Bologna – Centro Storico – a walk around the cathedral squares

The epicentre of Bologna’s Centro Storico is the cathedral Basilica di San Petronio in Piazza Maggiore.

To be honest I was a bit cathedraled out after visiting half a dozen Italian cities before Bologna, so I left the interior for my next visit.

For me though the most interesting, and somewhat startling, sight is in the adjoining Piazza del Nettuno…

…which takes its name from the magnificent Rennaisance fountain at its centre, the Fontana del Nettuno.

After the Two Towers (see later post), the Fountain of Neptune is Bologna’s most famous landmark. A classic of Mannerist style (Late Rennaisance), it was erected between 1564 and 1566 by Sicilian painter and architect Tommaso Laureti and Flemish sculptor Jean de Boulogne, also known as Giambologna.

The statue of Neptune, which also goes by the name of Il Gigante (or Al Zigant in Bolognese dialect), crowns the structure. His left hand is stretched against the wind, calming the waves, which transmits the explicit message that just as Neptune dominates the waters, the Pope dominates the world. At his feet are four putti (cherubs) holding dolphins which represent the rivers of the four continents known at the time; the Ganges, the Nile, the Amazon and the Danube. At the base are four nereids (water nymphs) squeezing water from their breasts, interspersed with papal coats of arms and grotesques.

Although commissioned by the Church, the statue is highly irreverent, representing a naked, muscular pagan god with some very sensual sea nymphs. Legend has it that Giambologna wanted to make Neptune’s genitals bigger, but the Church forbade it. In retaliation he designed the statue so that, from a certain angle, the outstretched thumb of his left hand looks like an erect penis (see last picture), which suggests another reason for the Il Gigante nickname.

Another interesting factoid is that the trident of Neptune’s statue was used by Maserati (founded in Bologna in 1914) as the emblem for their first car, the Maserati Tipo 26, and it is still the company logo today.

Click on the picture gallery for the best view.

Next to the fountain and facing the cathedral in the middle of Piazza Maggiore is the Palazzo del Podestà (built in 1200) and its extension the Palazzo Re Enzo (constructed 1245).

Once civic buildings, they are now event spaces. Beneath the Palazzo del Podesta is the Voltone del Podestà, where two perpendicular passages meet in an arched vault. The acoustics permit two people standing diagonally opposite each other in the passage to have a whispered conversation.

On the other side of the fountain is the Biblioteca Sala Borsa. Inside a glass floor allows you to see (for free) the Scali Romani: some remains of the original Roman city on which Bologna was built.

On the facade the Sacrario Piazza Nettuno has over two thousand pictures that memorialise the local partisans and anti-fascists who fell in WW2, many of whom were executed by the fascists against this wall.

On the Via Ugo Bassi side of the building, is the Fontana Vecchia. Like the Fontana del Nettuno it was built in 1565 by Tommaso Laureti again.

The library is part of the Palazzo d’Accursio (or Palazzo Comunale), Bologna’s town hall. A large bronze statue of the Bolognese Pope Gregory XIII (1580) sits over the entrance.

This nice cartouche decoration is in the first internal courtyard.

In the next courtyard is the Pozzo dei Deisideri which I understand is a copy of a Rennaisance wishing well.

Another curiousity can be seen across the street from Piazza Maggiore at the end of Via Indipendenza. This area used to be a market which sold bread, hemp and wine and you can still see the words “panis vita, canabis protectio, vinum laetitia” painted on the ceilings of porticoes and again in the pavement mosaics.

They roughly translate as “bread is life, cannabis is protection, wine is joy”, which could be seen as an apt description of life in this student city.

You’ll find everywhere mentioned on my Google map.

Next we head east from Piazza Maggiore to the bustling shopping streets of the Quadrilatero…

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