Bologna serves up fascinating history, inspiring architecture, an ancient University and amazing food.
Archeological remains of the Villanovan culture indicate that the area around Bologna has been inhabited since the 10th century BCE. Early Etruscan settlements date from the 7th and 6th centuries BCE when the city was known as Felsina. Felsina became the capital city of the Etruscan territories. The Etruscans called themselves Rasenna, which was shortened to Raśna; the Greeks called them Tyrrhenians and the ancient Romans called them Etruscans after the country they once inhabited, called Etruria. On a side note, the Etruscan language is still only partially understood. Unfortunately there are no surviving Etruscan historical texts so our minimal understanding of their society and culture is dependent on much later and generally disapproving Roman and Greek writings.
In the 4th century BCE, the city was invaded and occupied by the Boii Gauls, a Celtic people from France who renamed the city Bononia. By the 3rd century, the Romans had conquered the city and for the next 800 years Bologna grew into a dominant Roman city. All was lost however, when the Roman empire disintegrated in the 5th century CE.
By the 11th century the city had rebounded. It was prosperous and prominent, and although less than 20 remain today, it has been estimated that by the 12th century Bologna had more than 180 towers. Most towers were constructed strictly for the purpose of showing off the wealth of the family building it. Two ancient leaning towers, Asinelli and Garisenda dominate both the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana as well as the skyline of Bologna. Each was built between 1109 and 1119. Originally both were built to a height of 197-230 feet tall (60-70 m). But when Garisenda Torre began to lean by 10.5 feet (3.2 m) in the 14th century, the tower was lowered to its current height of 157.5 feet (48 m) tall. The dramatic lean is as intimidating today as it must have been during Dante Alighieri’s lifetime (1265-1321) because he mentions it in his infamous poem, Inferno. Alternatively Asinelli Torre was heightened to its current 318 feet (97 m) and inside there are 498 ancient wooden stairs if you feel motivated to climb Asinelli to catch the views of Bologna.
History states that Bologna reached the height of its prestige in the 13th century and that it was one of the most populated centers in Europe in the middle ages. Important side note: in 1256, Bologna was the first European city to abolish serfdom.
The city became a major economic center of Europe not only due to the foundation of the University, but also because of the development of its cloth industry. Water canals existed in Bologna since Roman times, and by the 12th century, nearly 40 miles (60km) were being used to suport the increasing number of water wheels, spinning plants, textile and saw mills. The complex canal system was considered one of the most advanced waterway systems in Europe. Bologna was a pioneer in sericulture or silk farming, silk textile manufacturing and mulberry tree cultivation – the chief source of food for the silkworms.
(The canals remain in Bologna but it was decided in the 1950’s to bury the canals beneath asphalt streets to make it more convenient to move around the city.)
Palazzo Pepoli – Museo della Storia di Bologna
The History Museum of Bologna, opened in 2012 in the Palazzo Pepoli Vecchio, a Medieval Gothic-style palace. The museum invites visitors on a 2500 year journey of history and culture from the Etruscan city of Felsina to the modern day Bologna. The museum has a large permanent exhibition, located in 35 main rooms. Unfortunately many were closed during our visit.
We did however discover a wing of the Museum entirely dedicated to Bologna Mortadella. Mortadella is a cooked sausage – deli meat – made with pork, is cylindrical or oval in shape and is pink with a slightly spicy aroma. In Bologna, the name “Mortadella Bologna” was adopted in 1998 to identify the preparation recognized as a protected geographical indication (PGI) in Europe and to distinguish it from other mortadella products that do not have as strict guidelines as have developed in Bologna.
In the 14th century mortadella was mentioned in a cookbook but it was a book written in 1644 where a recipe referring to mortadella with both the preparation of the pork and the quantity and type of spices – salt, cinnamon, carnation, nutmeg, musk, peppercorns, sugar and Malvasia wine – was found.
Bologna sausage is a finely ground pork sausage similar to mortadella. Typical seasoning for bologna includes black pepper, nutmeg, allspice, celery seed, coriander and myrtle berries give it its distinctive flavor. Other common names found around the world for Bologna sausage are baloney, parizer, polony, devon and fritz.
As a tribute to the city of Bologna, in 2016 Linus Games created a board game called “Il Trono di Mortadella”. Ever played it?
Archiginnasio Library Museum
Archiginnasio Palace was designed by a Bolognese architect Antonio Morandi known as il Terribilia, and it built between 1562–63. It was the home to the University of Bologna until 1803.
Founded in 1088, Alma Mater Studiorum – Università di Bologna is the oldest university in continuous operation in the world and the term “universitas” was coined here. Alumni include various Cardinals and Archbishops, including Thomas Becket; at least 4 Popes; Italian playwright, Carlo Goldoni; writers and philosopher’s Dante Alighieri and Umberto Eco; Enzo Ferrari, race driver, engineer and the entrepreneur who started Ferrari; Guglielmo Marconi, Italian inventor and radio pioneer; Nicolaus Copernicus and Laura Bassi, (1711-1778) Italian physicist and academic. Bassi was the first woman to earn a Doctorate in Science and the 2nd woman in the world to earn her Doctor of Philosophy degree. Working at the University of Bologna, she was the first salaried female teacher in a university and at one point, the highest paid employee of the university. She was also the first female member of any scientific establishment, when she was elected to the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of Bologna in 1732 at age 21.
The Communal Library and historic Anatomical Theater moved into the Archiginnasio Palace in 1838. The walls, ceilings and courtyard are embellished with rich heraldic decorations, inscriptions and monuments celebrating the professors and coats of arms of the students’ families along with the country they came from.
Inside highlights include the richly decorated Stabat Mater room lined with bookcases filled with historical treasures. The library holds 800,000 books and booklets, among which are 2,500 incunabula (printed before 1501) and nearly 15,000 16th-century books. The Archiginnasio has become a valuable research library.
The Anatomical Theater of the Archiginnasio, built in 1636-38, was used for anatomy lectures at the medical school of the University of Bologna. There is a figure of Apollo, the god of Medicine, carved on the wooden ceiling and carved wooden statues decorate the theater walls representing famous physicians Hippocrates and Galenus as well as local physician, surgeon and professor Mondino de Luzzi (1270-1326) and Gasparo Tagliacozzi (1545-1599) a surgeon and pioneer of plastic and reconstructive surgery. Two famous anatomical wax statues called the “Spellati” (skinned) overlook the teacher’s chair and in the center of the theater is the white table on which dissections took place.
Museo Internazionale e Biblioteca della Musica
The second library we visited was the International Museum and Library of Music, founded in 1959. This combo museum-library is located in the historic and magnificently frescoed 18th century Palazzo Aldini Sanguinetti.
The first floor of the Palazzo has 9 rooms filled with exhibits representing 6 centuries of European music history. On display are more than a hundred paintings of famous people from the music world, a generous selection of ancient books, letters, musical scores and documents as well as a unique and beautiful selection of musical instruments. The original collection of musical instruments belonged to the Franciscan Friar, Giovanni Battista Martini (1706-1784), a music scholar, teacher and collector, who counted Johann Christian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as his students.
Some of the more intriguing antique musical instruments were the lutes, horns, oboes, various small violins, ghironda (hurdy-gurdy), a few serpentone or serpents (a snake-like shaped wind instrument), cornets (similar to a trumpet), a theorba and citole, both interestingly shaped string instruments. A rare instrument that would have been awesome to hear was a 5-reed flute, which is able to mimic several flutes playing in harmony. There were a handful of lovely old pianos and grand pianos, a rare and valuable harpsichord from 1606 and this visually distinctive Buccin (trombone) with a serpent’s head, popularized in military bands in France between 1812 and 1845.
Museum of San Columbo – Tagliavini Collection
San Colombano is a large complex of buildings that includes an ancient Church built in 616 CE, which provides a beautiful environment, with its original frescos and paintings, for the second collection of ancient musical instruments we discovered in Bologna. The magnificent blue piano with the scene painted on it at the top of this writing we found there.
This wonderful collection of ancient musical instruments was donated by Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini (1929-2017), a Bolognese organist, harpsichordist, musicologist and composer. There are more than ninety instruments and almost all are in working order. We saw clavichords, harpsichords, organs, harpsichords, spinets and pianos. We saw keyboards using various combinations of white, black and wooden natural keys and sharp and flat keys.
There is also a library which houses thousands of valuable repertoires and general works on music, texts on organ art, vinyl records, cassettes and CD’s as well as magazines, periodicals and concert programs.
Fontana di Nettuno
In Piazza del Nettuno we came across a large fountain with a stately statue of Neptune, holding his infamous trident, posing at the top. The fountain, built in the 16th century, may have been built to honor the newest pope but we learned that Neptune’s trident was also the inspiration used to design the symbol for Maserati cars. The fascinating history of Maserati cars began in Bologna in 1914 by three of the six Maserati brothers.
This charming medieval city may not be a regular stop for many visitors, but it has much to offer and is worth a detour.
Saluti from these bolognesi,
Ted + Julia
View our Archiginnasio Library Museum photo album here
View our Museum and Library of Music photo album here
View our Museum of San Colombano photo album here
View our Museum of the History of Bologna photo album here