Table of Contents

Point A: Via Clavature, Santa Maria della Vita
Point B: Roman Streets, Medieval Houses . . . and Thoughts of the Renaissance
Point C: Palazzo Pepoli and Torrente Savena
Point D: The Church of San Domenico
Point E: Bologna's Star-Crossed Lovers
Point F: Teatro Romano -- and Chocolate
Point G: Oratorio

Point A:  Via Clavature, Santa Maria della Vita

Shrieks of horror and lamentation echo in the dark, cold silence. Mary Magdalen, her solid, muscular body flying, whips out heavy clothing behind her. Veil, shawl and gown cannot reign in the violent, forward impulse. Her eyes incline down at the dead Christ, as her left leg lunges ahead, suspended in motion. Where has she come from? Her piercing screams issue from a mouth opened past possibility, just as disbelief and horror stab her heart beyond endurance. She sees her murdered Lord and, like a storm, cannot be contained. Her passion and pain explode. The Magdalen is the howl of that pain.

The voluptuous torso apparent under heavy robes, the circles of her full breasts and the striding strong legs breathe physicality and humanness into the terracotta statue. It is part of the group called Le Marie Piangente sul Cristo Morto (1463) by Nicolò dell'Arca, in the church of Santa Maria della Vita (Via Clavature, 10), just a few steps away from Piazza Maggiore. Mary Magdalen's slender face is refined, her nose, long and thin, her hair modestly covered with the veil soaring out behind her. Both arms are bent back and the crick of each elbow catches the flowing garments. Left hand is palm forward, fully opened in incredulity. The right hand's rigid, bent fingers would grab, if they could, another hand, someone, to ease the pain.

The dramatic passion of Mary Magdalen grips me as I approach the seven life-size terracotta shapes in their dark, corner chapel to the right of the altar. Then I share the agony that seizes each of the grieving figures.

To Mary Magdalen's right is Mary of Cleofe. She too is moving violently forward, but the position of her hands says, "I cannot look." She would like to shield her eyes from the horror, but they are opened wide, full of fear. Her body swerves toward the right as she runs and stops short of the Christ stretched out below. Her gown flows to the right following the swerving curve of her moving body, right leg pitched forward. Her headpiece reflects the sudden stop as flaps fly out in all directions. Her crying eyes are swollen and her cheeks frozen, flexed, their deep creases accentuating the wailing mouth. She tries to say something, his name, perhaps. She would be his aunt, wife of the brother of Christ's mother.

Next to her young John the Beloved Apostle stands silently immobile. Chin rests on right hand, while left arm and hand lay under his cloak, supporting the right elbow. His narrow face, framed by softly curling, chin-length hair, represses the emotional pain and sorrow. He is crying inside though. He would like to turn away, pull the cloak that he already uses to shield his right side, up over his eyes. Then the tears might escape freely.

On John's right is Mary, Jesus' mother. She inhales. Her shoulders are up, hands folded in front, squeezing up close to her abdomen. The exhalation will never come. The sorrow and pain of the mother will never be released. Her mouth is open, but nothing escapes. The wrinkled forehead, raised eyebrows, closed eyes, and fleshy cheeks communicate maturity. Her heavy clothing hangs motionlessly, just as the grief-filled moment hangs suspended in eternity, unrelieved.

Mary Salome, the mother of John the Evangelist cringes next to Christ's mother. Her open mouth emits a deep, animal-like moan that emerges from the center of her being. Her crouched position, with flexed, tense hands on upper legs, keeps her planted in place. Her substantial robes do not move. The horror and disbelief cry out from her soul as she seems caught folding into the ground.

Joseph of Arimathea looks out, not down at the Christ figure like the others. He holds a short hammer in his right hand. A pair of long-handled pliers hangs on his belt, the claw-like talons slightly open. His role is a practical one as he kneels down at the head of Christ. Pilate has granted him custody of the Savior's body, which he will place in his own sepulcher. The Sabbath is quickly approaching and, according to the law, his duty must be carried out with haste. Joseph wears a heavy tunic with precise tucks that fall neatly over hefty chest, ample abdomen and wide waist. He is a decisive man, used to controlling the situation. His neatly trimmed, curly beard, mustache and hat frame a serious face, one not outwardly emotional. He has a job to do. His left hand grasps the belt in a somewhat posed official manner.

