Bologna, Il Compianto sul Cristo morto chiesa Santa Maria della Vita, Niccolò dell'Arca.
Home » Northeastern area Italy themed excursion » Emilia Romagna food motor music valley » Emilia Romagna art cities provincial capitals » Bologna university town Emilia Romagna main city

The oldest European university town

Already inhabited in the prehistoric times, the Romans founded it along the Via Emilia. Bologna expands in the Middle Ages and creates one of the first municipalities in the north of Italy. The XIII century remains the most glorious in its history because important works are done. They raised towers and they widened the roads. Hence a square is open around the towers Asinelli and Garisenda. As follow, they made also the church of San Francesco, and they commissioned Nicola Pisano to build the ark of San Domenico. Furthermore, “Piazza Maggiore” is widened. First in Italy, the town gives freedom to the servants with the law of 1256. And with its 50000 inhabitants becomes one of the top ten cities of Europe.

The struggles between Guelphs and Ghibellines

Unfortunately, in 1300 the struggles between Guelphs and Ghibellines lead to the establishment of nobles and papal governments. In 1506 the army of Pope Julius II enters in Bologna that, from 1513, will be part of the Church state. Only in 1800, after the annexation to the Kingdom of Italy, the city plan undergoes important change.

Bologna capital of the region

Bologna is the capital and the biggest art city of Emilia Romagna region. And it is one of the finest and best preserved ancient towns in Italy. During the 13th century, the town got the nickname “la Dotta, la Grassa, la Rossa” (the learned, the fat and the red). This is due to its notable university, cuisine, and use of terracotta.

The shaping of the town

The origins of the city date back to the Etruscans in the 6th century BC. The name of the town was Felsina. Hence now Felsinians are the firms and the inhabitants of Bologna. After the Etruscans, the Celts occupied the area. It seems that they introduced the farming of the pig to the region. Now the region is famous for its pork products. However, the present name of Bologna originates from when the Romans renamed the city around 189 BC. In fact, they gave the name Bononia to the town.

The roads

Bologna center’s grid street layout and radial roads to the outskirts have their origin in the Roman era. Most notable of all is Via Emilia. The Roman road which still links Rimini to Bologna and Piacenza. At the city’s heart, it is now Via Ugo Bassi, which formed part of the decumanus maximum. The Romans left behind the remarkable Setta aqueduct, which they use it until today. They also drained the surrounding area with the centuriation reclaiming it from the Adriatic swamp land. As a result, they brought a great wealth to the city.

The Longobards

The Longobard rule came between the 8th and the 11th centuries. They used Bologna as a frontier town in their wars against the Byzantine rulers in Ravenna. With the Longobard domination, eleven watchtowers adorn the center. In fact, the noble families built these skylines in the last decades of the Longobards rule. We know that the towers were the symbol of the wealth and the power of the families. And they erected lots of them between the 11th and 12th centuries.

The Middle Ages and the University

The towers heralded the Middle Ages that was the most important period of Bologna. Most of all, in 1088 Bologna established what is now Europe’s oldest university based on the study of Roman Law. And also the town became famous for its silk and pork production.

The Bentivoglio

Throughout the Middle Ages Bologna had a form of democratic rule. First by the craftsmen’s guilds and then by the noble families. Amongst the noble families, the Bentivoglio family was chosen to rule in the town. As a result, this domination of relatively insignificant nobles devoid of vast wealth reflected in the city. In fact, rather than having one or two great palaces or monuments dotted about, the town has an abundance of beautiful but comparatively modest buildings.

The Papal hegemony

In 1506 rivals to the Bentivoglio came with the Papal troops to Bologna. As a result, they ousted the Bentivoglio from the town. And the Papal rule began which lasted till the Risorgimento in 1859. From the Santo Stefano church complex outward, the church created lots of monasteries. As well as lots of ecclesiastic buildings to surround and control the city.

However, the Pope’s Pontifical Delegate ruled in tandem with the representative of the other 40 noble families. Thus to maintain the stability of the municipal power of the nobility. The absence of the Baroque style buildings, which Rome was the origin, illustrates that despite the Vatican concessions, the nobility remained antagonistic to their Papal rulers.

The arcades

Bologna boats over 30 km of arcades or porticoes that are the biggest collection in the world. In the city center, almost every building seems to give its porticoes. As a result, they provide sun shade and rain shelters. As well as walkways and shopping malls. Anyway, the arcades came out of the University city’s pressure for space. As the number of students expanded during the Medieval period. A relevant example is a portico that goes up to the sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca.

The need of the students

However, to build another floor on the two storey buildings was too expensive. Pushed for space and money, the families began to expand their houses by extending the first floor into the street. Wooden poles or planks wood then hold up the structure on the ground to create a portico. As a result, more and more families created arcades to link the houses and the streets. In 1116 the municipal government took up the arcade principal ordering them to be built everywhere. At the same time, they stipulated a minimum height of 2,66m for the arcades to allow a man on horseback to ride beneath and thus protecting the public highway.

Bologna walking guided tour

5 + 8 =

A great experience, Bologna is full of charm
Daniel Tesfamikael

Project Manager, Sightseeing in Italy