Bologna is one of the big cities of Italy. It always has been. Considering its importance to the history, art and culture of Italy, plus the attractive buildings that remain from its past and very gracious lifestyle of its present, it’s a real pity it is not better known.
The Bolognesi are famous for their food and good living. There’s a good reason for that. The land around the city is some of the most productive in all Italy; this is the basis for all that variety in their cuisine, with a considerable part having meat at its heart. Agriculture and industry made the people rich: maybe more than any other city in Italy, Bologna loves to live well and enjoy its success. Even a business lunch in one of the many truly superb restaurants is an excuse to enjoy the hospitality and savor something special.
This sense of contented bonhomie spills over into the way the Bolognesi treat people too. They are fun people to be with, excellent company and full of jokes and stories to tell. They seem to treat everyone as a welcome additional to a party, all being equal. This spirit of humanity is ancient: way back in 1256 the city abolished serfdom and slavery, the city buying their freedom out of public funds. In the Renaissance, women were allowed to study, gain degrees and have their own professions. In the 1700s, under the Popes no less, a woman professor taught at the University.
That University is the heart and soul of Bolognese pride, for it is the oldest of its type in Europe, opened its doors in 1088. The University also gives the city its flavor, for the streets are always noisily full of students and bicycles. Like its rival the Sorbonne in Paris, great scholars lived and studied here, Thomas á Beckett, Dante, Boccacio, Petrarch, Copernicus and Erasmus amongst them.
As you walk through the old center, one thing that jumps out at you is how many arcades there are. Not only are they a graceful ornament to Bologna, they are useful too, for they keep the rain off you in winter and the hot sun off you in summer. The arcade from the church of San Luca to the walls of the city is almost four kilometers long!
Two tall brick towers dominate the center of Bologna, both now slightly off the vertical. There were originally 180 towers of various sizes and shapes; the others have all gone in wars, the demilitarization of the town and big re-zoning work in the late 1800s. It must have looked like a medieval Manhattan back in the 1300s! The rest of the center is full of cutural places to visit, like the Libraries, the churches and the theaters.Spring and fall are mild, rainy and short. Since Bologna doesn’t escape the weather of the Po valley, winter is chilly and foggy, while summer is definitely hot and humid. Almost every month there’s something going on, mostly music and film festivals. Traditional celebrations include the Festa della Madonna di San Luca on May 12th, a traditional procession which since 1433 carries an icon of the Madonna with Child from the church to the cathedral. Also in May Bologna has its own version of a Paio, the celebration where people dress in medieval costume and there are jousts, horse races and local fairs. A more contemporay “Danza Urbana” takes place in September, a big festival with dancing in the street and squares. And of course food can’t be missed, with the Tortellino Day in October – all about tortellini and wine. But the real reason to visit is simply to enjoy the delights of being in a truly welcoming city and meet hospitable, hearty, happy people.
A little bit of history
Its no wonder people have lived here for over three thousand years: broad plains in front, hills for view and protection, the valley and low pass through the Appenines leading to Florence and Rome; it is an inevitably good location.
First to make something of it were the Umbrians, who called it Velzna, and then the Etruscans, who called it Felsina. They were pushed south by the Celts, who renamed the town Bona. Then the Romans surged north, took the place and called it Bononia, from which we get Bologna. Parts of that Roman town remain, especially the roads leading to the city gates. The Goths got Bologna when Rome fell; they were pushed out by the Byzantines, who were in turn pushed back to the sea by the Lombards, who in turn surrendered it to the Franks. Their king, Charlemagne, promptly gave Bologna to the Pope.
Bologna began to boom again when, like many northern Italian towns, it gained autonomy from Emperor and Pope. The Middle Ages were its Golden Age, with canals connecting the town with the outside world so goods could be traded and ts University recognized as one of the few centers of learning in Europe.
Like most cities in Italy, by the 1400s Bologna’s affairs were dominated by one family, in this case the Bentivoglio. By the early 1500s, like many others, this family had been swept away in the Italian Wars. Bologna passed back into the hands of the Popes, who are famous for building lots of convents.
Napoleon made it the capital of one of his puppet republics; after his defeat, the city returned to being part of the Papal States, garrisoned by Austrians. The moment they could, the Bolognesi voted to join the union of Italian states and thus became part of the Italy we know today.
Article, photograph and video © Carl Ottersen