Bologna Reflections: An Uncommon Guide

by Mary Tolaro Noyes

Bologna is light slashed
By twelfth century towers,
Casting shadows on life's surface,
Shadows whose shapes
Can hide the hidden treasures of the past,
The promise of today.
Bologna is colors
Seeping into the consciousness,
Until the world is shades of ocher and gold,
Violet, rose and gray,
Russet and the red of
Tiled roofs and clay bricks.
Bologna is porticoed, serpentine forms
And jagged fragments,
Layers and veils.
Bologna is seductive, gentle.
Bologna is . . .

Piazza Maggiore is where all the tour guides begin, and justly so. The palazzi that surround it speak of history and power and art, as does the Basilica of San Petronio, whose unfinished bulk watches over daily life and whose wide steps offer sitting space to all of us. Piazza Maggiore is the heart of the city, the stage on which Bolognese life plays out. The guide books explain the history and the architecture. What interests me beyond them is the life that weaves itself continuously inside and out of the rich backdrop, twisting and turning, connecting and reaching out again to relish today's seasons, and the weather and the politics of change.

I 'hang out' regularly. Besides being its stage, Piazza Maggiore has become my living room when I live in Bologna. I meet people -- Bolognesi, other Italians, foreigners like me, students, merchants. I watch and grow in understanding. I absorb the spirit of the time and of the place. I marvel at the life that evolves out there, even embracing me, making me feel at home, though far away from my home and family.

What I do depends on my life at the moment. Sometimes on a weekday morning I have an appointment, or a destination in mind, like the others who are hurrying straight across from every direction, from every corner of the city. The piazza becomes a place on the way to somewhere else -- to work, the market, school, a doctor's appointment. A sense of rush permeates.

Sometimes I am a tourist and I stand in the middle, on the big pancake of a stage, that the Bolognesi call the crescentone, and I feel the harmony that surrounds me. I focus on certain small aspects of each palazzo as I turn around in place, often dodging the pigeons and the people who have more to do than just gaze! The Madonna di Piazza, by Niccolò dell'Arca (1478), on the facade of the Palazzo Comunale always grabs my attention. I have to change my position though, moving toward and under her, looking up into her eyes, as she looks down at me. She is young, lovely, soft and rosy, from the soft-rosy tones of the terra-cotta. She shows off her baby, holding him in a way that says "Look, look at my baby. Isn't he beautiful?" Then I glance around the piazza and I see the young Bolognesi mothers with their babies and I think about what Bologna offers. There is art. There is life. And Bologna shares both.

It would be difficult to miss the monumental bronze statue that sits above the equally huge central entrance to the palazzo. Pope Gregory XIII, the notable Bolognese who reformed the calendar, in all his ceremonial best, watches as I enter and cross the courtyard. To the left is an elevator, but I take the graceful stairway, back in the right corner, attributed to Bramante. Built to accommodate the gait of horses, the stairway can be a test to my very human and sometimes clumsy coordination. There are many elegant rooms in Palazzo Comunale, and two museums to visit on the next level, but I am intent on two of the more hidden treasures.

At the top of the stairs on the first level, to the left is Hercules' Room, so named because of his giant statue at the end. On the right wall, among other frescos, is one by Francesco Francia called Madonna del terremoto (1505). It was commissioned to celebrate the survival of Bologna after a terrible earthquake. What I find captivating is the map of the city that rests under the blessed protection of the Madonna and Child, who both look down over the medieval city. I try to imagine the city I know today as it was then. I look for its heart, Piazza Maggiore, and the famous streets that radiate out from it, the ones that I walk everyday, as I live my life. The towers are there, and the city walls, that one can only imagine now. Only fragments have survived the onslaught of man's progress. (I discovered on my last visit that the Sala d'Ercole has been turned into a room of city offices and the fresco is not easy to see. To view it , one must request admission back in behind the locked partitions. Maybe the offices are temporary? Maybe they will move the fresco? . . .)

Out of the Sala d'Ercole I turn right and proceed down the hall and up on the wall to the left hangs another large fresco. It too, focuses on medieval Bologna, her famous university and law school, which had its origins at the end of the 11th century. The fresco depicts Irnerio, the renowned scholar and teacher of secular Roman Law, as codified by Justinian. Throughout Bologna's history, Irnerio and his disciples have always been depicted as her heroes. He studies and glosses the code as troops in the background go off to war. In the distance, behind the masses of people flaunting the red and white banners of the proud city and further still, behind the soft green fields, rests Bologna, her red brick towers jutting up into the bright blue sky. Irnerio, young, solitary, deep in thought, sits on a white marble throne as he works at his simple table. (More examples of how Bologna has immortalized her heroes in art can be seen at the Medieval Museum and in front of the Basilicas of San Domenico and San Francesco, where rest the sarcophagi of other renowned studiosi of the law.)