Christ, the central figure lies on a body-length plank covered with a scallop-edged linen cloth. His head rests on a tasseled pillow and bearded face seems peacefully asleep. Arms rest on still torso, while hands cross over the pelvis, which is covered by a light, gauzy cloth. His lightness, silence and serenity form the eye of the storm, around which the action and emotion of the group erupt.

Also known as La Pietà, the figures represent the group of Mary's that visit the sepulcher and to whom Christ appears after his death. Each gospel recounts the events differently, and the persons present are not consistent. However, Mary Magdalen, perhaps an important female apostle of Christ, plays a significant role in each account. Il Compianto, another name given to this type of devotional representation, is thought to be a later manifestation of the medieval mystery play or dramatic Easter matins service at convents and monasteries throughout Europe. The action and emotion portrayed was meant to move the faithful to that same grief. (Compare with Il Compianto su Cristo Morto by Alfonso Lombardi (1497-1537), in the Cathedral of San Pietro in Via Indipendenza, 7 and The Pietà by Vincenzo Onofri (beginning of sixteenth century) in the basilica of San Petronio, Piazza Maggiore.)

Terracotta was the characteristic medium for the compianti. The sculptors working in Bologna during the Middle Ages and Renaissance were often constricted to use it because of the unavailability of marble and other hard stone. However, the material's softness permitted great dramatic expression and fine detail. An eloquent portrait of an individual could emerge from the mass of clay, his precise physical characteristics and richly textured and elaborately chiseled garments. These figures of Nicolò dell'Arca attest to that eloquence. Originally painted, they are now left, for the most part, in their natural, rosy terracotta simplicity.

I leave the hollow, dark silence of Santa Maria della Vita, the shriek of Mary Magdalen still echoing inside my ears and I squint outside the door as the afternoon sunlight blinds me for a second. Standing on the top step, I notice the indigent, who always begs change from anyone happening by. He is a middle-aged man, short, his dark, longish hair tangled, his huge, black, imploring eyes searching for pity. I think back to the church's origin in the thirteenth century, when the Disciplinati community of laymen arrived in Bologna from Perugia. Besides practicing their extreme example of penance and discipline, they aided sick indigents and travelers. Poverty and sickness - a timeless story. I move on, just like everyone else he implores . . . he will wait for our next pass though . . . "l'elemosina, signora, per carità . . . grazie" . . .

Point B: Roman Streets, Medieval Houses . . . and Thoughts of the Renaissance

I continue on Via Clavature as it goes toward Via Castiglione, from Nicolò dell'Arca and the Renaissance, through the Roman criss-cross of streets in the neighborhood of the Quadrilatero, the oldest part of the city. Meanwhile, I bump into a delicious mix of ancient Rome, the Middle Ages and modern Bologna.

The narrow, regular checkerboard streets reflect their origin as a Roman market. Even as layers of Bologna's history emerge, I nevertheless find myself ogling the merchandise in the windows of the elegant shops that line Via Clavature: fashionable clothing, trendy or functional housewares, excellent bread and tempting, characteristic cookies. They and the Mercato Coperto are closed until later so I can only window-shop, which is just as well. In the tranquillity of the early afternoon, I soak in the shades of Bologna's ocher -- from mustard and gold to rust and rosy red. The inevitable shadows cross my path and the sunlight plays off the houses rising up, one then another, leaning, leaning, it seems, one against the other. Their green-shuttered windows open onto the street like eyes that have watched the centuries walk by below. What secrets do they hold? Are they too tired to watch as I pass today?

The names of the tiny streets that cross Via Clavature derive from the Middle Ages and designate the artisans and merchants who once inhabited them. For instance, Via Clavature itself was the street of the locksmiths. Other metalworkers would have populated Via Orefici (goldsmiths) and Via Spadari (sword-makers). Merchants of foodstuffs would have been found on Via Pescherie Vecchie (fish) and Via Caprarie (meat), while Via Drapperie (textiles) and Via Calzolerie (shoes) would have been the home of those trades. Then too, surprises hide in unexpected corners in the nooks and crannies of the immediate neighborhood. Just turn left or right from Via Clavature onto one of the little cross-streets and look for hidden osterie, tiny shops or quiet bars.

