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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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