I continue up to the next floor, and enter the Sala Farnese. Next to Rome, Bologna was the most important Papal State, and the chapel and apartments remember that aspect of her history. My main interest though is the view from the balcony at the end of the room. From that vantage point one can see Piazza Maggiore from above and the rough, zig-zaggy red roofs of Bologna. Neptune reigns in his little piazza down below, as both the pigeons and people congregate, one of the most important meeting points in the city!

'Hanging out' sometimes means just sitting and soaking in the life that pulses there. Late afternoon is best, as the sun is setting. Then Bologna's magic will cast a spell -- the earthy ocher and terra-cotta tones, the velvet light and shadows as the sun makes its exit and the animated social life that unfolds on and around the crescentone. Unlike the early morning hours, the late afternoon will usually show Piazza Maggiore full of people, many of whom will be Bolognesi, not just tourists. They will sit at the tables at the bars that circumscribe the grand space; they will occupy the wide steps of San Petronio, the basilica that represents the people of Bologna; they will group themselves here and there and discuss politics and soccer; they will watch their children chase the pigeons; they will walk arm in arm just to walk, to get some air, to be together, to be outside.

It is the time of day when Bologna is literally the Città Rossa, Bologna the Red . The rays of the setting sun reflect off the rosy earth-tones of the buildings, from back up behind San Petronio and the piazza glows. The air itself shimmers. My chosen spot is under the portico of Pino's Bar and Gelateria, on the east corner of Palazzo del Podestà. I will watch the glorious magic the sun makes as it toys with the shapes and colors of the basilica and palazzi that border it and decorates the moving sky with shafts of light piercing voluminous cloud mountains. I will hear the animated discussions of the clumps of men, usually senior citizens, who meet and discuss the world every afternoon, rain or shine, and the insistent dong of the clock tower marking the hour. The waiter will show me to the best table available and, smiling, ask if I want my usual: "il solito, signora? " And I will usually say "yes, Campari Soda, per favore." Sometimes we will chat, but often I will write or watch the comings and goings on the stage in front of me.

One day, on my last stay in Bologna, the young waiter said good-bye to me. For two months I had visited the bar regularly in the late afternoon and he had always served me. I asked why the "good-bye." It was his last day, he said. He would be leaving to go back home, to Naples, for the holidays, and then he would be going to Switzerland to work for the winter. "The season is over here," he added with a smile. I wished him well and, when I prepared to leave, I motioned to him. He approached and I handed him one of my business cards, in case he would ever come to California, and a modest tip, to thank him for the courteous service (and for not ever making me feel guilty when I sat for 2 hours and wrote, monopolizing his table). He seemed shocked and, as he handed back the bill he said, "signora, I will happily take your card, but the money, I cannot accept. I have served you with pleasure, and say good-bye as a friend. Thank you for the thoughtfulness. Thank you above all for the friendship."

For the next few days I felt lonely at Pino's Bar. The cold weather had come and I had moved inside to sit and write. It wasn't the same though. Eventually I noticed that life in Piazza Maggiore was still flourishing outside. Few sat at the bars. Everyone walked, rode their bikes socialized the same, their frosty breath puffing out signaling spirited conversations. In fact, the intensity of life had not diminished one iota. Yes, the season had changed, but life had merely adjusted in the 'living room', my living room. So I adjusted with it. I moved outside again too.

Then sometime during the first week of December, twinkling gold Christmas lights and torches were unceremoniously pinned to the palazzi and towers and a festive air reined. Families took an evening walk in the crisp, cracking cold; the water in Neptune's Fountain splashed as usual, and reflected amorphous shapes on the Palazzo Comunale's walls. Life in the heart of Bologna ebbed and flowed, pulsed the same -- outside.


Bologna Reflections: An Uncommon Guide Formerly known as: Discovering Bologna Copyright January 1996. All rights reserved. Mary Tolaro Noyes

I am a writer currently working on a short book about Bologna that I hope will be enjoyable to armchair travelers and prospective visitors as well. I invite your comments in English or Italian about Bologna -- or about what I have written.

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Last update: 15-Sep-2008 Page Author: Mary Tolaro Noyes