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Bologna’s fame is closely linked to the reputation and prestige of the Alma Mater Studiorum. Renowned throughout Europe, the University of Bologna has always attracted students from all over the world. Bologna is not a city which attracts mass tourism, but instead it welcomes curious and attentive visitors.

Bologna is a city with turrets and porticos which stretch out for kilometres, but it is not ostentatious. Often, the city’s most valuable treasures can be found tucked away in magnificent Renaissance palaces, in churches which have been deconsecrated and restored, beneath gateways or inside courtyards.

The city attracts a considerable amount of visitors each year to a variety of exhibitions. It offers an excellent infrastructure and quality services, which facilitate visitor’s stays and help render them as pleasant and enjoyable as possible.

The historic city centre ‘ which is separated from the rest of the city by ancient walls – the Porte and a ring-road ‘ is still reminiscent of an ancient Roman castrum (fortification), with its network of roads, intersected by both major and minor decumani (Roman roads). Inhabited by both locals and students, this area represents the focal point of the city’s cultural, economica and social life.

The political and religious heart of the city can be found on the Medieval Piazza Maggiore, which can be accessed via the symbolic Piazza del Nettuno on which stands a statue of the Roman god Neptune. The piazza – a popular spot for daily walks ‘ is living proof of the city’s glorious history. It is dominated by the incomplete façade of the Basilica di San Petronio as well as numerous other elegant Medieval buildings. Even today, it evokes memories of a bygone era when Bacchanalian parties and public feast days were held here.

Another area which has retained its original sturcture is the Ghetto Ebraico (or Jewish Ghetto). This fascinating district is characterised by its narrow, labyrinthine streets and craftsmen’s workshops.

Beyond the city walls, the rest of the city looks different. This is a result of the urban development which took place after the Second World War. The reconsturctions which took place after the bombings radically altered the appearance of the city, particularly in the area around the train station. One of the plans which were set in motion for this urban renewal was the widening of the Vie Ugo Bassi, Rizzoli and Indipendenza, to enable them to accommodate more shops and businesses in the name of commercialisation.

Bologna is divided up into districts, the names of which are taken from those of the gateways in the ancient city walls. Much of Bologna’s charm is derived from its beautiful gardens which are dotted throughout the built-up urban areas. These render the areas an altogether more pleasant place to live.

The exhibitions district is relatively modern. It is characterised by the extremely modern Kenzo Tange Towers, and was perhaps originally contructed with the aim of glorifying Bologna’s historic Due Torri (Two Towers). The district is also home to the Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna (Municipal Gallery of Modern Art), which is housed in a building designed by Leone Pancaldi. This building is linked to the Palazzo dei Congressi which was conceived by Melchiorre Bega.

Another typical feature of Bologna is its hills. Here, you can take long walks and visit ancient villas, convents and sanctuaries. The unmistakable Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of San Luca stands on the della Guardia hills. From the top, it is possible to take in a magnificent panoramic view of the plains.

History of Bologna

The origins of Bologna can be traced right back to the Bronze Age. Around three thousand years ago, a population of unkown origin settled in the Appenine region, on the banks of the Apose and Ravone rivers. During the Iron Age, this population developed its own authentic culture and came to be known as the Villanovian Civilisation.

These Villanovian villages were inhabited by skillful potters and smiths who developed working relationships with other civilisations such as the Etruscans, the Greeks and the Phonaeceans. This meant the Villanovians were able to play a central role in the trade route network covering northern and central Italy.

In around the sixth century B.C., the settlement of villages was eventually surrounded by the Etruscans (who brought with them their culture) and the area was transformed into the wealthy and prosperous Felsina. The Etruscans in Felsina (mentioned by Pliny in one of his works) added to the trade links already established by the Villanovians and it soon became the commercial centre of Etruria. The population here was a peace-loving one, which an interest in both crafts and commerce.

In around 350 B.C., Felsina found itself incapable of repelling a rash attack by the Galli Boi who had reached the surrounding plains. The coarse, dirty and ugly Galli Boi did not leave any important heritage behind – except perhaps the name of the city: it is said that the name Bologna is derived from the word Boi or bona which means ‘city’ in the Celt language.

