Bologna – Centro Storico – medieval architecture

Despite substantial damage during WWII, Bologna still has the largest medieval centre of any Italian city excluding Venice.

The city is particularly known for its defensive towers, of which there were once perhaps as many as 180, giving the city the appearance of a medival Manhattan. Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, they were probably constructed as symbols of wealth and status, as well as for defensive purposes.

Today only around twenty of the towers remain, the most famous of which are “Le Due Torri“; the 320-foot Asinelli tower and its truncated neighbour the Garisenda tower, both located in a prominent central location at the end of Via Rizzoli. Their leaning forms have become an iconic symbol of the city. It’s said that Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center in New York, was inspired by the Towers.

For a few euro you can climb the 498 steps to the top of the Asinelli tower but be warned it’s not for the faint-hearted. The stairs are old and worn, and very rickety!

I made the ascent in 2009 and was rewarded with a spectacular view of the city, but my vertigo wouldn’t allow me to stay up there for very long. In the picture below, on top of the second hill, you can just see the Santuario di San Luca which I walked up to on my Sunday hike (post here).

The towers stand at a central intersection of the roads that lead to the five gates in the old ring wall (Mura dei Torresotti). Some of the gates remain but the city walls were demolished in the 20th century to allow for the construction of a ring road, and some of the Stile Liberty architecture that I saw in an earlier post.

Near the Two Towers, the Palazzo della Mercanzia in Bologna (also known as the Loggia dei Mercanti or Palazzo del Carrobbio), overlooks the square of the same name. Constructed between 1382 and 1391 in Gothic style, it is the historical home of the Bologna Chamber of Commerce.

On Strada Maggiore you can find the facade of the Corte Isolani, a covered passage (now a shopping arcade) that connects Strada Maggiore with Via Santo Stefano. The wooden portico of the entrance dates back to the fifteenth century and famously still has three arrows stuck in it, supposedly the remains of a medieval assassination attempt.

Another curiousity that is not immediately obvious is the Canale di Reno, part of a canal system that was gradually developed between the 12th and 16th centuries. The canals made Bologna very prosperous but were covered over in the 1950s as part of a plan for urban redevelopment carried out in the post-war period.

The fragments of canal that remain generally hidden away out of sight, but if you go to 2 Via Piella there is a small window with a door (known as the Finestrella di Via Piella) that gives you this view when you open it. It’s easily missed so look carefully.

Screen trivia: in the last episode of We Are Who We Are, a trans-friendly coming-of-age TV drama series, Fraser kisses the boy he was with at the concert just after they look at this scene through the little door.

Incomplete church facades seem to be another feature of Bologna. This is Chiesa di Santa Lucia which, like the cathedral, has an unfinished bare brick frontage. In the case of the cathedral I read that the work was halted by the Vatican when it heard the decoration of the building was intended to rival that of St Peters and I wonder if that might be the story here too, or maybe the money just ran out. Now a university lecture hall, the church was also once the home of Bologna’s first basketball club.

You’ll find everywhere mentioned above on my Google map.

For more medieval architecture, please see my post on A Walk Around the Cathedral Squares.

Photos uploaded May 2021 and September 2010.

Some modern architecture next!

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