Reflecting back on our recent visit to Bologna in May, it’s amazing to me what a feast of the senses this city was and that we almost didn’t visit it. You see when we planned our trip to Italy, we decided to visit Bologna only as a halfway point on our way to reach the picturesque towns of the Cinque Terre, the destination that seems to be on everyone’s bucket lists these days. In retrospect, what the Cinque Terre offered in scenic beauty, Bologna offered in dramatic contrasts and incredible history.
The city of Bologna is gritty, yet beautiful; it is emotional, yet festive, and it is inspiring, yet nonchalant. It is like taking a trip back to another century without losing any of the modern conveniences. It touches your soul like no other city I have ever been to. And it’s hard to explain why, but I’ll try.
Before we start I have to embarrassedly admit that I didn’t really know much about Bologna except that its name was a famous coldcut I had eaten frequently as a child of the 70s. (Yes, who from New Orleans hasn’t had a bologna sandwich with mayo on Bunny bread?) A little more research before our trip showed it was a foodie paradise in a country whose incredible food already tops the charts in most people’s hearts. It is located very close to Parma, where the famous Parmesan cheese and Parma hams are produced, and also near Modena, a city famous for its balsamic vinegar.
“It touches your soul like no other city I have ever been to.”
When we arrived and got lost trying to find our hotel, my first impression of the city was a little tainted by our lodging being so close to the train station. Graffiti strewn walls and a few homeless people gave the area a little bit of a shady character, although we never really felt threatened, even late at night walking back to our apartment. Still, I wasn’t thrilled. Look at the street name on the wall below: VIA MALCONTENTI. It was sort of my mood when I arrived.
However, the closer we walked to the city center, the more we were able to discern an interesting and eclectic montage of buildings of Venetian and Gothic architecture amidst a plethora of cafes and stores selling meats and cheeses. The churches were rough and mildewed-looking with a hint of fertile green that showed plants surviving in nooks and crannies of the ancient buildings. But despite the imperfections, the dramatic character was breathtaking in its detail.
Modern dress shops with windows filled with chic, colorful Italian fashions sat next to ancient looking churches and walkways with dramatically high porticos. Alleyways were dotted with ancient churches on one side and rustic cafes and food stores touting incredible Italian food on the other.
Bologna was the ancient church of Basilica di San Petronio juxtaposed against a designer men’s fashion store boasting dapper suits with snappy little pocket handkerchiefs.
It had a familiar “laissez le bon temps roulez” character that I recognized immediately from my hometown of New Orleans, but the impression was deeper, much older, and more dramatic.
People seemed very nonchalant and happy as they sat drinking espresso or Pignoletto, a local sparkling wine, with giant boards of proscuitto and cheese with tigelle, the local bread. The smorgasbord looked so good that we had to try it for ourselves.
And look at the shops that graced the alleyways by our restaurant — full of ham, proscuitto, mortadella and a multitude of cheeses and salamis. What a feast!
But a certain mystique that I quite couldn’t put my finger on at first permeated the atmosphere of the city. Maybe it was the giant fountain of Neptune, or “Il Gigante,” that stood defiantly in the square surrounded by Gothic buildings with messages chiseled in ancient Latin.
The imposing statue of the ancient sea god casts a shadowy image at night against the buildings from another century, lending a certain poignancy and the unsettling feeling of “deja vu” or being in another time period.
The statue of Neptune is almost 13 feet tall (4 m) and weighs almost 5,000 pounds (2,200 kg) and was built in the late 1500s. In this city of startling contrasts, the fact that the fountain of Neptune, a pagan sea god, was actually commissioned by the early Catholic Church in the 1500s shouldn’t surprise us. But the city was like that. Full of surprises. It was perfect, but not so much.
“It was perfect, but not so much.”
Maybe the mystique of the city came from knowing that the first university was founded in Bologna in 1088. And that the first anatomy theatre sat in the building near the square where pioneering physicians learned the mysteries of the human body. In the dark alleyways at night or as you walked under the shadowy grand porticos that lined the streets you could almost picture a doctor wandering back home thinking of the strange tissues or organs he had just seen inside a dead corpse found in a nearby grave. A little macabre, I know, but our modern medical profession was born with this knowledge.
Maybe the mystique of the city came from its two towers, Le Due Torri, defining symbols of Bologna that were built in the early 1100s which stood next to each other, one slightly leaning and the other definitely leaning. They are old and dirty and tipping to the side, but they survive from the 12th century and are over 900 years old. I mean, what would you look like at 900 years old?
And then you turn a corner and you are in front of a shop selling swank little designer purses.
And then there was the Basilica di San Petronio that looked half finished or stranger still, like is was created in two different epochs. It had the oddest looking exterior that I’ve ever seen in such a monumental church.
The bottom half of the church is made of marble and the top portion is made of brick. It is considered the largest brick church in the world and one of the ten largest churches in the world, according to Jacopo Ibello of the Heritage Times. The main reason for its fractured appearance, according to Ibello, was that the city ran out of money. He also said the city had plans for San Petronio to be the largest church in the world, larger than St. Peter’s in Rome, but these plans were sabotaged by jealous popes in Rome who financed buildings on either side of the church to stymie construction.
But its dual colored facade was a masterpiece in its own glory that contributed to the city’s imperfect perfection.
Inside the church was another startling find, one of the largest meridians in the world created by astronomer Giovanni Cassini in 1657. The 220-foot (67 m) line cuts through the basilica on an angle, aligned perfectly north-south, and the sun shines down through a hole in the ceiling on the timeline each day (barring cloudy weather) to show the date. Mike and I went back to the basilica twice in order to catch the dramatic moment when the light hits the line (see photo below). It felt like a miracle as the sun hit the line right at the correct date, May 14; but of course, it was science. The merging of the scientific with the spiritual was just one more thing I found fascinating about the city of Bologna.
But the fact this beautiful basilica that looks half-finished is the cultural center of the city is what I loved about this city of contrasts. It evoked a stirring emotion that was hard to place. A poignancy of feeling of knowing things can be leaning and unfinished and broken and still be beautiful. That the old can sit with the new, and that things didn’t have to match or be totally uniform to be beautiful and well-revered.
After all, the beauty of age, of wisdom, of discovery and of knowledge aren’t always beautiful in the “picture perfect” sense. We can look at the faults, the neglect, the disrepair and remember that life is not always about perfection but the struggle for beauty, for meaning, for timelessness. It’s about the effort that goes into building things that may or may not last, but whose foundations are bigger and stronger than we are. The quest for knowledge that is dirty and messy, but can lead to enlightenment and discoveries.
And then there was this guy….
I took this video when we first stumbled upon this talented singer. We wound up finding him the next day singing in the Piazza Maggiore near the Basilica di San Petronio and spent a few hours sitting at an outdoor cafe listening to him. He brought me to tears several times with his emotional renditions of songs I knew. The songs he was singing were American or English ones, and he looked Asian, so I don’t know why I was so surprised when he started speaking in rapid fire Italian to the group of people gathered to listen to him. I mean, it was Italy. Why wouldn’t he speak Italian? But he sang in English so perfectly that I just expected him to be an American or an Englishman.
Like the singer and the metal sculpture by Nicola Zamboni in the photo above, these incongruities were what I loved about Bologna.
It was perfectly imperfect– a masterpiece of combining the best of all ages. It was a mosaic of sorts that picked up all the broken pieces of the centuries and put them together in such a way that they were whole and beautiful.
And it touched my heart.