Politics and Power: Visiting Bologna’s Palazzo D’Accursio

Palazzo D'Accursio Bologna
Palazzo D’Accursio in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore.

Palazzo D’Accursio has been the seat and symbol of Bologna’s political power since medieval times. Located on Piazza Maggiore, it is the fortress-looking building that frames the square on its western side (to your right as you look at the Basilica of San Petronio).

The 15,000-square-meter complex is the result of the fusion of three palaces, with the oldest dating to the 12th century: the casa-torre (house-tower), well visible as it is the part of the building with the clock tower. Originally, this was the house of the jurist Accursio (hence the name given to the building, which is also known as Palazzo Comunale), an eminent professor of law at the Studium, the University of Bologna.

Accursio sold the palace to the city in 1287, and, in the 13th century, the building became known as Palazzo delle Biade because it was used as the municipal storage of grains.

In 1336, it became the seat of the Anziani (“Elders”), the highest magistrates of the city (Comune). Thirty years later, the papal legate – the representative of the pope in town – gave the building its fortified look, with walls, merlons and towers (perhaps because papal power had always been seen with suspicion by the Bolognesi).

In 1425, the building was further expanded to house the apartments of the Papal Legate.

Today, Palazzo D’Accursio still houses some administrative offices of the city (the bulk of them was transferred to a different part of the city only in 2008), the Civic Art Collections (Collezioni Comunali d’Arte) and the Sala Borsa, the city’s library.

Here’s what to look out for when visiting Palazzo D’Accursio.

Your Guide to Visiting Bologna’s Palazzo D’Accursio

Façade

Palazzo D'Accursio Bologna
Palazzo D’Accursio has the look of a medieval fortress.

Before you enter Palazzo D’Accursio, take a look at the façade. Above the entrance is a statue of Bologna native Pope Gregory XIII, blessing passersby, which was inspired by a statue of the pope commissioned to Michelangelo (that statue was later destroyed). Gregory XIII is the man who introduced the Gregorian calendar, the one still in use today.

To its left is a statue of the Madonna con Bambino by sculptor Niccolò dell’Arca, the author of the famous Compianto housed in the Basilica of Santa Maria della Vita.

Courtyard and Staircase

Palazzo D'Accursio Bologna
The staircase designed by Bramante leading to the first floor.

Enter the main courtyard and traverse it diagonally to reach the grand staircase designed by Bramante to reach the first floor. Pope Julius II ordered the construction of such a staircase to allow horse-drawn carriages to reach the apartments on the first floor. Quite impressive to see, and quite uncomfortable to walk on! But perhaps the horses had an easier time.

First Floor

The first room you’ll encounter is the Sala d’Ercole, which takes its name from the large bronzed terracotta statue of Hercules (1519), which is thought to symbolize the fall of the Bentivoglio family and the restoration of papal power over Bologna. This is the most ancient part of the building, which grew around the house of Accursio.

To the left of the statue is the Sala del Consiglio Comunale, still used today for town hall meetings. Look up: the decoration of the ceiling is a magnificent example of Baroque art. Pay special attention to the painted columns as you enter, then walk to the far side of the room and look again: you’ll notice an interesting optical effect – the columns no longer look straight but curved).

sala-consiglio-comunale
The Sala del Consiglio Comunale, once the Senate meeting room, now the town hall meeting room.

Also on the first floor is the Sala Rossa, so called for the color of the tapestries that decorate the room. In the 16th century, it was the main room for the Senate meetings (the Senate shared with the Legate the government of Bologna). In 1677, the meetings were moved to the wing of Palazzo D’Accursio facing Piazza Maggiore, thus creating the current Sala del Consiglio Comunale. Sala Rossa is where the Bolognesi who opt for a civic rite get married.

Palazzo D'Accursio Bologna
The Sala Rossa inside Palazzo D’Accursio is where the Bolognesi get married.

Second Floor

Sala Farnese was the place where important civic ceremonies took place. In fact, the adjacent Cappella Farnese was the seat of one of the most important events of the 16th century: the coronation of Charles V to Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Clement VII on February 24, 1530. Part of the ceremony took place inside the Basilica of San Petronio. An elevated boardwalk was created to connect the two buildings, but, during the ceremony, part of it collapsed over the crowd that had gathered in the piazza, killing many.

Palazzo D'Accursio Bologna
Fresco in the Sala Farnese depicting the coronation of Charles V in Bologna in 1530.

The coronation of Charles V is depicted in one of the frescoes that decorate the walls of the room; they illustrate stories meant to recall the glorious times linked to the papal presence in the city. Cappella Farnese also feature a cycle of frescoes, some unfortunately partially damaged.

The thing I like the best about Sala Farnese is the view from its windows over Piazza Maggiore and its buildings, the cupola of Santa Maria della Vita and the Asinelli Tower.

Palazzo D'Accursio Bologna
View of Piazza Maggiore from Sala Farnese on a gloomy day – still beautiful.

On this floor you’ll also find the Collezioni Comunali d’Arte, housed in what were the apartments of the papal legate. The museum contains works of art that span eight centuries, from the 1200s to the 1900s, with works by such Bolognese artists as Vitale da Bologna, Amico Aspertini, and the Carracci brothers.

Want more Bologna history? Take a guided tour with me! Find more info here, then write me at bolognauncovered@gmail.com.

7 comments

  1. Ciao Silvia,
    I lived in Bologna 14 months and was only on the first floor of this building and that was solely to sign up for the free citywide Internet. AND I never noticed that terracotta Madonna on the outside. I look forward to discovering it next time.

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