Five things to see in Bologna

a day trip from Florence

For many years Bologna was a compulsory stop for me on the way to Florence. As there were no direct flights between Warsaw and Florence, often I had to stop in Bologna, before I could get to Tuscany.

Initially, I started to discover Bologna on my own and I fell in love with the city immediately, with the red curtains of its brick palaces, with the endless, 53 km-long porticoes, which protect the pedestrians from the rain, with Piazza Maggiore and the fountain of Neptune. Walking through the streets of Bologna in 2009 I still didn’t know that there was somebody else who travelled between Bologna and Florence even more often than me…

In 2012, when I was already living in Florence, I joined the choir of the University and this is where I met Alessandro. He was then finishing his PhD in Italian Literature and as we were both interested in Leon Battista Alberti and his work, so we started to chat. I soon discovered that Alessandro grew up in Bologna and as ours was a “love at first pizza”, after few months we started to travel between Florence and Bologna together.

A street with a portico in Bologna.

Discovering Bologna with somebody, who grew up between these walls, who studied at the world’s oldest University, who had his favourite trattorie and knew the secrets of the local gastronomic tradition, became priceless. Alessandro was my true private advisor! It’s been already eight years since I started to discover this city with him. Together we visited the museums and we discovered the artistic treasures hidden in the churches. We’ve tasted tigelle, mortadella, tortellini and cotoletta alla bolognese.

As it takes only 40 minutes to get to Bologna from Florence, and the city has so much to offer in terms of art, culture and food, I wanted to share with you some tips about what to see and what to do there. You can organize a day trip to Bologna from Florence, or stay in Bologna for two or three days, for a more in-depth experience. One thing is certain, it is worth discovering Bologna, its art, culture and food!  

Before we start discovering the city, let me tell you few words about the history of Bologna. The area of Bologna was inhabited already in the 9th century BC. The Etruscans established here the city of Felsina. Because of a gradual decay of the Etruscan civilisation, Felsina was first conquered by the Gauls and then, after the Roman victory over Cisalpine Gaul, the area fell under the domination of Rome. In 189 BC the Roman Senate voted in favour of the foundation of a Roman colony of Bononia. During the Middle Ages the city developed and became the seat of the first European University. The Studium of Bologna was established at the end of the 11th century. Medieval Bologna was one of the most politically active Italian communes. The monuments and the local museums tell the fascinating story of Bologna. Let us discover it together!

One: Piazza Maggiore

Palazzo del Podestà, Bologna
Palazzo del Podestà, Bologna, photo by Claudio Giuliani.

Piazza Maggiore is the heart of the city. The vast square is dominated by the most important public buildings, the centre of the civic government. In the middle of the square stands the majestic Palazzo del Podestà built around the year 1200. It was the seat of the local government and here resided the podestà, who retained the executive power in a medieval commune. Behind the Palace, there stands the Palazzo del Re Enzo, built between 1244 and 1246. Its construction was promoted by the podestà Filippo Ugoni, who decided to extend the government buildings. Initially, this new palace was called Paltium Novum, the New Palace, but later it took its name from the King Enzo of Sardegna, son of the Emperor Frederick II of Swabia. Enzo was taken prisoner during the battle of Fossalta, fought between the city of Bologna and the imperial troops. The conflict originated from the Emperor’s will to limit the freedom acquired by the Italian communes. First, after the battle, Enzo was kept prisoner in the Castle of Azzola dell’Emilia. Subsequently, he was transferred to Bologna, where he remained imprisoned for twenty-two years, from 1249 until his death in 1272. For Enzo’s father, Frederick, this imprisonment was truly humiliating.

Two: San Petronio

San Petronio, Bologna
San Petronio, Bologna.

In front of Palazzo del Podestà stands the majestic San Petronio Basilica, dedicated to the patron saint of the city. The construction of the church began in 1390 following the will of the civic community. San Petronio did not become the new Cathedral of Bologna, but it expressed civic freedom and independence of the city. Built in various phases, according to the projects by Antonio di Vincenzo and Arduino degli Arriguzzi, San Petronio impresses us with its size and grandeur. The construction of the church has never been finished, and according to the initial projects the Basilica was supposed to be even bigger than today. Nowadays San Petronio is one of the biggest churches in Italy. It’s 132 meters long and 60 meters wide.