It was only after two hundred years of Celt domination that they were finally defeated in battle by Publio Cornelio Scipione Nasica and sent into flight. Bononia (as it was then called) became a Roman colony. In 187 B.C., the Roman Consul Marco Emilio Lepido had the Via Emilia constructed, thus giving the city an important position in the centre of Peninsula Italy’s road network.

During the Roman period, Bononia re-acquired some of its lost splendour. Many important architectural works were built including the Roman castrum, the road network (part of the paving of which is still visible in Via Manzoni, as well as the Palazzo Fava Ghisilardi, and Fava Ghisilieri ‘ the Roman theatre in Via Carbonesi.

The fall of the Roman Empire also brought about the decline of Bononia. Realising that they were lacking in defences and therefore vulnerable to raids by Barbarians, the citizens rushed to repair the city’s defences and fortify the city with a high defensive wall made from selenite. In an effort to bring new hope to the weary population and re-build the fragmented society, the Bishops of Rome (who had been granted freedom of religion by an edict from the Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D.) were able to have churches constructed.

In 431 A.D., the city regained a semblance of its former vitality, mainly due to the deeds of Bishop Petronio who reinforced the fortifications, restored the public buildings and initiated the construction of the Basilica di Santo Stefano. His actions left such an imprint on Bologna’s history that nine hundred years later, the splendid Basilica di San Petronio was built in his honour on the Piazza Maggiore. This piazza soon became the religious and political heart of the city.

This period of relative peace was however rudely interrupted and between 535 and 553 Bologna became involved in the bloody Byzantine-Gothic war. It was then the turn of the Longobards who in 569 invaded the plains, attempting to win the region from the Byzantines.

It was only in 727 that the Longobard king Liutprando succeeded in defeating the Byzantines. Bologna was then ruled peacefully for the next fifty years. Very little evidence remains of the Longobard period, with the exception of the Catino di Pilato (Pilate’s Basin) which stands in the courtyard of the Santo Stefano Basilica.

In 774, the Longobards gave way to Carlo Magno who, after being summoned by Pope Adriano I, ceded both Bologna and l’Esarcato to the papacy. Throughout the ninth century, Bologna was therefore ruled by Dukes who had been appointed by the Pontificate.

The end of the first millenium brought about a mixture of good and bad events. The Metropolitana di San Pietro was built, the city walls were widened and reconstruction work on the Santo Stefano Basilica was commenced.

The danger of Byzantine domination was definitively staved off during the struggle for investiture between the Pope and the Emperor, and this was reconfirmed when the Church of Rome took over patronage of the city. The close ties between the Church and the city were maintained for a long time, but they were not always amicable ones.

In the meantime, the city began to rebuild itself and the first municipal institutions began to appear. These were built with the approval of the Emperor Enrico V. In 1088, the most important university in Europe was built by the Master of Laws – Irnerio.

This was a period of frenzied activity for the city. The more that was happening here, the more it became a potential target for the major powers. Regimes with colonial expansionist urges began to set it in their sights. Federico Barbarossa attempted to remove its autonomy by imposing his own magistrates on the city’s government, but Bologna refused to submit to this. In 1167, it joined the League of Lombardy and entered into armed struggle to defend its autonomy.

Bologna was a hotly contested city. It was sought after by the Church, by the Imperial powers, and by rich and powerful members of the nobility. There were many reasons for this, not least its strategic geographical location, the economic and cultural benefits brought about by the presence of the university and its flourishing markets which had been revitalised as a result of fervent activity on the part of the Corporazioni delle Arti (Coporation of the Arts). There were a large number of craftsmen’s workshops in the city, and these even gave their name to some of the streets, which are still visible today in the mercato di mezzo district.

Many illustrious personages were buried here and great funereal monuments – such as the Glossatori Arches which can be seen near the Piazza San Domenico and the Piazza Malpighi ‘ were built for them.

In the thirteenth century, waves of discontent continued to wash over the citizens of Bologna, due to the alternate domination of the city by both the Guelfs and and the Ghibellines.

The Emperor Frederico Barbarossa never actually managed to subjugate Bologna, and his nephew, King Enzo of Sardinia was even taken captive during the battle of the Fossalta. He was incarcerated until his death in a palace which bears his name to this day:Palazzo Re Enzo.

