground level portici are opened, while the upper floor archway is closed with glass windows picturesquely reflecting the sky. We found Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, which was constructed in the 16th century by papal order to bring together into a single space the various faculties of the university, previously scattered in different buildings across town.
For almost three centuries, from 1563 to 1805, this palace was the main building of the Università di Bologna. Afterwards it become the seat of Biblioteca Comunale, the municipal library, housing more than 700,000 volumes. From ground level two grand vaulted staircases lead to the upper story classrooms and the famous Teatro Anatomico, a baroque amphitheater where medical students once studied surgery dissecting cadavers. The walls, staircase vaults and open hallways are covered with thousands of students’ coats-of-arms and names and commemorative inscriptions dedicated in honor to the university teachers.
CATTEDRALE METROPOLITANA DI SAN PIETRO & CHIESA DI SAN MARTINO
Somehow Bologna’s charming alleys and narrow streets exert an irresistible magnetic pull alluring us to keep on exploring through the maze of medieval buildings, from place to place discovering an appealing Renaissance palace or church. A contrast soon became apparent: Bologna’s churches’ exteriors are quite austere and unsurprising, coated only by their characteristic Bolognese red brick with little embellishments, starkly contracting to their interiors that astonish abundantly adorned with busy frescos and sculptures. Chiesa di San Martino’s interior is elegant and spacious, enriched with beautiful noble Renaissance chapels adorned by a gallery of precious frescos, the works of a series of notable artists. While Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro’s fabulous Baroque interior gives an impression of majesty and grandeur embellished with elaborate imposing frescos and sculptures.
BASILICA DI SANTO STEFANO
Eventually we find probably one of Bologna’s most photogenic portici, embracing Centro dei Desideri and facing a scenic pebble paved piazza leading to the quaint Basilica di Santo Stefano.
One of the oldest structures in Bologna, this unique religious site is an atmospheric labyrinth of interlocking ecclesiastical structures. According to tradition, San Petronio wished to build a copy of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher from Jerusalem, erecting a basilica on the site of an ancient temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis. The basilica was divided into seven churches which represented the places where the Passion of Christ had taken place. Of the original seven churches only four remain intact till this day: Chiesa del Crocefisso, featuring an impressive suspended crucifix, leads into Chiesa del Santo Sepolcro, dominated by a shrine which mirrors the tomb of Christ from Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Next follows a courtyard recalling the lithostrotos where Jesus was condemned to death, featuring a basin in which Pontius Pilate is said to have washed his hands after condemning Christ. Beyond the courtyard are Chiesa della Trinità and Chiesa dei Santi Vitale e Agricola, the oldest building in Bologna, housing a nativity scene with wooden figures that is thought to be the oldest in the world.
At the end of our portici-enthralled and medieval-town-hypnotized exploration, Bologna turned out to have a lot more to offer than just the famed rich tomato sauce ragù alla Bolognese :))Tags: Accursi, anatomico, Archiginnasio, Arengo, Asinelli, basilica, bologna, Bolognese, canale, cathedral, cattedrale, Dante, dotta, finestrella, fontana, fountain, Garisenda, ghetto, Gothic, holy, italy, Jerusalem, jewish, library, Maggiore, medieval, moline, Neptune, Nettuno, Orologio, palazzo, Petronio, piazza, piccola, Pietro, Podesta, portici, Prendiparte, Renaissance, rossa, Salaborsa, Sepulcher, stefano, torre, torri, turrita, Universita, university, venezia