Bologna: La Dotta, La Grassa e La Rossa

Bologna has long been considered a unique city, set apart for its university, its cuisine and its politics. It is the capitol of its province and the capital of the Emigli-Romagna region with a population of 374,425. Located in the Pianna Padana, the plain between the Po River and the Apennine Mountain range, it is centrally located in Italy and easily accessible by plane or train from almost anywhere. In fact, Bologna’s train station is the largest hub in Italy. Nearby, of special interest, are Modena, Parma, Ferrara, and Ravenna. Bologna is also an easy trip from Florence, Milan and Venice.

This antique city has acted independently and often progressively for centuries, often going against the fashion of the times. While it began as a Villanovan settlement of shepherds and farmers, it was taken over by the Etruscans around 534 BC. After this it was overrun by the Boii, a Gallic tribe, in the 4th century BC, to then become a Roman colony in c. 189 BC, dubbed, “Bononia,” from which it now takes its name Bologna. In the 5th century it was ruled by Bishop Petronius, Bologna’s patron saint, after which Bologna was taken over by various nearby powers throughout the centuries, including the Lombards, Modena, and the Pope in Rome. Despite all this or perhaps because of it, Bologna developed a strong free will. It declared itself a free commune in the 11th century and opened the first university in Europe in 1088, initially founded to study law and Justinian’s codes. What was even more radical was that it allowed women to study there and earn degrees, then go on to practice professions, all as early as the 15th century. Dante, Boccacio, and Petrarca are only some of the famous alumni to have graced this university. For all this, the city has long been dubbed, “La Dotta,” the learned. In 1256 the city established the Legge del Paradiso, translated the laws of paradise, which abolished feudal serfdom and used public money to free slaves, an unheard of policy at the time.

La Grassa,” refers to Bologna’s famous cuisine, one of the richest in all of Italy. The Bolognese love to use rich sauces, pork and cheeses. It is the home of pasta dishes such as lasagna al forno, tagliatelli, and the stuffed tortellini, said to be shaped like Venus’s navel, filled with meat and cheese. Its meat sauce ragù alla Bolognese is made of a rich combination of meats and vegetables and has been adopted throughout the world. It is also home to mortadella, the large pork sausage dotted with pepper and sometimes pistachios which is sliced thinly for sandwiches, not to mention the endless possibilities of sweets.

La Rossa,” refers both to the red brick that is used throughout the city in its architecture and the left wing politics that Bologna has tended towards since it took the lead in the Italian Socialist movement back in the 19th century. Although a wealthy and well educated population, the political left had held on to control of local politics until 1998. Thanks to this left, historical conservation has kept Bologna’s old center one of the best preserved in Italy and well worth seeing. To get around town there is a well run local bus system, but most of the historic center is easily seen on foot. Renting a bicycle is also a fun option.

Main Attractions

Piazza Maggiore

This is Bologna’s main Piazza, and just before you enter it is Piazza Nettuno with the 16th century Fountain of Neptune by Tommaso Laureti. As you pass between the two squares, you find the Palazzo del Re Enzo. Built in 1244, this was where the son of Frederick II of Swabia, Enzo, was kept imprisoned after being captured at the Battle of Fossalta in 1249 until his death in 1272. Custom at the time was to ransom captives, but true to their contrary nature, the Bolognese refused to let him go. The lower level of the palace was designed to store the city’s war machines and the building was actually intended as an extension of the Palazzo del Podestá, where local authorities would stay during then Middle Ages. While the Palazzo del Podestà was begun in 1212, the façade was done by Aristotle Fioravanti from 1484-1494. It was commissioned by Giovanni Bentivoglio II, local ruler at the time. Of note is the wide porch with the arched cross called the “Voltone della Podestá.” Also notice the bell tower called the Arengo Tower which was built in 1221 with a bell added in 1453 which weighs 4,900 kg. The bell is still rung during city ceremonies and festivals, marking the importance of the event. The Piazza Maggiore itself has long been of great importance to the city, once hosting jousts, festivals, and palio, or horse races like the ones still seen in Siena and Ferrara today. Even now the piazza is a regular meeting place for locals and often still hosts concerts, parties and debates.