The facade is finished only until the level of the majestic portals. The central one was decorated by Jacopo della Quercia, an artist from Siena and a brilliant interpreter of the International Gothic Style. Jacopo is the author of the group of sculptures located in the lunette, above the door, representing the Virgin with the Child, Saint Petronius and Saint Ambrose. The side decoration of the portal, instead, includes the scenes from the Old and the New Testament. The figures sculpted by Jacopo are slim and slender, characterized by the Gothic decorative taste. At the same time, however, we witness in them the artist’s interest in a correct representation of human anatomy, psychological investigation of his figures resulting in an interesting visualization of human emotions.

Jacopo della Quercia, Adamo e Eva cacciati dal Paradiso
Jacopo della Quercia, Expulsion from the Paradise, marble relief, ca. 1425, Porta Magna, San Petronio, Bologna, photo by Paolo Monti.

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In 1508 the façade of San Petronio Basilica was decorated with a bronze statue of the Pope Julius II made by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Why a statue of a Pope in Bologna? After the communal age, during the fifteenth century, Bologna was governed by the Bentivoglio family. In 1506 the rulers were exiled and Bologna was annexed to the Papal State. The statue of the Pope put on the façade of the civic Basilica in Bologna was underlining the new papal domination over the civic freedom. Unfortunately, this unique work of art was destroyed in 1511 when Bentivoglio tried to return to the city. Their attempt has failed but Michelangelo’s masterpiece fell victim of the riots. The rests of the statue were sold to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, who used this bronze to cast a culverin, a sort of hand bombard, called “Giulia” after the Pope Julius.

Once you enter the Basilica, you will be impressed by its majestic space. Inside, don’t miss the forth chapel of the left nave, the Chapel of the Magi, frescoed by Giovanni da Modena with the scenes from Saint Petronius’ life, Stories of the Magi, Last Judgment, Paradise and Hell. In the scene representing Hell, the artist, who was strongly inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, represented Lucifer and the prophet Mahomet tortured by the demons. For this reason, the fresco and the Basilica received multiple threats from the Muslim extremists.  

Giovanni da Modena, Inferno
Giovanni da Modena, Inferno, fresco painting, ca. 1410, Magi Chapel, San Petronio, Bologna.

On the floor of the church you can see the sundials, in Italian called meridiana. The first horologe of this kind was created in San Petronio by Egnazio Danti between 1575 an 1576. Danti was a Dominican scientist who worked for several years in Florence. He was the one who applied an armillary sphere and a sundial to the façade of Santa Maria Novella Basilica in Florence. His sundial in San Petronio was substituted in 1655 by the one designed by Giovanni Domenico Cassini. It is 66,8 meters long, which makes of it the longest sundial in the world.

Three:  Piazza del Nettuno  

Piazza del Nettuno, Bologna
Tommaso Laureti and Giambologna, Fountain of Neptune, Bologna.

Next to Piazza Maggiore you will find a smaller Piazza del Nettuno, named after the Fountain of Neptune, which dominates this space. The fountain was commissioned by Pier Donato Cesi, Pope’s Vice Legate, and its construction was a part of an urbanistic renovation of Bologna promoted by the Pope Pius IV few years after the conclusion of the Council of Trent. In the same period Vignola designed the Portico dei Banchi, which closes the East wing of Piazza Maggiore, and the Archiginnasio, ancient seat of the University, which in 1563 moved to a new palace designed by Antonio Morandi. The design for the fountain of Neptune is a fruit of a collaboration between the architect Tommaso Laureti and the sculptor Giambologna. Jean de Boulogne, called Giambologna, was the favourite sculptor of the Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany. He designed the figure of the Neptune full of dynamism and the partial rotation of god’s body introduces the elements of Mannerism, art aimed at producing marvel and surprise.

Four: Pinacoteca Nazionale

The National Pinacoteca in Bologna is one of the most important museums in the city displaying a vast and rich collection of Bolognese painting dating from the 13th until the 18th centuries. If you want to discover the local history of art, this is the place for you! In the first part of the gallery, you can admire the medieval paintings created between the 13th and the 14th centuries. You will learn about the influence of the gothic style on the local art, and about the heritage of Giotto’s painting on the school of Bologna. In the following rooms you will admire the art from the age of the Renaissance. Don’t miss the highlights of this collection represented by the Virgin with the Child and the Saints by Perugino and the Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia by Raphael and his workshop.

Raffaello, Estasi di Santa Cecilia
Raphael and his workshop, Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia, 1515-1516, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna.