On the left, just after Via Drapperie (n. 16-18) a group of houses that overhang the street show the evolution of Bologna's porticoes. The small bulge, then a bigger one and finally, the full-fledged, though narrow, portico allowed the proprietor to expand the living space in his house to accommodate university students and earn money ("Com' è Bella: Life Under Bologna's Porticoes").

While I meander, I contemplate the Renaissance and the Bentivoglio family, especially Giovanni II, whose term of power (1463-1506) represented a relatively calm period in the normally tempestuous history of the city. Because of his wealth and prestige, important artists like Francesco Francia, Lorenzo Costa, Jacobo della Quercia, Nicolò dell'Arca and even a young Michelangelo received commissions and worked in Bologna. (See the painting Madonna in trono col Bambino e i ritratti di Giovanni II Bentivoglio e della famiglia (1488) by Lorenzo Costa in the church of San Giacomo Maggiore, Piazza G. Rossini.) His reign ended violently though when the papacy again gained control of the city and Giovanni had to flee into exile. The angry masses proceeded to level his famous palazzo, with its nearly 300 rooms. (Palazzo Bentivoglio's tower is visible in Francesco Francia's Madonna del terremoto (1505), a fresco in the Sala d'Ercole of the Palazzo Comunale in Piazza Maggiore .

Point C: Palazzo Pepoli and Torrente Savena

At Via Castiglione I turn right and enter into the fourteenth century world of the Pepoli family, Romeo and his son Taddeo. They were rich bankers who, in the early thirteen hundreds, controlled Bologna. At that time factions led by rich families often fought each other for control of the city, so internal wars were common, not only in Bologna, but in other Italian cities as well. The Pepoli family belonged to the faction called the Scacchesi, from which the black and white checkerboard derived on its heraldic shield (scacchi refers to the game of chess). Their primary adversary was the Maltraversi faction, when it wasn't the Roman Catholic Church or the Empire. The common people would take sides and could, in fact, be very wishy-washy.

Bologna's independent nature got her into trouble with the church sometimes. For instance, the General Council of the people gave unconditional power to Taddeo Pepoli in 1337 and named him "Protector of the Peace and of Justice" of Bologna. His constituted the first real signoria (a governing body) in the city's history and a direct threat to the Roman Catholic church's hegemony. Therefore, he had to deal immediately with two interdicts by Pope Benedict XII placed on the city and the university, for the city's presumptuous behavior. The interdicts would have threatened the economic and diplomatic position of Bologna. Whether the Bolognesi liked it or not, they were still subjects of the church in Rome.

So instead, Taddeo Pepoli became Captain of the People and Vicar of the Church in Bologna, and his reign was one of peace between factions in the city, with notable diplomatic achievements in the political arena in northern Italy. He died of the plague in 1347, not rousted from power by warring factions, as was the usual case.

The fortress-like palazzo of the Pepoli family eventually took up the entire block between Via Sampieri and Via dei Pepoli (n. 4 - 10). The gothic Palazzetto Pepoli (n.4), built by Romeo and attributed to Antonio di Vicenzo is the oldest construction. The giant portone opens into a cavernous space, where my footsteps resonate off of the immense stone walls and recall the shouts and vibrations of the past. Taddeo Pepoli began his neighboring fortress in 1345 and today one can still note the original door with its sculpted terracotta frame, and the black and white chessboard squares referring to the family crest.

The modern world has encroached on that of the Middle Ages, of course, so my imagination must come to the rescue as I push ahead on Via Castiglione and remember the first time I noted the palazzo. I was puzzled by the heavy iron serpent-like hooks and rings about five feet up from the pavement on the street-side flank of the edifice. Via Castiglione was once an open canal, one branch of the Torrente Savena that entered the city on the left of Porta Castiglione. Legend says that the hooks and rings anchored the boats that navigated the waterway that traveled from the south toward today's Piazza Ravegnana. Bologna had been a city of canals.

