Virtual travel to Bologna, Italy

Top attractions & things to do in Bologna:

History, facts and travel tips about Bologna

In music it has been called the "Old Lady" and that's what it is, although Bologna in Italy has the gift of remaining permanently young. It has always been the centre of University life, since 1088 when the oldest university of the west was founded. The life of the city has been influenced by this presence since the Middle Ages, earning it the title of "Bologna the Learned". The city is an open book and tells its history through its streets, towers and porticos.

Bologna is an important junction for road and rail communication due to its favourable position in the Plain of the Po, between the Reno and Savena rivers and surrounded by its picturesque hills.

The city has very ancient origins, which date back to almost a thousand years before Christ. It was originally named Felsina by the Etruscans, who had settled in the nearby Villanova area, giving rise to the rich Villanovian civilisation. Thanks to them Bologna became an important urban centre, which survived until the arrival of the Gauls, who were defeated by the Romans in 196 BC. That was when the name of the city was changed to Bononia.

Odoacre, Theodoricus, the Byzantines and the Longobards then succeeded one another, until the conquest by Charlemagne. In the Middle Ages it was an important Free Commune city which opposed Frederick Barbarossa until, thanks to the peace of Constance in 1183, it lived its moment of splendour accompanied by a significant building expansion and the birth of the so-called "Case Torri" (Tower Houses). The flourishing economy favoured an increase in population so that Bologna Italy became the fifth most populous city in Europe.

Old prints show Bologna as a forest of towers (they numbered more than a hundred!). The Garisenda and the Asinelli Tower, the best known of the 17 surviving ones, are the symbol of the city and have stood firm since the 12th century, in spite of their characteristic inclination. The Asinelli Tower, the highest leaning tower in Italy, reaches 90 metres, but it is the Garisenda which leans more; incomplete and 48 metres high (before the top was removed it measured 60 metres), it was so well known that even Dante Alighieri mentioned it in his Divine Comedy.

The other celebrated feature of the city is its porticos: about 38 kilometres under cover which make a picture-frame for all the old town centre. They were created in the late Middle Ages, when the city had expanded and a way was needed to widen the spaces for housing without taking up the street area.

Thus the houses began to project from the first floor, giving rise to picturesque walks which formed a private space, owned by the artisans, but used as a public right of way. It was a means that enabled shopkeepers to work and display their goods outside their shops even in unfavourable weather conditions.

According to the norms of the time, the porticos were to be of a height allowing the passage of a man on horseback. Still today, as well as being a distinguishing feature of Bologna and the neighbouring towns, they enable people to walk without getting wet even when it's pouring with rain!

The numerous canals along which goods could travel enabled the city to become a large centre of commerce. They also provided energy for the mills, which served the flourishing textile industry. Today the canals are interred and the only trace left of them is in the place names.

After alternating fortunes linked to the struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines, the rule of the Pepoli family was established in Bologna in 1337, a form of government by first among equals, which lasted until 1401 when the Bentivoglio family took power.

In the more recent past, Bologna has suffered injury more than once: firstly during the Second World War, which violently struck the city, given its highly important strategic position; but Bologna was able to react and became a bulwark of the Resistance. Later, in 1980, another wound was opened in the city's heart, when neo-fascists planted a bomb in the station, causing a massacre which cost the lives of 85 people.

The imposing figure of Neptune welcomes visitors into the square of the same name; Piazza Nettuno then adjoins Piazza Maggiore, which opens onto the splendid view of the incomplete Basilica of St. Petronius, the fifth in the world for size, commissioned by the Free Commune and built over almost three centuries. Not far away is the Archgymnasium, one of the most important buildings in the city. It was the first seat of the university and houses the Anatomical Theatre, created for the study of anatomy, built entirely in wood in the shape of an amphitheatre.

Tranquil and detached, in an embrace of porticos, we come into Piazza Santo Stefano, named after the evocative Romanesque group of Seven Churches: a number of religious buildings born from successive events over the millennia, joined by a courtyard and a cloister, arose in the 8th century where a pagan temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis had stood since the 2nd century.

Equally dear to the people of Bologna is the Sanctuary of the Madonna of St. Luke, which overlooks the city from the top of the Colle della Guardia hill. The eager, the most courageous, and often students who hav just passed their exams, go up to it on foot following the very long (3.7 km), attractive porticoed route, which of course is uphill all the way!

Finally Bologna's culinary culture is very rich and has enjoyed great fame ever since the Middle Ages, when powerful families surrounded themselves with the best cooks while the presence of university students from all over Italy could only enrich the cuisine.

Already in the 1300s the city was famous for its hostelries so that "Bologna the Learned" also became "Bologna the Fat": how can we renounce the delicious tortellini (filled pasta), made in the image of the navel of Venus, the mortadella (Bologna sausage) or the tagliatelle al ragù (noodles with meat sauce)?

Created: 09 Aug 2013
Last update: 29 Jun 2022

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