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“The Learned”, “The Fat”, “The Red” Its university is one of the most ancient and prestigious in the world; even Dante and Petrarch can be numbered among its former students. And the 80,000 students that are enrolled nowadays make it a lively, cosmopolitan place. Its historical charm is matched by the appeal of the outstanding local cuisine, starting with the mythical tagliatelle by Dario C. Nicoli
Bologna seen from the Torre degli Asinelli. The main artery that can be made out is Strada Maggiore heading towards Ravenna. All the Mediaeval roads of Bologna start from the Two Towers. Photo by Dario C. Nicoli
“The Learned” because it hosts the oldest university in the Western world; “the Fat” because it is home to good cooking; “Towered” because in the Middle Ages there were almost 180 noble towers; “the Red” because of the reflection of the brick with which those towers and palazzos were built. This is Bologna: 300.000 inhabitants in the heart of the city, and just as many in the hinterland where many people of Bolognese origin have gradually moved, starting from about the 1970s, to escape from the scourge of the exorbitant prices asked by the property landlords in the center.
Bologna. A crossroads for the North-East, strategic road and rail hub for communications all over the country. A city to fall in love with, lively by day and night with its taverns and pastries filled with Nutella, sold warm through the night. You can spend just a day sightseeing, but to say you have really seen it would take at least a week-end. Otherwise, the only images that stick in the busy tourists’ memory are the leaning towers, Asinelli and Garisenda, that create a background to via Rizzoli, and the imposing forms of the “Gigante”, the monumental statue that represents the God Neptune calming the waters, a bronze by Giambologna from the 16th century, that dominates the square of the same name. Not enough. Because the “fosca turrita Bologna” as Carducci had it, should be seen, sniffed, tasted, discovered slowly, by skirting, if at all possibile, its 35 kilometers of porticoes, visiting its churches starting from San Petronio – second only to the Roman basilica of St. Peter’s in length – with its extraordinary linear meridian, and by stopping for a few minutes in the market in the center, where there is always someone who will strike up a conversation and explain how to make a good ragù. And you can’t neglect the Archiginnasio with its ancient anatomical theater, the large square, the art gallery full of the most famous works by Carracci’s Bologna school, by Guido Reni and by Il Guercino, the church of St. Stephen built in imitation of the temple in Jerusalem, the lace and filigree in Palazzo della Mercanzia. All can be found in a little square of space beneath the towers, the beating heart of the city like in the Middle Ages, from where all the roads radiate out. The most important of these is the straight road called via Rizzoli-Strada Maggiore, the road which at one time joined Pavia and Ravenna, allowing communication between the Emperor of the Franks and that of the Eastern Roman Empire. And in fact at the median point of their journey, the two powers used to meet to discuss lawmaking. Bologna, where Bishop Irnerio and his Glossators studied the Justinian code and formulated decisions which were sentences. The birth of the Alma Mater university is said to date back to 1088, but it is in 1158 that Frederick the First promulgates the Costitutio Habita with which the university becomes by law, a place where research can develop independently of any other power.
The first students of whom we have some documentation are Pepone and Irnerio, who was defined by posterity as “lucerna iuris”. From the 14th century on, the law school is partnered with an “Arts” school, with experts in medicine, philosophy, arithmetic, astronomy logic, rhetoric and grammar. In 1364, the teaching of theology is introduced. Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca, Guido Guinizelli, Cino da Pistoia, Cecco d’Ascoli, Re Enzo, Salimbene da Parma and Coluccio Salutati all spent time studying in Bologna.
Bologna reached the height of its splendor in the 13th century, not only because of the university, but also because its town militia defeated the Emperor’s army in 1249 and captured King Enzo, the son of Frederick II of Swabia, and kept him imprisoned in the city until his death.
It was a century of social reforms: in 1256 Bologna was the first European city to abolish serfdom. Thanks to its system of hydraulic energy supply that was amongst the most advanced in the world, the city specialised in silk-making from the 15th century onwards: the” Bolognese-style” silk mills represented the highest expression of European technology until the 18th century.
After the 14th century there were a series of unfortunate wars and civil uprisings, and the progressive subjection of the city to the temporal power of the Popes. Thus was Bologna to lose its full sovereignty. For more than two centuries it was variously under the domination of the Viscounts, the Lords of Milan, under the influence of the Roman Church, it had republican governments, it was governed by the most important families of the city who fought among themselves to get the upper hand.
Between the 16th and the 18th centuries Bologna was inserted in the Church State, governed on one hand by a cardinal of the Pope’s, and on the other by a City Senate. In this period it hosted some events of historical importance, like the coronation of Charles V, the meeting between Pope Leone X and King Francois I of France, and various sessions of the Council of Trent.
The charm of its history and culture are enhanced by the good smells that emanate from its kitchens to cast their spell on the visitor. Wherever you take a seat, you are guaranteed a good meal: whether you go to “Vito’s” in the Cirenaica district, where at 2 a.m. it is still possible to eat a dish of tagliatelle and a shinbone washed down with a “pistone” (two-liter bottle) of very good Sangiovese, or you choose the charm of “Diana’s” in via dell’Indipendenza, where tortellini reign alongside the trolley of boiled meats. Of course the prices are higher here, but sometimes “noblesse oblige”. Penniless students or struggling artists (on the walls photos of Morandi and Guccini are still on show from when they were looking for success) meet here, whereas at Diana’s you dine next to big international artists, politicians’ wives or the high-flying managers of the day. Anyone who wants somewhere in between with the certainty of eating the best plate of authentic Bolognese tagliatelle has to get out of the center in the direction of Ravenna to reach Borgatella, in the area of Roveri, where Vilma your hostess will show you everything she learned to cook when she worked for years at “Pappagallo” and in the best restaurants in town.
Three addresses which could be thirty or three hundred. They are the symbol of a city which loves good cooking and defends to its last its own traditions in the face of attacks from Chinese cuisine, Japanese sushi, Greek dishes, Turkish, Indian and so on. Because even Bologna, a city of a long tradition of cosmopolitanism (apart from anything else, thousands of foreign students have attended its university since 1088), has suffered from the foreign invasions that settle in the city center.
If it wasn’t for the constant presence of the 80 thousand students that attend the university and that pay incredible sums to lodge in groups in the houses nearest to the institution, perhaps Bologna would run the risk of disappearing, with its “touchy” tagliatelle (offence is taken if you don’t eat them straightaway), its tiny tortellini, its strictly green baked lasagne filled with white sauce and ragù, generously covered in Parmesan cheese. The students caused the city to grow in the Middle Ages, the students will save it once again today.
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