Bologna: Art and History

The city of Bologna preserves the traces of past civilisations and the character of medieval splendour. Avidly visited by the Romantic writers and celebrated for the arts and culinary excellence, Bologna is animated by a cosmopolitan culture that is enriched by the presence of the University.

Painting Rectorate

Beneath the cellars of many old Bolognese houses dating from the medieval period may be found the foundations of the Roman city, dating back to the second century BC. In some houses, the traces of even earlier habitations dating from the Iron Age may be discovered. In the sixth century BC, Bologna was one of the most important Etruscan cities of the Po valley area and was known as Felsina. In the fourth century BC, the city was invaded and occupied by the Boii Gauls and in the following century the Romans came to the city and changed its name toBononia.

Under the Romans, Bologna was a flourishing and important city with twenty thousand inhabitants, many imposing buildings and a large theatre. It retained its prestige throughout the period of the Roman Empire although its decline echoed that of the Empire and its perimeter was gradually reduced. In the fifth century AD, during the time of the bishop, Saint Petronius, Bologna underwent a revival; a new era of importance and prosperity began in the eleventh century. Bologna reached the height of its prestige in the thirteenth century. In 1249, its militia defeated the emperor's army and captured King Enzo, son of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, holding him prisoner in the city until his death.
It was a century of social reforms: in 1256, Bologna was the first European city to abolish serfdom. At this time, the city walls were extended and Bologna became one of the ten most highly populated centres in Europe, its urban development equalling that of Paris.

However, in the fourteenth century after a series of unfortunate wars, civil strife and subjection to the pope,Bologna began to lose its full sovereignty. For more than two centuries, the control of the city passed between the Visconti, lords of Milan, the Church of Rome, republican governments and the more important families of the city, who waged battles with one another to obtain supremacy.

These family feuds produced a development in the architecture, the urban structure and the cultural life of the city. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Bologna belonged to the Papal States, governed on the one hand, by a cardinal legate of the pope and, on the other, by the Senate of the city. During this period Bologna was host to several historic events, such as the coronation of Emperor Charles V, the concordat between Pope Leo X and King Francis I of France and various sessions of the Council of Trent.

With the arrival of Napoleon, Bologna became first the capital of the Cispadane Republic and then the second city, after Milan, of the Cisalpine Republic. The city played an active role in the struggles of the Risorgimento, and in 1859 became part of the new Italian state. Bologna's economic importance dates from the eleventh century when the city became one of the major economic centres of Europe not only due to the foundation of the University, but also because of the development of its cloth industry. Bologna boasted one of the most advanced systems of water supply in the world, and, exploiting this source of energy, the city specialized in the art of silk-weaving from the fifteenth century onwards. Bolognese silk mills represented the height of European technology until the eighteenth century.

It was in the seventeenth century that Bologna became famous for the production of many types of food, such as the famous sausage. During the nineteenth century, the city serviced an area where the economy was based essentially on agriculture. The eighth centenary celebrations of 1888 served also as an attempt to revive the city's economy by linking it more directly to the University. Although it suffered heavy bombing during World War II, Bologna is today a rich and important industrial and commercial nucleus. The 380,000 inhabitants live at the most important motorway and railway junction in the country; the historical centre (which, after Venice, has remained the most intact of all the Italian cities) is surrounded by modern buildings, centres for trade fairs and conferences and new residential areas.

Bologna: a city of art

Bologna is unusual for the consistency of the urban structure within its medieval walls, which were built in the fourteenth century. This urban structure is still intact and dominates, even visually, the single architectural works of art. In Florence and in Rome, the individual buildings are more important than the layout of the cities, whereas in Bologna the reverse is true. Here, even the most beautiful Renaissance and Baroque palaces are part of the medieval city plan, which extends like the spokes of a wheel from the heart of the city (marked by the two leaning towers, Asinelli and Garisenda).

Bologna has no squares built to give prominence to imposing façades. The uninterrupted roads and 35 kilometres of colonnades, which characterize the city, do not allow its palaces to be isolated. A masterpiece such asPalazzo Bevilacqua, with its magnificent diamond-faceted façade, or the palaces of the senatorial nobility (Fantuzzi, Albergati, Montanari) are suddenly found standing at the edge of the road, and large doorways open up dramatically revealing spectacular interiors, magnificent courtyards and wide staircases.

It is not entirely by chance that the Bibiena came from this city and after their triumph in Bologna joined, as famous scenic designers, the eighteenth century European courts.

The fourteenth and seventeenth centuries are the golden years of Bolognese art. It is due to the works of art carried out in those periods that Bologna became one of the cities included in the Grand Tour which all the Romantic artists and writers, from Fuseli and Goethe to Stendhal, undertook from the north towards Rome. The first great achievement in the figurative arts was the result of the cosmopolitan culture which the environment of the University of Bologna had advanced.

The Gothic religious monuments, the churches and convents of San Francesco and San Domenico, with the tombs of the glossators, are the outward sign of the privileged relationship the city had with northern Italy. This northern influence also stimulated a development in painting and in manuscript illumination in the fourteenth century in opposition to the style imposed by Giotto and the Florentine School.

In the seventeenth century, too, the pictures by the CarracciGuido Reni and Guercino are anti-Baroque, in contrast to the dominant style of Rome. This laid the foundations for the cult of Classicism and of Raphael, which ensured the fame of the Bolognese painting school in France and in England. The development of the Studium had a considerable effect on the urban structure, encouraging a series of initiatives which added some splendid features to the University nucleus. Among these were the students' colleges (for instance the famous Spanish College founded in 1367), the seat of the Studium requested by Pope Pius IV (now the Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio, where the magnificent, seventeenth-century Teatro Anatomico is to be found), Cardinal Poggi's Palace (where the Studium was transferred during the time of Napoleon), and the Observatory tower, which was constructed in 1712 as a symbol of the new scientific culture. However, we should also remember the medieval towers, the complex of five churches called Santo Stefano and the imposing basilica of San Petronio, which dominates the main square of the city, where the medieval and Renaissance Town Hall is also to be seen. Despite the demolition carried out in the nineteenth century and the destruction caused during the last world war, the urban structure of Bologna has maintained both its integrity and its charm.