Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Real Italy: Bologna

Bologna lies at the southermost end of the Padana Plain. It is an important industrial, agricultural and trade center and a key road and rail intersection. Bologna is a beautiful city, rich in history and culture. For instance, its university is the oldest in the western world. But the past here mingles with the present, thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of its people.

It is lovely to stroll under the porticoes that wind for about 40 km around the city center! In the norther part of the city there is a new international exhibition center planned by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange.

Altitude: 54 m
Nearest airport: BOLOGNA Borgo Panigale
Train connections: easily accessible from MILANO, FIRENZE, TORINO and ROMA
Zip code: 40100
Telephone: dial +39.51 before the number you want to call

Bologna was an Etruscan town originally called Felsina. In 189 BC it became a Roman colony with the name of Bononia and started to grow in importance until it became an imperial town. It was damaged by fire under Claudius, then rebuilt and enlarged under Nero, with the addition of some new public buildings. After a period of decadence it acquired new glory under bishop Petronio, who then became patron saint of the city. From the 11th century Bologna experienced heavy economic and urban growth. It was part of the Lega Lombarda under Federico Barbarossa. It is believed the university was built here in 1088, the first in Europe. Dante Alighieri, Petrarca and Boccaccio all were students here. In the 13th century Bologna was at its height thanks to its academic prestige. Later it was ruled by the Viscontis and the Bentivoglios. From 1506 till the end of the 18th century it was under papal rule. Between the 16th and 18th century Bologna acquired its present appearance.

During the Napoleonic period the city became the capital of the Repubblica Cispadana and flourished in the cultural, political and economic fields. For the next 45 years, while papal power was being restored, it played a leading role in the Risorgimento, the Italian movement for independence and unification. Finally, in 1859 the city voted to be annexed to Piedmont and be part of united Italy.

Piazza Maggiore

As soon as you get to Piazza Maggiore, the heart of the city, you'll come across the Fontana del Nettuno, one of the symbols of Bologna. This beautiful fountain, dedicated to the sea god, is the work of Giambologna and was built between 1564 and 1566. The brass sirens and putti at the base were made designed by Tommaso Laureti. To the right you'll see Palazzo del Comune (town hall) built in the 13th and 14th centuries and its bell tower (1444) with a magnificent carillon clock. Three important works of art are on the fa硤e of the palace: the Madonna di Piazza by Nicol򠤥ll'Arca, the statue of Pope Gregory XIII and an eagle attributed to Michelagelo. Inside the building is marvellous and so are its treasures, such as the Museo Morandi.

The square is dominated by the Church of San Petronio. It was built by the Free Comune. The church was meant to be bigger than St Peter in Rome, but the money ran out and the building remained unfinished. The first foundation stone was laid in 1390 as planned by Antonio di Vincenzo. The church was built over several centuries. The semicircular apse was completed only towards the middle of the 17th century. The massive side walls were built with the recycled materials from the nearby demolished buildings. The base of the facade, which contrasts with the unfinished upper part, is characterized by elegant mouldings made of red Veronese marble and Istrian stone.

The middle portal was ordered to Jacopo della Quercia in 1428. When the artist died ten years later it had not yet been completed. The reliefs on it, the Old Testament on the pillars, the New Testament on the architrave and the Madonna della Lunetta, are to be considered as outstanding examples of the sculpture of the Quattrocento. The inside is gothic, with a nave and two aisles divided by 10 brickwork pillars supporting ogival arches. The aisles have 11 chapels each with polychrome window glasses. In the chapels, full of works of art, are the tombs of some of the most famous citizens of Bologna. On the main altar is a monumaental tribune designed by Jacopo Barozzi, known as the Vignola. The sundial on the floor is also worth seeing. The campanile (bell tower) dates back to the 15th century. It stands on the external walls of the last chapel on the right-hand side. To the east of the square, opposite the church, stands Palazzo di Re Enzo (King Enzo's Palace), built between 1244 and 1246. It was here that king Enzo, Frederick II's son, defeated at the battle of Parma in 1248, was kept prisoner from 1249 till his death in 1272.

On the other side of the square you'll see the Pavaglione, a mass of building whose porticoes are a meeting point for the Bolognesi. It is made of two buildings planned by Terribilia: the Palazzo dell'Ospedale della Morte (Palace of the Death Hospital) of the 16th century and the Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio, built between 1562 and 1563. The former is the seat of the Museo Civico Archeologico, which contains Palaeozoic, Etruscan and Roman finds, and of the Museo Civico Medievale e del Risorgimento.

The Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio instead is the seat of the Biblioteca Comunale with its 700,000 books, rare manuscripts and codexes. It is the most important public library in Italy. It was the first seat of the University of Bologna in the 16th century. The walls inside are covered with the polychrome coats of arms of the Italian and foreign students that attended the university. You can't miss the Teatro Anatomico (Anatomy Theater) (1638-49), whose walls are covered with wood panels, statues of famous ancient doctors and figures by Ercole Lelli (1753).

Beyond these splendid buildings you'll find a maze of alleys always full of people looking for the typical products of Bolognese cuisine. You can't miss this area just a few yards away from the marvellous Piazza Maggiore.

