A Morning Visit to Bologna

In 2023 I was staying in Veneto and decided I would take the train from Venice to Bologna and spend the morning having a look around this ancient Italian city. Humanity is believed to have lived in the area from the third Millennium BCE. The Etruscan city of Feisina developed here in the sixth century BCE before the Romans arrived in the 4th century. Like the other cities of northern Italy, the last two thousand years have seen this city involved in the ebb and flow of wars between invading vandals, German Empires and Papal armies from the south. Today it is a city of over 400,000 people enjoying their cities economic success in Agriculture and finance.

Bologna has a well-preserved historical centre where its medieval walls have disappeared but the city gates of these walls have been preserved. Like my visit to Padua a few days earlier, I did not have a good map of the city when I arrived but I was able get my direction for the morning organised when I asked a policeman in front of the train station what the best route was to get to the old centre of the city. He immediately pointed me over the road to the start of Via dell’ Independenza which would take me directly to my destination, Piazza Maggiore. Next to the start of this main road was my first city gate of the morning, Porta Galleria. Like so many other cities in this region, Bologna was proud of its achievement of independence in the 19th century so the piazza around the gate was called Piazza XX Settembre. Porta Galleria was built initially in the 13th century when Bologna was ruled from Rome; nearby was the Castello di Gallieria which was destroyed by local citizens in 1334 who were rebelling against the control of the Papal States. Brick ruins of this ancient Castello (right below) are still standing over the road from Porta Galliera. The city gate however still held its Papal insignia in the archway over the gate.

Just down Via dell’Independenza was an impressive series of steps whose façade held a fountain of a nymph and seahorse. The sign nearby announced that above was the Giardino della Montagnola so I decided I would head up that way before rejoining my main road to the centre of Bologna. The Park of Montagnola was quite a large one and apparently was built on the accumulation of debris from the old ruined Castello di Gallieria. The castle had been destroyed by rioting locals on more than one occasion. The area was eventually turned into a public garden in 1805 by order of the French rulers of Bologna at the time.

At the start of my walk there was a large area devoted to ponds that had large sculptures. The first one I encountered displayed a brawl between a large lion and a huge snake, an image that must have caused nightmares to the small children passing by. The map above shows the outline of this park and I took the central pathway that led to the next major sculptural piece.

I presumed the sculptural image shown below must be some celebration of Italian independence but my grasp of Italian on the base of the work did not enlighten me. However the view from the park from behind the statue gave me a panorama of what to expect on my walk down to the centre of town. On the right of the photo can be seen the Metropolitan Cathedral of St Pietro with its separate bell tower at the back of this huge church. Beside the bell tower but further along at the back of Piazza Magiorre is the Basilica di San Pietro. Further to the left are the two towers, Garisenda and Asinelli which are usually considered as the symbols of Bologna.

I rejoined Via dell’Independenza and continued my walk towards the centre of the city, passing the equestrian statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi placed on the side of this main road. When I visted Padua, I noticed that a lot of the centre of town had porticos covering the footpaths. This was more evident in Bologna as so many of the streets’ footpaths were protected from the weather by arcades.

Photo above left courtesy Wikipedia

The first major monument I reached along this street was the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Peter. I had already seen the roof of this ancient church from Montagnola Park and I realised as I stood in front of the church, the area was so crowded with buildings that it is hard to get a good overall view of the Cathedral. The overhead photo on the left above gives a much clearer view of this building that can be gained from ground level.There was a cathedral on this spot at the start of the 11th century but it was destroyed by fire in 1141. Over the centuries since then, the church has been modified regularly. A vault collapsed in 1599 so much of the main part of the cathedral was rebuilt.

From the Cathedral it was only a short walk up to Piazza del Nettuno, named after the huge statue and fountain of Neptune towards the upper edge of this piazza. The sculptor (Giambologna) had origially intended to make Neptune’s private parts larger but was forbidden by church representatives. Apparently from a certain angle, the thumb of the left hand takes on a different aspect. The statue was at one stage fitted with bronze pants due to the swooning of passing ladies. (Info courtesy of blog ‘Bologna on Foot’). Right on the corner of this square was a Tourist Office so I was able to get a great map of the city.

Further along past the Fountain of Neptune, I officially entered the Piazza Maggiore but I discovered I had arrived on a busy day, not because of the number of tourists but by a large crowd of young University students. The photo above right of the main piazza shows this crowd in front of Palazzo del Podesta (a building linked to the local government), lining up to sign a petition; my best guess was that it had something to do with the situation of a Coptic Egyptian postgraduate of Bologna University who was meant to be going on trial for his work on human rights in Egypt.

The building in the background of the students gathering in the photo on the right above is called Palazzo d’Accursio and is the Town Hall of Bologna. In the centre of the façade of this building there is a statue of Pope Gregory XIII who is most famous for having commissioned the Gregorian Calendar. He was born in Bologna. It was installed in 1580 and remained uncontroversial until Italy was taken over by Napoleon’s invasion of Italy at the end of the 18th century. The city council knew that it would be destroyed by the French so before the issue came up, they disguised the statue with a mitre and a crozier and the locals now referred to it as a statue of St Peter. It was returned to its original appearance in 1895.

It’s a very rare process where a policeman supervises the entry of tourists into a church. I am not sure why the local constabulary were worried by the crowd of students in the piazza as the worst thing they were doing was listening to loud pop music. I was able to enter the church unopposed and enjoyed my stroll around the minor Basilica of San Petronio, named after a fifth century bishop of Bologna whose relics are held in this church. This church was begun in 1390 and has been worked on over the centuries since that year. It was officially consecrated in 1954 with its main façade unfinished. In 2002 and 2006 Islamic terrorists were arrested for their plan to blow up this church due to the presence of a 15th century fresco that depicted Muhammed in hell. I wonder if sculptors ever wonder whether their art works would even last five centuries, let alone cause a reaction from individuals who believe a whole church should be blown up as a result of the offensive religious views of the long dead artist.

