Home to the oldest university in continuous operation in the western world (founded in 1088), the northern Italian city of Bologna has remained over the centuries a center of culture and art. In the historic center alone, more than thirty museums illustrate the rich artistic heritage of the city. The following are my personal favorites.

The Archeological Civic Museum

Bust of Nero erected by the people of Bononia as as a sign of gratitude to the Emperor (circa 1st century B.C.).

Founded in September 1881 by merging two separate collections belonging respectively to the University and the City of Bologna, and locating them in the 15th century Palazzo Galvani, a few steps from Piazza Maggiore, the Museo Civico Archeologico (Archeological Civic Museum) holds one of the most important archaeological collection in Italy. It is above all a major witness to the local history, from prehistoric times to the Roman age, as announced by the monumental torso of Nero dominating the central loggia of the internal courtyard. Of exquisite workmanship, the statue, depicts a figure garbed for a triumphal procession, wearing a short tunic, a loose cloak over its shoulder, and an anatomical cuirass decorated with marine creatures and the Gorgon’s head. 

Etruscan cremation crater (circa 450 B.C.) used to receive the ashes of the deceased.

The Etruscan wing constitutes the most important part of the museum. It documents the development of the local culture and especially the religious and funerary rites of Etruria, with Bologna, then known as Felsina, as its capital. A majority of the pieces, dating back from the middle of the 6th to the 4th century B.C., came from the 1869 discovery and subsequent excavation of an Etruscan necropolis on the grounds of the Certosa Cemetery, just outside the limits of the historic city.

The museum also features an interesting Egyptian collection, and for numismatic buffs, the most important collection in Italy of Greek, Roman and Byzantine coins.

The National Gallery of Bologna

Alterpiece by 14th century Bolognese master Jacopino.

To continue the journey through the artistic development of the region, the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna (National Gallery of Bologna), is an essential next stop. Located in the 17th  century former Jesuit novitiate of St. Ignatius, a few minutes from the Two Towers, it opened to the public in1885.  Entirely renovated in 1997, it is now considered one of the most modern and important National Galleries in the country. Its collection includes works from some of the leading Italian artists of the Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque periods, such as Raphael, Perugino, Tintoretto, Titian, the Carraccis, Guercino and Reni.

A custom-designed hall in the center of the Pinacoteca holds the Mezzaratta frescoes.

At its core is a unique display of frescoes and sinopias from the decorative cycle of the church of Mezzaratta, a small church just outside the city. Here, the main artists working in Bologna in the 14th and 15th centuries competed, and sometimes cooperated to create a sequence of scenes from the sacred texts.

Polyptych by brothers Vivarini (circa 15tth century).

The frescoes, hidden for many years by plaster and damaged by humidity were detached beginning in 1949 and moved to the Pinacoteca. They are housed in a dedicated hall where one room holds the final masterpieces, while the next room displays the sinopias (preparatory drawings used by artists during the design phase, tracing the elements of composition directly on the first layer of plaster) that were found under the frescoes. The display of these sinopias, allows visitors to appreciate the entire creative process, from conception to final results.

Museum San Colombano

Painted 18th century grand piano from the Tagliavini Collection.

Also a short walk from the Piazza Maggiore, the Church of San Colombano is an ancient monastic complex founded in the 7th century and expended over time. Deconsecrated in 1798 and restored in recent decades, it now houses the collection of musical instruments donated by Bolognese Maestro Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini (1929 – 2017).

Early portable pipe organ.

This unique collection consists of over seventy pieces, mainly harpsichords, spinets, pianos, organs, clavichords and some wind instruments dating from the 16th to 19th centuries. The instruments are still in working order, and used regularly for free concerts. At the time of my recent visit, an artist was practicing on an ancient spinet, while in another part of the complex a  sumptuously decorated 18th century grand piano was being tuned.

A cycle of 17th century frescoes decorates the Oratory.

The Oratory — In addition to the musical treasures on display throughout its various spaces, the complex itself is a peerless work of art. Built in the 1590’s, the upper floor Oratory is decorated with a cycle of 17th century frescoes inspired by the stories of the Passion and the Triumph of Christ by a group of artists led by Ludovico Carracci, including Guido Reni, Francesco Albani and Domenichino.

The chapel was built around a 1399 painting of the Virgin.

The Chapel of Our Lady of Prayer — The chapel was also built in the 1590’s, around an image of the Virgin painted by Lippo di Dalmasio in 1399  on the outside wall of the Church of St. Colombano. The task of frescoing the new chapel was  entrusted to the best pupils of the Carracci brothers.The painted scenes are inspired by episodes from the New Testament.

Detail of the 13th century Christ Crucified discovered in the Crypt of the San Colombano complex.

The Crypt — In 2005, the restoration works of the San Colombano complex revealed the existence of a late medieval crypt. Here, a fresco portraying “Christ crucified between Our Lady and St. John” was the most signifcant discovery. Despite having been severely damaged, the painting is still of high quality, not only for the realism of the subject’s expression but also in the use of colors, all of which survived centuries of underground burial. The work is attributed to Giunta Pisano, a pivotal Italian artist of the 13th century.

The Certosa Monumental Cemetery

The 19th century Neoclassical Seventh Cloister.

Detail of early 20th century Art Nouveau tomb.

Bronze sculpture on mosaic backdrop by Pasquale Rizzoli, the Magnani Chapel is a fine examples of Italian Liberty style.

One of the oldest and largest cemeteries in Europe, the Certosa di Bologna was established in 1801 on the grounds of an ancient Carthusian monastery just outside of the historic city limits. By the 1830’s, in addition to using the remaining structures of the existing monastery, the cemetery began to be enriched with new spaces and cloisters, until it took the labyrinthine aspect of an open-air museum, with exceptional decorations and funeral monuments. 

Not to be missed are the Third and Seventh Cloisters. The Renaissance Third Cloister was the first to accommodate tombs of the new public cemetery. Many of the monuments  here were entrusted to the most respected sculptors and painters of the period. 

Built in the later part of the 19th century, the grandiose Neoclassical Seventh Cloister features a central nave with a soaring barrel-vaulted ceiling. Here the monuments, which memorialize a number of of nationally famous local figures (including the Marconi family), are a comprehensive repertory of 19th and 20th century Bolognese sculpture, and include a number of remarkable Art Nouveau tombs.

Also worth noting at the center of the complex, two monumental stone domes mark the two vast underground circular areas of the Ossuary of the Great War. It contains the remains of 2,906 Italian soldiers (of which about 500 are from the city and province of Bologna) and 140 Austro-Hungarians.

Good to Know

  • Getting there By Air: There are scheduled flights to Bologna International Airport from most major European cities. By train: High speed trains connect the center of the Bologna 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. By road: The A1 highway efficiently connects 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 — Museo Civico Archeologico /, Via dell’Archiginnasio 2, 40124 Bologna. Open Wednesday through Monday from  10:00 am to 7:00pm. Closed on Tuesday, May 1, December 25  and 31. Contact: tel. + 39 051 2757211, e-mail . Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, Via delle Belle Arti 56, 40126 Bologna. Open Tuesday and Wednesday from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm, and Thursday through Sunday from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday and December 25.  Contact: tel. +39 0514209442, e-mail. Museum San Colombano — Collezione Tagliavini , Via Parigi 5, 40121 Bologna. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm and 3:00 to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Contact: tel. +39 05119936366, e-mail. Certosa di Bologna , Via della Certosa, 18 – 40133 Bologna. Open March 1 to November 2 from  7:00 am to 6:00 pm and November 3 to  February 28/29 from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Contact: tel. ++39 051 6150840, e-mail.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Bologna, Italy