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Posts tagged ‘Emilia Romagna’

One day in Ferrara

Medici, Farnese, Sforza, Borgia, Visconti, della Rovere... these are the names which dominated the Italian Renaissance… another is Este, one of whom, Alfonso I, was to marry the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. Together they moved to the Este stronghold in the city of Ferrara, nestled in the rolling pastures of Emilia Romagna in Northern Italy. And that’s exactly where we headed when, earlier last month, we returned to our beloved Bologna.

Situated just 45km of Bologna’s twin towered metropolis, Ferrara is a small city which packs a historical punch but which could easily be missed. Arriving by train to surroundings so penurious as to inspire fear rather than awe, you might wonder whether the place is worth visiting at all. Yet as with so many Italian towns, buried at the heart of this one is an old city gem which represents the perfect manifestation of its historical past and which is quite the match of its better known neighbours, Bologna, Verona, Milan…


At the heart of it all, the Castello Estense is an imposing castle from fairytale lore, with four imposing bastions and a water-filled moat encircling the complex with all the romance of ancient chivalry. As the name suggests, this was the home of the Famiglia d’Este, and as we wondered from room after frescoed room, we could imagine the imposing touch of the magnificent Lucrezia dominating her new martial home, picking perhaps at at fragrant blossom which filled a terrace abundant in orange trees. But with their floral bouquet the romance ended – the castle is an otherwise austere and imposing space, and rightfully so given its role to protect one of Italy’s most important families. Outside – another imposing figure lies in wait: a statue of Savonarola, the apocalyptic friar who set himself against the indulgences of the Borgia pope, and burned the excesses of Florentines in scenes which have implanted themselves on history.

Having ventured through the Castello and avoided the icy glare of Savonarola, we wandered down the road to another Este palace – the Palazzo dei Diamanti – named after the characteristic bugnato of its exterior walls, created from some 8500 pieces of marble carved to represent diamonds. The visual effect of the exterior is certainly striking, while inside, today’s National Gallery makes for an interior replete with artistic treasures: on the occasion of our visit, we were able to enjoy an exhibition of the stunning Boldini, painter of society women and magnificent 19th century fashions.


Ferrara is famous also for its Gothic cathedral, boasting as it does one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in all of Italy. Sadly, for us, it was covered by scaffolding, so this treasure at least had to be saved for another day. Instead, just meandering around the tightly packed, bustling little old streets and enjoying multi-layered views of campanile and cafeteria, and feasting upon the pumkin filled pasta parcels which are unique to the region, was sufficient to prove why Ferrara is a UNESCO protected city, and one not to be missed when you are in the area.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Bologna: La Dotta – Learned city where the profane is sacred, and the sacred is mundane.

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.

San Petronio’s unfinished exterior

And its impressive but austere gothic interior

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.

Overshadowed: Santo Stefano

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.

A happy Bologna graduate on her graduation day

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.

The archeological museum

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.

Santa Maria della Vita

The Niccolo dell’Arca sculptures (protected from earthquakes, hence all the ugly wood)

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.

San Luca

The uphill end of the world’s longest continuous arcade (we took the trenino rather than suffer those steps…)

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. 

Bologna: La Rossa – Red hue of a left-leaning towered city

Of the three epithets for which it is known: La Rossa (the red), La Dotta (the learned) and La Grassa (the fat), it was the first of the three which became immediately obvious upon our early evening arrival in Bologna, capital of the Emilia Romagna (after a stuffy long train journey along the Tuscan coast with a change in Firenze): Not only did the city exhibit a searing red-hot temperature of near 40 degrees centigrade, even at 7pm, but its buildings were tinged with hues of reds, terracottas, and russets for as far as the eye could see. And what a rich, red spectacle our eyes had in store as we unloaded our luggage at the hotel (by this time full to near-combustion with olive oils, pastries and wine from Toscana) and headed straight out into the town.

Red as far as the eye can see…

Bologna is stunning. It’s a living, breathing, pulsating city. It is not like Florence – a beautiful town whose heritage and architectural splendour cannot be doubted, but which is so full of tourists that the whole place feels a bit like a theme park. By contrast Bologna, often overlooked by Florence, just 30 minutes south by train, is a city equally rich in architectural heritage for which exhaustible superlatives are simply not sufficient, but which at the same time is alive with its university students, with a diverse population of engaging chic Italians rather than tourist throngs, with high-end restaurants and boutique shops, with cultural spectacle and a vibrant cafe culture.

