The Etruscans called it Felsina, then it became Bona under the Celts and later Bononia under the Romans. By the middles ages, it had become Bologna. An important urban center of Northern Italy since ancient times, it experienced its golden age from the 11th  to the 16th  centuries.

Shaped by its Porticoes

A network of porticoes developed throughout the medieval city.

The center of Bologna owes its grid pattern layout to its Roman past, but it is its sprawling network of porticoes, some 38 kilometers (24 miles) of them in the city’s historic centre alone, that shaped its unique personality. The first ones date back to the 11th century when they were originally conceived to extend the surface area of the upper floors of private buildings over public land. 

The 19th century portico of the Banca d’Italia is decorated by ornamental painter Gaetano Lodi.

Over time, what had started as modest wooden projections gradually increased in size to the point of requiring support columns below to prevent them from collapsing. The practice grew  to meet the expanding need of commercial and artisanal activities generated by the influx of scholars and students at the prestigious University of Bologna. Thus creating the world-famous arcades that remain to this day favorite shopping and socializing spaces for locals and visitors, and an ideal pedestrian environment to explore the rich history of the city.

 

La Strada Maggiore

The Casa Isolani portico is considered the oldest in Europe.

Bologna’s growth began along the Strada Maggiore, a major axis of the city since Roman times. It is where the development of porticoes from the Middle Ages to the modern era can be best appreciated.  Among them the 13th  century portico of Casa Isolani, with oak beams nine meters (30 feet) in height buttressing the building’s third floor, is considered the most ancient existing medieval portico in Europe.

A wide arcade surrounds the Basilica of Santa Maria del Servi.

A mere five minute walk away, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Servi, a remarkable 14th century Italian Gothic masterpiece, opens onto a small piazza entirely surrounded by a rectangular portico. The arcade is closed on one side by the conventual buildings, but on two sides it is open to the street, and extends along the entire left side of the building. Where the arcade meets the facade, it forms a wide portico of five arches stretching across the front of the church.

A City of Towers

On the Piazza Maggiore, the clock tower of Palazzo d’Accursio.

In the 11th to 13th centuries, as the city was spreading along its porticoes, it was also bristling with towers, as rich families demonstrated their power by constructing their own defensive stone towers, all striving to be the tallest and most grand. Of the more than one hundred that shaped Bologna’s skyline at the time, only twenty two survive today. Located where Via Rizzoli reaches Strada Maggiore, two of them, the Asinelli and Garisenda towers, have become a striking symbol of the city.

The Asinelli and Garisenda Towers.

Dating back to the second half of the 11th century, the Asinelli Tower, the highest ever built in Bologna, still soars to its original 97 meters (318 feet). Next to it, the Garisenda is Bologna’s own leaning tower. Originally about 60 meters (196 feet) high, it started leaning almost upon completion in the early 12th century. It was subsequently cut down to its current 48 meters (158 feet) in 1358. Today the Garisenda, actually leans at a slightly steeper incline than the Tower of Pisa. For obvious reason, it cannot be visited, but the Asinelli can. The panoramic view from the top is said to be breathtaking.

San Petronio Basilica

The lower part of the facade of the San Petronio Basilica.

Another few minutes’ walk, and the shady arcade open onto the vast Piazza Maggiore, dominated by the San Petronio Basilica, dedicated to the patron saint of the city, Saint Petronius, who was Bishop of Bologna in the 5th century. Construction began in 1390 and continued for centuries, a source of ongoing disagreement between the local powers who wanted to make it bigger than Rome’s Saint Peter, and the Catholic Church that wouldn’t have it. In the end, at 132 meters (433 feet) long, 66 meters (216 feet) wide and with a vault reaching 45 meters (147 feet), it is the largest (Gothic or otherwise) church built of bricks of the world. 

The 16th century main altar baldacchino of San Petronio.

Its facade was never completed. The stately lower part is all rose and white marble, with steeples and ornate decorations over the gates by sculptor Jacopo della Quercia of Siena. Then, right above it, it’s just plain brown brick. The interior, however, is a soaring Gothic extravaganza. The main altar baldacchino is by the great 16th century architect Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, and twenty-two side chapels line the central nave. Over the centuries, the prominent families of Bologna rivaled to lavishly decorate theirs with masterpieces by the most thought-after artists of their time, from Gothic to Baroque to Rococo.

Archiginnasio of Bologna

The atrium of the Archiginnasio.

Just around the corner from the San Petronio Basilica, the Archiginnasio (University) Palace was built in 1562 at the behest of Pope Pius IV. Its purpose was to concentrate in a single space its various schools which, until that time, had been dispersed around the city since the university’s inception in 1088. Along the Via della Archiginnasio, the facade of the two-story palace consists of a thirty-arches portico, its main entrance leading to a central atrium surrounded by two levels of loggias. Two large staircases lead to the upper floor. Throughout the building, the history of the Archiginnasio is told by more than 7,000 coats of arms of former students and professors lining the staircases and hallways, making it the largest heraldic collection in the world.

The Anatomical Theatre

The Anatomical Theater at the Archiginnasio.

On the second floor, the Anatomical Theatre, built in 1637, is the amphitheater where medical school students learned human anatomy. The centre of the theatre features the white table upon which the dissection of human or animal bodies took place. The walls are decorated with statues of famous physician of ancient times. At the head of the room, two male figures, the “Spellati” (skinned) naked and skinless in order to show their muscles, flank the teacher’s chair.

The coffered ceiling of the Anatomical Theater.

Apollo and the signs of the Zodiac are represented in the coffered ceiling — According to contemporary astrological beliefs these symbols were considered connected with the rhythms of the human body.

 

 

 

 

The Archiginnasio Municipal Library

Rare books collection at the Archiginnasio Municipal Library

The building ended its university function in 1803. Starting in 1838, a major part of it was dedicated to housing the books collected after the closure of the religious orders. Today, the Archiginnasio library boasts some 850,000 volumes and pamphlets, 2,500 incunabula, 15,000 16th century editions, 8,500 manuscripts plus letters, collections of autographs, prints, drawings and archives. All of this important material, handwritten and printed trace the civil, cultural, religious and social history of Bologna  from the Middle Ages to the present.

Good to Know

 

  • Getting there — By Air: Bologna international airport supports scheduled flights from most major European cities. By train or road: Bologna is easily accessible from all other Italian major cities. High speed trains connect the center of the city to Rome, Florence, Milan or Venice in approximately two hours. There are also direct high speed train connections between Bologna and Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. The A1 highway efficiently connect the city with Florence and Milan.
  • Getting Around — The center of Bologna is best explored on foot, following its amazing network of porticoes.  To visit further afield, the city’s bus network is extensive and efficient.
  • Visiting —  The Asinelli Tower, Piazza di Porta, Ravegnana, Bologna, is open daily.  Closed on December 25th. Opening hours vary with the seasons. Consult their  Official Website  for exact times and advanced bookings (required). The Palazzo della Archiginnasio,  Piazza Galvani 1, Bologna, is open year-round, Monday to Saturday from 9.00 am to 7.00 pm, Sunday and holidays from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm. The Anatomical Theatre is open year-round, Monday to Friday from 10.00 am to 6:00 pm, Saturday from 10.00  to 7:00 pm, and Sunday and holidays from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm.

 

Location, location, location!

Bologna