As far as outward appearances go, Bologna holds its own amongst the crowd. For beautiful buildings, magnificent public monuments, fading Renaissance elegance and vast central piazzas, Bologna is undaunted by its more celebrated rival cities of Florence, Milan and Rome. But behind the facade, in mind, Bologna is quite different. In Rome, for example, the dominant influence of the church, and in particular of the Vatican looming close by, is evident all around. You only need to turn a corner to find another vast church, stuffed to saturation full of the most exquisite baroque sculpture, euphoric painted ceilings, depicting heaven and hell with startling realism and artistic virtuosity, gold-dripping altars, elaborate side chapels, and 100% fresco coverage throughout. In Florence, the green, pink and white marble covered Duomo and its baptistry dominates the city’s central piazza, while just around the corner, the equally stunning Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella dominate their own respective squares.
In Bologna, by contrast, there is a sense that the church plays second fiddle. True, the Piazza Maggiore is at least partially dominated by the looming presence of the Basilica San Petronio, but its vast marble facade has been left unfinished, as though the Bolognese started the expensive task of covering the brown bricks with marble, only to decide that the money could be better spent on other things. Meanwhile, on the inside, the church has a vast gothic interior, rising almost endlessly into the sky, yet compared with other Italian cathedrals, this interior is stark and austere, exhibiting the same lack of embellishment as is all too obvious on the exterior.
In Bologna too is the iconic church of Santo Stefano, which is actually comprised of a hodge-bodge of some 8 older churches all linked together. However the rather plain brick-facade of this church is easily dominated by the stunning collonades of the neighbouring buildings, and all of the guide books of Bologna refer not to the beauty of the church, but of the square itself, with its fine Merchant mansions, shopping arcades and perfectly-proportioned palazzos.
That’s not to say that the Bolognese are a population of heathens, rejecting the church and pursuing a life of hedonistic profanity and over-indulgence. The Basilica of San Petronio is, in fact, a mere shadow of its original design, which was intended to be a vast religious temple when designs were drawn up in the 16th century, but which were promptly interrupted by the Vatican who feared that the resulting cathedral would overshadow St Peter’s in Rome. As it is, the cathedral is the 15th biggest in the world. While the intention was there, you can’t help but notice that in spirit, Bologna’s priorities lie elsewhere. For the second of Bologna’s three renowned epithets is La Dotta: the Learned, and the great prevailing buttress of Bologna’s cultural foundation is intellect and learning – and you can see it all around.
For starters, Bologna boasts what is said to be Europe’s oldest University, going back some 900 years, and the vivacious influence of the city’s still-thriving university population can be seen all around. On our first morning in the city, we wandered into the university district, just north of the central leaning towers, and there we found a district which was markedly alive with a thriving cafe culture, with campuses and libraries and a predominant feeling of youth and exploration. There, the elegant porticos of the southern city had been replaced by vast graffiti murals, protesting against austerity, opposed to Gaddafi and debating other modern polemics in technicoloured spray-paint. Instead of frescos, here the walls were covered with posters promulgating student presidential campaigns, advertising rooms to rent and promoting concerts and lectures. And instead of tourists, here the students dominated, and in fact on our visit were in the midst of a great summer graduation, for which the macabre mortar-board was replaced with a garland made from olive leaves and ribbon.
But the spirit of learning extended beyond the university. In the Piazza Maggiore we past a group of ordinary locals, energetically debating the state of the economy, some berating the influx of immigrants, others bemoaning the lack of jobs, and the rare few wishing Berlusconi was back in power. The debate went round and round, and views differed widely, but it was wonderful to see these people, vocalising their views, no matter how extreme, in a jocular environment, rather than building up resentment as is so often the case in reserved England. Meanwhile, around the Piazza, a wide range of impressive museums demonstrates Bologna’s thirst for global culture, art and history: We visited the beautiful archeological museum, where a courtyard stuffed full of Roman relics was an awesome sight, and the Pinacoteca Nazionale Bologna, where sadly the most famous works – a Giotto altarpiece and a Raphael had been hidden away owing to the double-bill of earthquakes which hit the Emilia-Romagna region in the last year.
It would be unfair however to dismiss Bologna’s religious heritage all together. Seek and ye shall find, or so they say, and when you head away from the major Piazzas, there are some religious gems still to be found. The church of Santa Maria della Vita for example was quite a sight to behold. Tucked away in a side street off the Piazza Maggiore, a small door led to an interior which simply took my breath away. You can see from these photos why without further description. Also held in the church were the equally enthralling terracotta sculptures by Niccolo dell’Arca of the dead Christ and surrounding mourners. The sculptures exuded incredible dramatic pathos, the expressions of grief and torment of the figures intensified by the realism of their dramatic facial details.
Meanwhile, head out beyond the city, following the world’s longest continuous arcade (4km long, comprising an ominous 666 arches) from the centre of the city and at its end you will find the stunning sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, perched atop a hill, glowing orange, looking over the city for which it was appointed ultimate guardian.
So at the end of it all, Bologna, with its fiercely independent spirit and pursuit of intellectualisation and cultural superiority has captured a perfect balance. It has not sacrificed religious influence, nor morality, but it has cast the perfect equilibrium between moral precedent and intellectual and cultural freedom. In that respect Bologna has perfected a model which must surely be envied throughout the world.
All photos are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2012 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved.