A few steps from the Two Towers, the Museum of the History of Bologna is housed in Palazzo Pepoli Vecchio, the former home of the Pepoli, one of Bologna’s most powerful families in the Middle Ages.
Looking at it from the outside, Palazzo Pepoli, which stands on via Castiglione, looks austere; it was built as a stronghold, protected by a moat and a drawbridge. But inside, it was a refined residence used to welcome illustrious people and host parties. Erected in 1344 by Taddeo Pepoli, lord of Bologna from 1337 to 1347, the building is the result of several additions and stratifications carried out until 1723.
The Museum of the History of Bologna is a recent addition among the city’s museums: it opened in 2012. It consists of 40 exhibitions rooms distributed over more than 6,000 square meters recounting 3,000 years of Bologna history, from Etruscan times to the present. The museum itinerary follows a chronological path interspersed with themed, in-depth analysis where the architectural, artistic, scientific, social, and of course historical, aspects of the city are all covered.
In the many articles I’ve seen lately about what to see in Bologna, this museum is very rarely mentioned and I’m not sure why. It gives a great overview of the history of Bologna and could very well be the starting point of a visit to the city. My only criticism would be the lack of an English translation on the installations and panels; foreign visitors can consult sheets of paper translated into English, French and German illustrating each room’s exhibit. I therefore recommend getting the audio guide.
The museum is vast and offers a lot of information; if you want to see everything, you have to plan for at least half a day; if you have less time, this is what I recommend you shouldn’t miss.
What Not to Miss at the Museum of the History of Bologna
- Room A: The 1:1 reproduction of the fresco made in 1575 for the Sala Bologna of the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope in the Vatican. It’s a fascinating bird’s sight view of Bologna in the Renaissance, commissioned by Bologna-born Pope Gregory XIII, and shows the city encircled by the third ring of walls (only the entrance gates – porte – survive today).
- Room 1: A compelling reconstruction of the Etruscan road that, crossing the necropolis (cemetery), led into the city, which, at the time of the Etruscans, was known as Felsina.
- Room 4: an exhibit dedicated to the Via Emilia, the Roman road completed in 187 BC and the only road to have given the name to a region; a cart dating from Roman times placed next to a Ducati motorbike (Bologna is the proud hometown of Ducati) well convey the idea of how long this road has been in use.
- Room 8: The Forma Urbis room traces the urban transformation of Bologna; it includes a reconstruction of a unique architectural feature of Bologna, the portico; and several photos showing the changes the city has undergone – the most striking to me is the image showing three tall medieval towers next to the Two Towers (Due Torri). They were torn down in the 20th century to enlarge via Rizzoli. If they were still there, perhaps we’d be known as the ‘city of the five towers’, rather than the ‘city of the two towers’!
- Room 20: the reconstruction of a portion of the Aposa creek which traverses Bologna and is now mostly underground; a video installation shows how important the canals once were for the economy of the city (you can no longer see them except for one in the city center).
- Make sure you watch the well-done cartoon about the history of Bologna as told by the cute Etruscan character Apa.
- *This one’s not to miss, but hurry as it’s only temporary! The ‘Time Machine’ (La Macchina del Tempo) is a really cool immersive experience plunging you into the Bologna of the 13th century. Wearing a special visor, you’ll be able to walk around the medieval streets of Bologna, catching a glimpse of what life was like back then, with its residents, and the many animals that once populated the streets; you’ll see the houses, squares, towers and churches of the time. You’ll even be able to ‘fly’ over Bologna and observe the myriad towers that once soared above Bologna. This exhibit is open until January 7, 2018.
There is of course a lot more to see that I haven’t covered in this article. Use the map provided when you buy your ticket to plan your visit according to your main interests.
The Museum of the History of Bologna (Museo della Storia di Bologna) is on via Castiglione 8. It is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 am to 7 pm (last entry 6 pm).
You can buy your ticket online for the Time Machine (Macchina del Tempo) at this link. With the Time Machine ticket, entrance to the museum is €5 instead of the regular €10.
For more information, visit the museum’s website.