I lived as a university student on Via D’Azeglio for a year and like to think of Bologna as my second home; but I realized after two brief trips there in May and November 2017 that there were several key places that I had never seen. In part, I expect that this is because Bologna is a large and prosperous city, among the most beautiful and singular in all of Italy, and offers an endless supply of architectural gems, world class restaurants, and artistic masterpieces.
I certainly knew of Bologna’s reputation as la dotta (the Learned) before I had set foot in the city for the first time on a hot summer morning in August 1971. It is home to the oldest university in Western Europe and is justly famous for its alums and teachers. Writers, scientists and architects like Dante, Petrarca, Alberti, Copernicus and Eco have called this seat of learning home. I find it interesting to note that the alma mater studiorium, founded in 1088, has been frequented by foreign students since its inception. I was told by a local concierge that his hotel, the Cappello Rosso, still thriving after being in business since the late Middle Ages, was the first hotel in the world to offer lodging to Jewish students.
A new place for me was the recently opened medieval museum, the Museo Civico Medievale, in Palazzo Ghisilardi on Via Manzoni. I viewed up close the nine foot-tall, yes nine foot tall, bullet-shaped statue of Pope Boniface VIII, Dante’s nemesis; walked around the columns topped with stone crosses, each one featuring Jesus; and admired an ivory sculpted memorial, dedicated to a lawyer and university teacher during the 14th century, Giovanni da Legnano. Completely fitting for a seat of learning, this piece depicts students in various states of boredom and engagement.
You must see the medieval remnants which dot the local landscape, including the famous Torri di Asinelli and Garisenda, the iconic medieval towers featured on most postcards of the city; Piazza Maggiore, the central square that is living heart of the city, and the portici (porticos) that cover the city sidewalks and offered me a welcomed respite from rain that fell this November.
All Italians know of the city’s well-deserved reputation as “la grassa” (the Fat). The agricultural wealth of Emilia Romagna, the region where Bologna is the capital, is evident in local specialties like in tagliatelle al ragù and tortellini in brodo, to name just a few of the city’s culinary treasures. Bologna has several gourmet delis and food markets. A local treasure, AF Tamburini, an enormous deli, offers eye catching displays chocked full of salsicce (sausages), prosciutti (raw and cooked hams) and mortadella.
Bologna “la rossa” (the Red) is the city’s third sobriquet. This nickname is due to the terracotta color of its brick buildings, but it is also a reflection of the left-leaning communist council which has governed the city since the end of the Second World War. Politics is a focal point for many locals. The Bolognesi are rightfully proud of their citizens who were brave partisans during World War II. Many of them are featured in photos mounted on one of the walls of Piazza Nettuno adjacent to Piazza Maggiore.
Each time I visit I fall in love once again with the Temptation of Eve by Jacopo della Quercia, which is located on the main door of the Basilica of San Petronio. I always revisit the seven terracotta statues that comprise the incredibly moving Compianto (Lamentation), which depicts the grief felt by Christ’s followers in the presence of his dead body by Nicolò dell’Arca completed in 1463, and displayed in Santa Maria della Vita. I marvel at the depiction of raw grief. Ten it is time to tour once again what is my favorite Bolognese religious edifice, Santo Stefano, a group of seven churches and a cloister began in the 5th century with several additions dating from later centuries.
As a student, I loved the tranquil, conifer-lined paths of San Michele in Bosco, a park that was relatively close to my pensione. I loved to walk the steep incline located nearby just outside the gate of San Mamolo. Close by, the Via dell’Osservanza, offers incredible views of the surrounding hills. It is a great way to walk off the torpor induced by over eating. But it was only this fall that I took a city bus and saw the world famous Rizzoli Institute that backs up into San Michele in Bosco. Little did I know how close this huge, garden-laden clinic is to my former boardinghouse on Via D’Azeglio.
In November I saw the Palazzo Poggi on Via Zamboni for the first time with its beautiful frescos. It offers an amazing array of wax anatomical models that were the highlight of a tour to Bologna for my British friend. I traveled by city bus to the Certosa (cemetery) that is chocked full of monuments to famous Bolognesi like Giosuè Carducci, Lucio Dalla, Ottorino Respighi, and Giorgio Morandi. Well known writers like Byron, Dickens, and Freud, who visited, all wrote of their impressions.
When you travel to Bologna, you are well rewarded. This historic city is full of elegant shops, stately porticos, and medieval towers that seem to sprout up indiscriminately, as well as with the sublimity of northern Italian cuisine in many world class and outstanding restaurants like Leonidas, where I ate twice in November. Take time to travel the road less traveled and discover the perfection of this northern jewel, just 34 minutes by train from Florence.
It is high time for me to book my next visit. I recently picked up a pamphlet detailing new art exhibitions, such as, “It’s OK to change your mind, contemporary artists from Russia, an homage to Russian artists from the beginning of the 20th century,” and “Duchamp, Magritte, and Dali, the Revolutionaries of the 1900’s.” There is also another museum that I have never seen, the International Music Museum and Library. In addition, I have not biked along the canal that runs to Ferrara or gone to the Gelato Museum, which offers master classes in this artisanal art form. I am looking forward to returning home again.