The water from the Torrente Savena was initially directed into the city in the twelfth century to fill the moat that circled the city outside the wall of the Torresotti, offering protection from enemies and aiding in the functioning of the flour mills in that part of the city. From the fifteenth century until the mid-seventeenth century though, the water also became necessary for the production of cloth and paper. Bologna's economy depended on the system of canals.

Now, however, motociclette zoom by and their noise can make it difficult to lose myself in the past. I visualize the narrow ancient waterway as I look toward the south away from the city center, with its particularly gentle bend off into the horizon. If I close my eyes and listen, I can hear the slapping water and the dipping oars of the boats that navigated the distances that big orange buses maneuver today. I walk toward the intersection with Via Farina, cross it and then remember the Ponte di Ferro, the iron bridge that once crossed the canal, as I turn right onto the busy, modern street.

Under the wide porticoes amid the rush of pedestrians I leave the Middle Ages and Taddeo Pepoli behind and glance into the store windows. I enjoy window-shopping in Bologna, especially the surprise when, as if by elfin magic, a black and white world of skirts, blouses, sweaters and shoes can overnight become a domain of soft yellow-green, vibrant orange and rich chestnut brown. Then I have no choice but to pause for a moment and admire.

I continue on Via Farini, toward Piazza Calderini and my mind slips back into medieval Bologna when this street was known as Via dei Libri (of books) because the book trade of the ancient university evolved here ("The University of Bologna: Alma mater Studiorum").

When I arrive at Piazza Cavour, I turn left onto what will become Via Garibaldi. A canopy of trees shelters the quiet paths in the piazza to my left. Again I try to imagine another Bologna and the street as it was known then, Via delle Cassette di Sant'Andrea, where the law students used to attend their lessons at the professors' quarters and, in fact, in public places from Via D'Azeglio to today's Piazza Galvani.

Point D: The Church of San Domenico

In 1219 Reginald of Orleans, a follower of Domenico Guzman, founder of the Dominican Order of preaching monks, moved the existing small community to San Nicolò delle Vigne, where today stands the basilica of San Domenico. At that time, however, it was in the outskirts of the city, in the middle of vineyards, thus the name of the small church. (One can still see vineyards while walking in Villa Ghigi, not too far along off of Via Mamolo just past the Piazza di Porta San Mamolo.) San Domenico himself arrived that same year and, before his death in 1221, had made it an important center for the Order. Since that time, the history of Bologna and the work of San Domenico have been closely intertwined.

River stones that recall a medieval past cover Piazza San Domenico massaging my feet through leather-soled shoes as I approach the church. Two copper statues on top of high columns stand there, the one in the center of San Domenico (1627, designed by Guido Reni) and the other of the Madonna (1632, Giulio Cesare Conventi). Perhaps more interesting to me though are the other two pyramidal structures that rise up. They are the tombs of two revered heroes of medieval Bologna. My first reaction to them had been "I wonder what prince or famous warrior they memorialize?" However, Rolandino de'Passeggeri was an important notary and government official (1305) and Egidio Foscherari, an expert in Church Law (1289). Bologna's heroes have always been her famous Doctors of the Law ("The University of Bologna: Alma Mater Studiorum").

I approach the main door of the church and allow San Domenico himself to welcome me as he looks down from the lunette, dressed in the characteristic white and black flowing robes of his order. His sweet bearded face and beckoning motion encourage me to enter. The quiet and coldness of the huge gray interior envelop me.

I stop outside the sixth chapel on the right and welcome the harmony and peace of the enclosed golden space. The white marble tomb of San Domenico shines from inside the shadows, as if lit from an inner light. As I look at the chapel I think of the time and collection of artists it required to create it. The tomb to honor San Domenico took five centuries to complete, from thirteenth to the eighteenth. In our world of quick results and fast turnover, it is difficult to imagine. From 1265-1267 Nicola Pisano worked with others less famous to carve the saint's sarcophagus that depicts scenes from his life. Two hundred years later (1469-1473) Nicolò dell'Arca added the magnificent marble crown to the sarcophagus, considerd his capolavoro which defines him forever in art books. Did he believe it to be his masterpiece? Did the young Michelangelo Buonarroti realize that his angel holding the torch would resemble the David that we would all flock to Florence to see? The tomb, begun even before the time of Taddeo Pepoli (1337-1347), was still being created during the signoria of Giovanni II Bentivoglio (1463-1506). Pazienza . . .