The central part of the collection, however, is dedicated to the late sixteenth-century painting and the age of the Counterreformation, the Carracci dynasty and Guido Reni’s artistic production. The Carracci was a Bolognese family, whose three members became famous painters, Ludovico (1555-1619), Annibale (1560-1609) and Agostino (1557-1602). Their art, inspired by the great sixteenth-century masters, such as Titian, Veronese and Correggio, became a perfect interpretation of a new devotional spirit introduced by the Counterreformation. In the room you can admire Agostino’s Carracci Assumption of the Virgin, painted between 1592 and 1593 for the church of San Salvatore. The composition is strongly inspired by Titian’s Assumption for the Frari Basilica in Venice. We can see this influence in the colour composition of the apostles’ vests dominated by the reds and the greens, in their strong emotional reaction, underlined also by the lights and the colours, exalted gestures and facial expressions. At the same time, the painting underlines a new devotional attitude. Saint John, kneeling in the foreground, holds his hand folded in prayer. The Virgin is received in the heavens and surrounded by “an explosion” of clouds. All the gestures are full of theatricality and exaltation. In fact, the art of Counterreformation, had to attract the believers and it talked to simple people gathered in the churches. Therefore, it tried to “amaze” the viewers and give them an example of devotional and religious attitude.

Agostino Carracci, Assunzione della Vergine
Agostino Carracci, Assumption of the Virgin, 1592-1593, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna.

Another great protagonist of the Bolognese painting was Guido Reni (1575-1642). Guido was formed in Bologna as a member of the Accademia dei Desiderosi established by the Carracci. At the beginning of the seventeenth century he worked in Rome where he had a chance to compete with Caravaggio. In his art Reni united the idealism of Raphael’s style with the new tendencies towards a greater realism introduced by Caravaggio. His aim was to represent beauty and harmony starting from a careful study of the nature. In the Pinacoteca you can admire Reni’s Female portrait, representing probably the artist’s mother, and his Slaughter of the Innocents painted in 1611 for the chapel of the Berò family in Saint Dominic church in Bologna. In the Slaughter of the Innocents we are touched by the way Reni unites the dramatic and cruel action with the geometrical balance of the composition. The events are frozen in a moment, the protagonists seem cold and detached and the dead bodies of the babies in the foreground resemble marble sculptures more than human flesh.

Guido Reni, Strage degli Innocenti
Guido Reni, Slaughter of the Innocents, 1611, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna.

Five: The Mourning over Dead Christ by Niccolò dell’Arca  

One of the most interesting artistic treasures hidden in Bologna is the group of sculptures dating back to the late fifteenth century representing the Mourning over Dead Christ. It was executed by Niccolò dell’Arca and it’s kept in the church of Santa Maria della Vita. This work in polychrome terracotta testifies late medieval devotion focused on the cult of Christ’s Passion.

Compianto sul Cristo morto, Niccolò dell'Arca
Niccolò dell’Arca, Mourning over Dead Christ, terracotta statues, late 15th century, Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna.

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This group of sculptures is composed of seven figures. At the centre we see the dead body of Christ deposed on a dead bed. Around him there is Nicodemus, who took Christ’s body down from the Cross, Mary Salome, the Virgin Mary, Saint John, Mary of Clopas and Mary Magdalen. When we observe these figures from left to right, we assist to a crescendo of emotions, movement and despair. Our glance moves from the static pose of Nicodemus, towards the figure of the Virgin Mary, who with her hands folded on her chest, tries to face the pain of her loss. Then we see Mary of Clopas who, filled with horror, tries to cover with her hands this terrible spectacle. The last figure is Mary Magdalen. She is running towards Christ and shouting from despair. Her dress is moved by an invisible wind, which underlines the drama of her movement. This touching sculptural group manifests the influence of Cosmé Tura from Ferrara and of Donatello from Florence on Niccolò dell’Arca’s style. It is an example of late medieval realism strongly related to the tradition of religious drama and devotional feasts, which often included the moments of re-enactment of the Biblical stories.

Niccolò dell'Arca, Compiano sul Cristo Morto
Mary Magdalene’s face expression expresses horror and despair.
Niccolò dell’Arca, Mourning over Dead Christ, terracotta statues, late 15th century, Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna.

Besides its rich artistic heritage, Bologna is one of the gastronomic capitals of Italy. During your stay in the city you have to try some of the local specialities and visit the famous food stores, like Tamburini in via Caprarie. Bologna is the capital of fresh pasta! You cannot miss the tortellini served in broth or the lasagne with ragù. Moreover, a good way to try the local cold cuts, like mortadella, is to try the tigelle, little breads served filled in with cheese and ham. For the second course you can order the famous Bolognese cotoletta, veal cutlet fried in butter or lard, covered with a slice of Parma ham and Parmigiano cheese. The local cuisine isn’t maybe light and healthy, but you can think about the diet back at home!

The Bolognese gold – the tortellini.

Remember to taste Bologna slowly!

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