The Church met with a different fate, but it was no less effective. Often, when the citizens of Bologna felt they’d had enough of the abuse of power of the Papal Legate, they would rail against the Rocca di Galliera. This building ‘ constructed by Cardinal Bertrando del Progetto – as the official residence of the Papal Legate – was the stronghold of the Catholic Church in Bologna.

Bologna courageously resisted all attempts at subjugation, even during the bloody civil wars which were to follow. The powerful Geremei, Lambertazzi and Pepoli families fought for domination of the city for years, siding from time to time with the Papacy or the Emperor for support.

It was only the fury of the Papal Delegate which managed to temporarily curb the heated disputes which were taking place between the opposing factions to the point where even he only narrowly managed to avoid being thrown out of the city.

Bologna did however, have its moments of glory. The Santa Maria dei Servi church was built and the San Domenico basilica was finished. Contruction work on San Petronio was commenced in 1390.

In the fifteenth century, the Bentivolgio family came to power. There was also a power struggle between the Viscounts of Milan and the Pope for domination of the city, from which the church emerged victorious. The Rocca di Galliera was consequently rebuilt. Pope Alessandro V felt that the city was finally at peace and attempted to stabilise the political sitution. He died in 1410 and his body was preserved in the sepulchre at the San Francesco basilica.

However, the tensions in the city were still simmering away and relations with the church continued to be problematic until the nineteenth century. Every time the church attempted to calm the population, it would alllow itself to be calmed. However, as soon as the papal legate became in any way controversial, the citizens of Bologna would once more be up in arms.

Bologna’s other enemies ‘ the Viscounts ‘ took full advantage of the situation and continually threatened the city, in an attempt to realise their ambition of territorial expansion into Emilia. The Bentivoglio family repeatedly attempted to reinstate the rule of the Signoria (or ‘nobility’), as did both King Francia Luigi XII and Cesare Borgio, grandson of Pope Alessandro VI. In 1506, the church once more intervened and it was Pope Giulio II that finally liberated the city from domination by the Bentivoglio family and reinstated papal rule, definitively making Bologna part of the Papal State.

In the years which followed, various major events took place: in 1530, Carlo V was crowned Emperor in the San Petronio Basilica, and in 1542, Bologna hosted several sessions of the Trento Council. Various important institutions were transformed as a result of the papal domination e.g. the University came to be housed inside the Archiginnasio, in order for its autonomy not to be limited.

During this period, many great architectural works were built including the Palazzo dei Banchi in 1565, Piazza Galvani in 1563 and the Ospedale della Morte (today housing the Civic Archaeological Museum) which was also built in 1565.

In this way, Bologna reacquired some of its faded glory and prestige. While the corruption-riddled nobility were involved in the worldy, secular life of the city, the papacy struggled to maintain law and order.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the city’s population was decimated by the Plague, but it was still constantly under development. Magnificent palaces were built and there was an increasing amount of activity in the world of the arts.

In the eighteenth century, Bologna began to enjoy a better standard of living as a result of successes in both the agricultural and textile industries. The University regained some of its antique splendour with the addition of the Institute of Sciences which was housed in the Palazzo Poggi, donated by Luigi Ferdinando Marsili.

Bologna was the papal state’s ‘second city’ (after Rome), and in the nineteenth century, it became involved in a series of historical events which changed the face of Europe. In the Napoleonic period, it was at first the capital of the Cispadana Republic and then, it left the papal state to became part of the Cisalpina Republic. During the Restoration, Bologna was restored to the papacy. However, Bologna soon became actively involved in the Risorgimento movement which culminated in the driving out of the Austrians and the definitive severing of Bologna’s centuries-old ties with the papacy. In 1859, Piedmont was annexed and became part of a unified Italy.

Today, Bologna is often seen as Europe’s cultural capital. It take pride of place in Italy’s road network and its prestigious University is world-famous. It is an ancient city with a widely-respected artistic heritage (the Caracca and Reni Schools originated here) which has promoted various cultural initiatives on an international scale. It is a city which is known for its strong identity, its inter-cultural exchange programs, its towers, its gateways, its magnificent palaces and for the joie de vivre of its population.