For Bologna does not just celebrate its architectural wealth, but with an infamous liberal attitude, celebrates all aspects of life too. Here, none of the Catholic constraints traditionally centralised in the Vatican and strictly executed to control the moral values of nearby cities can be seen. In fact, the epithet La Rossa, traditionally used to describe Bologna’s multitude of red-shaded buildings, has, in more modern times, been used to describe the Communist-dominated local government which has been in power in the city ever since WW2. The city has never looked back, and having now morphed into a left-wing coalition, the Bologna administration has imposed an individualistic, modern vision on the city. In fact, so successful has this vision been that Sociologists from around the world have studied the so-called “Bologna model” of political and social governance, and Bologna now regularly tops the polls for where to enjoy the best quality of life in Italy. Moreover, with its liberal leanings, Bologna is the centre of civil rights and communal culture, a bastion of social democracy and the centre of Italy’s gay-rights movement. How terribly refreshing! No wonder then that as recently as the papacy of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican condemned the Bolognese as degenerates, and the city’s own archbishop lambasted his flock for loose morals and godlessness.

The film festival, for which Hitchcock films played a major part

If this is degeneration, I’m all in. The atmosphere of convivial city living could be seen by the bucket load as we entered the grand Piazza Maggiore on our first evening: There, under the stars, was set up a huge cinema projection screen, almost as big as the cathedral facade it neighboured, and before it, hundreds of seats, already filled with a bustling Bolognese crowd, a sense of excitement tangible in the air. As the square began to fill and people started sitting all over the warm pavements, the chairs already being full, we decided to join in with the crowd, and looked up at the huge screen in anticipation. Suddenly the screen came to life, and projected on this huge screen, for the whole square to see, as well as some surrounding Bologna streets, was the old crackling Hitchcock masterpiece: North by Northwest. We were entranced, and it was in fact only some hour and a half into the film, just before the characters relocate to Mount Rushmore, that we realised that our backsides and legs were becoming progressively paralysed from sitting on the hard stone of the pavement for so long.

Crowds gather for the start of the film

Opting to enjoy the rest of the film on foot, we witnessed a spectacle like I have never seen before. Practically the whole city must have been out in that square, faces tilted towards the screen, utterly engaged, the light of the projection reflected in their faces, and the rest of this city so dark around them that the stars sparkled in the sky as brightly as electric lighting. All around, the crowd had swelled. In cafes, people crammed around tables to watch the film, waiters had paused in the midst of their work and stood, entranced, yet still holding their tray full of empties, and at the back of the crowd, a load of Bolognese cyclists had rested to catch some of the film, still upon their bicycles. I’m not sure why, but there was something about this feeling of unification and togetherness, watching a film under the stars, that made me feel so emotional. It was so beautiful so see so many people from the town having come together on this warm summers evening, to watch Hitchcock under the night sky. And there was something about those old polished 1960s voices reverberating around the old facades of Renaissance and medieval architecture that sent a shiver down my spine. Incredible. And what was more, this showing was part of the Sotto le stelle del Cinema festival (‘cinema under the stars’) which runs from 2-30 July. We, therefore, were able to enjoy the spectacle every night of our stay. Bonus!

The Piazza Maggiore and the edge of the huge cinema screen

I could go on forever about this vivacious city, but it’s best not to overindulge all in one post. I shall leave you instead to gaze at the photos on this post, emblematic as they are of what makes this city truly La Rossa – endless rows of elegant colonnades and porticos, lining almost every street, providing shade and ease of walking for pedestrians across the city. Stunning old buildings, decadent in their decay, embellished with elaborate architectural details, with sculptures and with fine arcades, all demonstrating the wealth of previous occupants, who, through their architecture sought to compete with their nearest neighbour. And finally, who can forget the famous towers, which numbered some 200 in medieval Bologna – towers which got higher and higher as that same competitive spirit encouraged more splendid construction than the previous model. Only 60 are left now, with the two most famous, Asinelli and Garisenda leaning precariously at Bologna’s centre, emblematic perhaps of Bologna’s character, its non-conformist political leanings, and moreover its spirited refusal never to fall into line, but to stand out as a individualistic and creative city, running from the norm and chasing adventure. No wonder the population are so happy here – I’m ready to pack my bags and move to La Rossa myself.

The famous Bologna towers

More tomorrow. Ciao for now!

All photos are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2012 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved.