Piazza Maggiore: the Heart of Town

Piazza Maggiore at night

Your exploration of Bologna should begin from Piazza Maggiore, the main square and the heart of town. Piazza Maggiore has been the center of Bologna’s political and social life since the 1200s when the square and the buildings surrounding it began being built.

It is one of the biggest and oldest squares in Italy. Here, citizens gathered to listen to the enunciation of new laws and to witness capital executions. The square was also home to one of Europe’s biggest open-air market until the mid-1800s, with goods coming from all parts of the world.

The buildings that surround the square are:

Palazzo D’Accursio (City Hall)

Bologna, Piazza MaggioreAbove the entrance gate is the statue of Bologna native Pope Gregory XIII, blessing passers-by. As you enter the building, you pass through three courtyards: one was for receiving guests, one for storing weapons and one serving the prison. The old Cardinal apartments, the city council room, the Morandi Museum and the Farnese Chapel are located on the upper floors and accessed by a monumental staircase designed by Bramante.

Did you know? The Gregorian calendar, the international calendar in use today, takes its name from Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in 1582. It’s a solar calendar, which means that it is based on the cycle of the seasons.

Tip: Walk through the courtyard of Palazzo D’Accursio, walk up the staircase to the Sala Ercole and Sala Rossa to admire the view of Piazza Maggiore from the windows.

Palazzo Re Enzo and Torre dell’Arengo

The building where Enzo, King of Sardinia and son of Emperor Federico II di Svevia, was kept prisoner for 23 years until his death…and treated with all honors.

Death sentences were carried out under the huge vault that connects Palazzo Re Enzo and Palazzo del Podestà; you can still see two gallows where the condemned were hung.

Palazzo del Podestà. Construction began in 1200 together with Piazza Maggiore. It was the first seat of the local government. From the balcony were announced the city government’s decisions and death sentences.

Piazza Maggiore Bologna

Piazza and Fontana del Nettuno.
The famous fountain by Flemish sculptor Giambologna was built in 1564 and deemed scandalous for its nudities. The fountain had a practical function as it was used by the citizens to collect water.

Did you know? There is a replica of the Neptune Fountain in the seaside community of Palos Verdes, California.

Basilica of San Petronio.
Construction began in 1390 for what was supposed to become the largest church of the Christian world. The project had to be abandoned because the Pope did not like the idea of a church bigger than St. Peter’s in Rome. Regardless, San Petronio remains one of the largest Catholic churches in the world.

San Petronio Basilica

Tip: Sit at one of the outdoor cafés overlooking the piazza. Order cappuccino and brioche (but only if it’s before 11 am!), or a glass of spritz (a drink made with Prosecco and Aperol, very popular in Italy) if it’s aperitivo time (normally after 5 pm – it will be served with snacks)!

Photos courtesy of APT Servizi Emilia Romagna.

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