The Towers and Strada Maggiore

At a short distance from Piazza Maggiore you'll find the Towers, symbols of Bologna. The Torre degli Asinelli, which belonged to an important local family, was built at the beginning of the 12th century. It is the taller of the two towers being about 98 m. It is open to the public and if you want, you can climb to the top but, be warned, you'll have to climb 498 steps. The Torre della Garisenda dates back to the 11th century. It was lowered around 1360 for fear it would collapse. Not far away you'll see the Piazza della Mercanzia, famous for its outstanfing Loggia dei Mercanti. This is a gothic stone building built by Antonio di Vincenzo between 1384 and 1391. Several old buildings with wooden porticoes look onto the square.

Leaving the towers behind and walking down the porticoes of Strada Maggiore you'll get to Palazzo Davia Bargellini, planned around 1638. Its balcony is supported by two huge stone figures. Inside there is an impressive staircase dating back to the 18th century, the Museo d'Arte Industriale (Industrial Art Museum) and the Galleria Davia Bargellini. Here you'll find 4,500 pieces of local 15th to 18th century local craft, especially Renaissance and Baroque furniture.

Santa Maria dei Servi

Opposite Palazzo Davia Bargellini is the portico of the Church of Santa Maria dei Servi. It was built in the 14th century, with four sides and a central square in front of the church. Thin columns and terracotta decorations distinguish the portico. The church was planned like a basilica and built in 1346. It was later extended in the 15th century. Brick pillars support Gothic vaults. A Madonna by Cimabue is worth seeing.

Santo Stefano

If you walk down Via Santo Stefano, you'll get to the square of the same name lined with porticoes. There are seven churches here all built on the site of an old pagan temple dedicated to the goddess Isis, which make up the Olivetan Benidictine Monastery. The different buildings stand for the sites of Passion of Christ. These buildings were made in the 11th and 13th centuries recycling old materials, partly Roman and Byzantine. Besides the Chiesa del Santissimo Crocefisso, with its 1019 crypt and inscription dedicated to the Roman goddess Isis, there is the Chiesa del Calvario, centrally planned, containing a 13th-century copy of the Holy Sepulchre where the relics of Saint Petronius, patron of Bologna.

The other important buildings are: the Chiesa dei Santi Vitale e Agricola, planned like a basilica, which contains two engraved sarcophagi with the reliquies of two 4th century martyrs from Bologna and the Chiesa della Trinitࠨ13th century). Inside there is also the Cortile di Pilato (13th century) and the Cloister with its loggia on two floors, a typical feature of Romanesque art in Emilia.

San Francesco and San Domenico

Another important religious building is the Basilica di San Francesco, the earliest example of French-Gothic style in Italy. It was built between 1236 and 1254. This building is striking for its vertical rise, the slenderness of its apse and its impressive flying-buttresses. Inside you can admire the splendid marble high altar piece, sculpted between 1388 and 1393 by Jacobello and Pier Paolo Dalle Masegne, besides the Alexander V's terracotta tomb made by Sperandio. Going out of the church, you'll see two campanili: the smaller one dates back to 1260, while the taller one, an example of truly refined art, was built in the early Quattrocento (15th century). Outside, behind the apse, you'll see some pyramid-shaped marble mausoleums dating back to the 13th century.

Piazza San Domenico is cobbled and dominated by two tall columns of the Settecento on top of which are the statues of Saint Dominic and Our Lady of the Rosary. Here also stands the Church of San Domenico, where the Dominican Order was born and where the saint's remains are kept. The church was begun soon after the saint's death in 1221. On one side of its Romanesque fa硤e is the reanissance Cappella Ghisilardi, planned by Baldassarre Peruzzi. Inside the church was restored between 1728 and 1732 by Carlo Francesco Dotti. You'll see some important works by Nicol򠐩sano, Nicol򠤡 Bari, Michelangelo, Guercino, and Guido Reni. The wooden choir is an outstanding example of Renaissance carving. It was made by Frࠄamiano da Bergamo (1528-40).

The convent next door is also worth visiting for its cloisters (14th, 15th and 16th centuries) and library, planned like a basilica, which dates back to 1466. Not too far away is the Oratory of the Holy Spirit built in the 15th century. It is a small building which stand out for its precious fa硤e decorated with terracotta figures and reliefs in shades of warm colors.

The Porticoes

Anyone visiting Bologna, wherever they may come from, will notice that almost every street here is lined with porticoes. Bologna in fact holds the record for having about 40 km of porticoes winding around each are of the city. In the oldest part you'll be able to see Medieval wooden porticoes or marvellous arches from the Cinquecento or Seicento (16th or 17th century). It is lovely to walk around Bologna under the porticoes and look at the windows of old shops or market stalls especially behind Piazza Maggiore.

From Bologna you can easily walk to the Church of Madonna di San Luca on Colle della Guardia (291 mt). Starting from Porta Saragozza you can get to the church following a portico about 3.6 km long, with 666 arches alternating with 15 chapels. This long open gallery, mostly uphill, is the longest in the world. It was built from 1674 to 1739 thanks to private donations in order to shorten up the way form the city to the church.

Every May over the past thousand years the statue of the Virging Mary has been carried down to bless the city and taken back in procession after a week on Ascension Day following the porticoe. The Greek-cross plan Church of Madonna di San Luca was built in 1723-57 by C.F. Dotti. Inside you can see a very old Byzantine icon, traditionally attributed to evangelist Luke. The original church was restored and extended many times over the years.

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