Basilica di S. Petronio

This church, dedicated to Bologna’s patron saint, is the 5th largest Catholic structure in the world and was only limited in its size by a direct order from Pope Pius IV in 1565 to halt work on it because it threatened to outgrow St. Peter’s in Rome itself. In fact, one will see that they were not even permitted to finish the façade on the front of the church. Construction was begun in 1390 and continued through the 16th century. The main portals, the Porta Magna, which feature a scriptural cycle of stories from both the old and new testaments, were made by Jacopo della Quercia from 1425-1438. The wooden choir by Agostino de Marchi was made in the 15th century but the vault and apse were not completed until much later in the 17th century. Of note is also the sundial by Gian Domenico Cassini.

The church is of historical interest as well. It was here that Charles V was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1530, a demonstration of his political clout as he forced Pope Clement VII to come to him in Bologna rather than going to be crowned in Rome, as was the custom since the time of Charlemagne. It is rumored that it was in this church that Martin Luther, sickened by the Papal hypocrisy, had his conversion which led to the Reformation, and within these walls are the remains of Elisa Bonaparte, sister of Napoleon. Over all, the Basilica di S. Petronio is of much greater importance to the Bolognese than the nearby Cattedrale di S. Pietro, the 10th century cathedral.

Palazzo Comunale

This town hall is a combination of the older Casa d’Accursio, built in 1287, and the later addition by Firoravante Fioravanti, begun in 1425. The oldest part of the structure is the clock tower which dates back to the 12th century. Over the door is a statue of Pope Gregory XIII who invented the Gregorian calendar and was a native of Bologna. Within one finds the Collezione Comunale d’Arte, the city art museum, which features artists from Bologna but includes works by Canova, Gentileschi and Tintoretto, but also has a collection of glass, majolica, silverware and miniatures.

On the other side of the Casa d’Accursio is the Museo Morandi, a museum dedicated to the local artist Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). He was considered one of the best painters of the 20th century and this collection features paintings by him but also has etches and his drawings. There is even a room in the museum that has been reconstructed as Morandi’s workshop would have been, with his books and a small collection of ancient art.

Le Due Torri

Like in many Italian Medieval cities, the wealthy families of Bologna would build tall towers to hide in and fight from during the continual political struggles that took place. The taller the family’s tower, the more important the family appeared. At one point, there were hundreds of these towers throughout Bologna, so many that the city was dubbed, “the city of towers.” In Piazza Porta Ravegnana one finds two of the remaining towers, both built in beginning of the 12th century. The Torre degli Asinelli stands 98 meters (318 feet) high and has an inclination of 2.3 meters. Next to it stands the Torre Garisenda which was once taller, but it leaned so far to the side that it was considered a threat to public safety so in 1360 it was lopped off to its current height, which is about 48 meters (157 feet). It still leans 3.2 meters off. If one is willing to climb the 80 steps to the top of the Torre degli Asinelli, they will be rewarded with a marvelous view of the city.

Basilica di Santo Stefano

This Basilica is made up of a collection of seven different structures, with the oldest, a church, SS. Vitale e Agricola, built in the 5th century and made up of bits of Roman ruins. The monastery of Santo Stefano was founded by S. Petronius himself, and was meant to reproduce the seven holy sites of Jerusalem. The ensemble is made up of four churches, a cloister and two chapels. The largest church in the structure is the Crocifisso, which was begun in the 11th century. The convent was used by the Benedictine monks.

Museo Civico Archeologico

This is one of Italy’s most important archeological museums. It includes articles found locally that date back to when the Italic Villanovan tribe lived in Bologna during the iron-age. There are also objects from its Etruscan period, which include some wonderful Greek vases that the Etruscans would have gotten through their extensive trading with the Greeks. There are some objects from the Gallic period, and of course, there are many Roman articles on display and even an Egyptian collection.



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