Given that I had worked in a Franciscan school in Queensland, I had decided I needed to check out the local Franciscan church. Luckily for me the walk was very straightforward from Piuazza Maggiore.

The Basilica of St Francis is to be found just outside the circle that surrounds Bologna where the old walls of the city once stood. This area is where the Romans built their first settlement which expanded to become today’s Bologna. The Franciscan monks came here in 1211 and the famous Francis himself came to visit 11 years later and preached in Piazza Maggiore. Land was donated to the Monks and this church was built and consecrated  by Pope Innocent IV in 1251

One of the curious features of this church is that there are three raised tombs in the grounds at the front of the Basilica (see left above). These tombs belong to three medieval lawyers whose importance in their day must have impressed the Franciscan monks given the prominence of their grave sites.

Churches in Northern Italy didn’t receive a lot of respect from Napoeleon’s armies when they invaded Italy from 1796. Like other churches in Italy, the Basilica of San Francesco was sacked by the French troops and used as their barracks. I am not sure if their horses were housed in the Basilica as well as happened in some churches in Rome. During World War II, the church and its surrounding buildings were bombed. Yet again the Franciscans had to restore the Basilica.

Over the road from the Franciscan Church still stands the Porta Nuova, the New Gate, still ‘new’ after standing here for over 800 years. There were three rings of walls built around Bologna, the citizens were serious about keeping out the regular invading hordes looking for power and plunder. The first set of walls were built by the Etruscans, but they haven’t survived. The second set of walls were built between 4th and 10th centuries. Porta Nuova was part of the third set of walls completed in 1192.

Standing in front of the Porta Nuova in the middle of the busy street was a tall Column with a statue of Mary on top. I am not sure if it was a Marian column built as a response to the Plague years in Bologna.

The last destination of my time in Bologna was a site on the other side of the city, not quite all the way to Porta San Vitale which was the gate in the walls on the west side of Bologna. I was intent on having a close up look at two of the famous towers of Bologna that I had seen from a distance in the Park of Montagnola at the start of my morning walk through Bologna. In appendix 1 there is a picture of the towers of Bologna in the Middle Ages and there appears to be huge number; one estimate is up to 180 towers. The two most famous today are the Asinelli Tower and the Garisenda Tower. In the image on the right above, the smaller tower is the Garisenda Tower that has a lean on it that is very similar to the Famous leaning tower of Pisa.

My walk took me back to Piazza Maggiore, across the square, still crowded with students signing petitions. You can’t go far in Bologna without passing another church. Not far from Piazza Maggiore there is Santa Maria della Vita (17th C), squeezed in between some “non-churches”. I found my way to Via Constiglione where I was able to turn left which led me down to Piazza della Mercanzia. The key building in this square is a very ancient building (late 14th C.), Palazzo della Mercanzia, that is the Chamber of Commerce today. (Centre photo below). In the area there were some building hoardings that were being used to show old photos of the area such as the damage to this Palazzo when a bombing raid in 1943 destroyed parts of the building.

From Piazza della Mercanzia it is a short but crowded walk to the corner of Via Rizzolo where apart from the car drivers, most people are looking up at the two towers, the symbols of Bologna. The taller one is called the Asinelli and the smaller, more ‘leaning’ tower is called the Garisendi. It is believed that these names refer to the original families who constructed the towers sometime between 1109 and 1119. The Asinelli tower is believed to have been original constructed at 70 metres tall and then raised later to the height of 97.2 metres with an overhanging battlement. It became council property in the 14th century and was used as a prison. Towers this tall are targets to lightning strikes but a lightning rod wasn’ty installed until 1824. As late as World War 2, this tower was used by volunteers tyo direct rescue operations during and after bombing attacks by Allied planes. It was the tallest building in the world up until 1197 when this title was handed over to Lincoln Cathedral.

Garisenda tower is 48 metres high. Unlike its neighbouring tower, it had to be lowered in the 14th century rather than raised from its original ‘build’ of 60 metres. This was due to the ground it was built on starting to subside. It became council property in the 19th century.

The two towers of Bologn have survived for over a thousand years and so some of the great poets and authors of Europe have visited Bologna and mentioned them in their writing. These includewWriters such as Dante, Goethe and Charles Dickens.

Text Box:  In the background to some of the photos of the two towers used above can be seen the dome and the belfry of Santi Bartolomeo e Gaetano Church. There has been a church dedicated to St Bartholemew on this site since the fifth century. It was built in the 15th century where a number of buildings had been before. The bell tower was added in 16 94.

After my inspection of the Two Towers, my morning walk around Bologna was well and truly becoming an afternoon walk. As the map of this section of the walk from earlier in this blog shows, I walked back along the road away from the towers that took me back to Piazza Maggiore. I was able to turn right at Via dell’Independenza and make my way straight back down to the Railway Station.

The Railway Station of Bologna must give rise to a lot of significant memories for locals and such memories would not just be ‘train travel’ ones. On the 2nd August 1980 there was a terrorist bombing of the station and 85 people were killed and 200 people wounded. Members of a Fascist group were eventually sentenced for their involvement in this crime.

This train station has been rebuilt in recent years, moving many of the platforms well underground. It took me quite a trek to make my way three levels down before I found my platform for the train back to Venice.

APPENDIX 1: The early medieval Towers of Bologna

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