The two torch-bearing angels, one on each side of the altar slab, charm me. I look at the one on the left done by Nicolò dell'Arca (1469-1473) and compare it to his La Pietà that I have just experienced in Santa Maria della Vita. The angel's quiet sweetness strikes me. The drama of the group of statues is missing. The gown dwarfs the angel's body. The face is one of a young child. There is no movement. Its beauty is simple, sweet, still, graceful, delicate.

On the other side of the altar is Michelangelo's angel, whose gown does not mask the strong body underneath, the pent-up energy. The young angel holds still for a moment, but his mind is on flight, movement. He would seem out of place in the angel-world. His athletic hulk holds a thick torch. He looks out brashly, not down demurely like his partner. I think about old Nicolò from Puglia and young Michelangelo. The angels are simple, perhaps the least complicated figures of the tomb, but in the comparison I can understand better the passage of time that the Ark represents.

Michelangelo also authored two other statues surrounding the crown of the tomb: San Procolo and San Petronio. I join the group of tourists that peer around its edges, searching them out. The statues proclaim themselves to even those unfamiliar with the two saints. San Petronio (second from the left in the front) holds the city of Bologna safely in his hands, while Roman San Procolo, his sword missing, stands guard, second from the right in the back.

As I continue toward the exquisite coro behind the main altar, I stop at Filippino Lippi's Matrimonio Mistico di Santa Caterina (1501), which hangs in the chapel just to the right of the presbytery. The lightness and brightness of its colors, especially the red of St. Catherine's flowing gown, glows in the dark hollow of the huge church.

Handwritten signs direct me to the choir. I walk into the huge space, which is normally draped and dark, but today brilliant with strong afternoon sun shining in through the immense windows. I go to the opposite end of the room and prepare myself to enter into the world of the monk Damiano da Bergamo (1528-1551). The choir consists of stalls formed by separate panels of inlaid wood, exquisitely expressive and complex. Scenes from the Old and New Testament show the monk's perception of his world and allow a glimpse inside, to see his heart and soul. With tiny slivers of wood, in tones that range from black to limpid beige, he has depicted living, breathing Madonna's, saints and townspeople. He has created action and drama. He has built hill towns and castles with walls and houses. He has shown ducks floating serenely down the stream while Saint Stephen is being stoned to death. Flowers pop up in front of the Nativity scene and skies move as the wind blows the clouds away. God looks down and angels too, just as the people look down from the windows above the flagellation of Christ.

I feel like I could walk in. No, I am pulled deep, deep into the space. I think of the Dominican monks whose backs over the centuries have felt the wood behind them and wonder if they felt the warmth of the wood, or its smooth hardness, or were they always too deep in prayer and contemplation to notice. I want to touch it -- to feel its smoothness and warmth, but I know I cannot. I rub my fingers together to help dissipate the urge that overwhelms them. I can only imagine its exquisite feel. I think of the artist and his patience. I think of his hands and his eyes, how tired he must have felt from the tedious work. I wonder if he ever thought about the joy and inspiration his work would give to us centuries later.

Point E: Bologna's Star-Crossed Lovers

I leave behind Damiano's world -- and Domenico's. Outside again in the bright sunlight I cross the piazza and Via Garibaldi and take Via Marsili, once called Largo di San Domenico, heading west. The Palazzo Fava-Marescotti at the corner of Via del Cane was probably designed by Francesco Morandi called the Terribilia about 1573 and today houses the Italian Red Cross. All of the streets in the neighborhood are narrow and porticoed and smell musty-old. Again I meander here and there, in the small alleyways and eventually return to Via del Cane, continuing toward Via de' Carbonesi amid the yellow stucco houses that crowd me on either side. Evidently, the street gets its name from the image of a dog carved into the back wall of the Palazzo Barbazzi, whose main entrance is on Via Garibaldi (n. 3/2).

When I reach Via de'Carbonesi, I recall the legend of Alberto Carbonesi and Virginia Galluzzi, star-crossed lovers like Romeo and Juliet. I cross the street and turn left onto the via, thinking of "poor Alberto and his Virginia." They were the children of rival families in the war between the Guelphs, supporters of the Papacy and the Roman Catholic church (Galuzzi), and the Ghibellines, supporters of the Empire (Carbonesi), in thirteenth century Bologna. Alberto and Virginia fell in love and were secretly married. When her father Giampietro discovered the truth he killed Alberto, along with others who had aided the lovers. Virginia, desperate, hung herself from the balcony of a Carbonesi house. Treachery, intrigue and love in the thirteenth century.

Point F: Teatro Romano -- and Chocolate

Today though I cross over to the COIN department store at Via de'Carbonesi, n. 7, between Via D'Azeglio and Via D'Aposa. It is not just any normal department store though. I enter through the heavy doors into what was once a seventeenth century palazzo and, although shopping would certainly be enjoyable, I approach the ruins of a Roman Theater that form the emporium's centerpiece. Just as in a museum, a portion of the external front of a Roman Theater from the Republican Period rises up. From the railing on the first floor one looks down into its rocky foundation. I short walk down the steps that circle it, allows me to look at the remains that lie visible under the specially designed transparent floor. Other portions form a part of the Men's and the House Furnishings Departments. While I glance at the merchandise, I notice the pieces of the past so graciously displayed and sense the incongruity of intersecting times and spaces so seemingly distinct. Then I keep in mind what I have set out to do today -- encounter the layers of Bologna's history in the neighborhood -- and realize that in a very practical, everyday way, this place represents just that idea of history.

Roman Bononia's theater would have been located near the southern confines of the city. A full semi-circle in shape, about 75 meters in diameter, it opened to the north. From its architectural characteristics its age has been ascertained from between 120 and 80 BC. At least one significant phase of reconstruction was thought to have occurred during Imperial Rome, during the time of Nero (first century AD). Various other remains had been found as early as the sixteenth century in the neighborhood. In the 1980's actual proof surfaced regarding the theater that lay underneath modern Via de'Carbonesi, including the whole block from Via D'Azeglio, Via D'Aposa and Viccolo Spirito Santo.

Outside the exit I immediately enter into the doorway to my left, leaving behind thoughts of Roman Bologna, and enter into the chocolate world of Majani. Since 1796, the renowned chocolate factory has created the melt-in-your mouth cioccolatini that have enslaved me, an avowed non-chocoholic. My favorite is the Fiat Cremino, a layered, dice-shaped chunk of chocolate, almond and hazelnut cream, wrapped elegantly in foil with a band of shiny white paper, and a royal blue rising sun and Fiat resplendently stamped on top. I purchase my supply and unwrap one impatiently. I place it reverently into my mouth and savor unashamedly the exquisite rich creaminess as it melts down slowly, slowly into only an scrumptous afterglow. Whew . . . thank goodness I'm not a chocoholic!

Point G: Oratorio

Turning right outside the door, at Via Val D'Aposa, named after one of the rivers that formed part of the Bologna's canal system in the Middle Ages, I turn right again. One cannot help but notice, a short distance ahead on the right, the Oratorio of the Holy Spirit, erected by the Celestines from 1481 to 1497. It seems like a dollhouse church, with intricate terracotta decorations on its facade. The street is narrow and the ordinary porticoed palazzi -- stained shades of golden yellow to rusty red ocher -- smell musty. I wander toward Piazza Maggiore again, aware that under my feet as I walk, Roman Bononia still rests as it has for centuries. And so I end today's encounter with the layers of Bologna's past.

I invite your comments in English or Italian about what I have written.

Bologna Reflections: An Uncommon Guide by Mary Tolaro-Noyes.
Copyright March 1997, April 2008. All rights reserved.

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Web Author: Philip Noyes     Last Updated: 15-Sep-2008