As promised, here are the answers to the questions published in my blog post from last week, where I asked about some important elements of Bologna’s history and culture, which will help you to familiarize with the city as you plan a visit, or just for the fun of it.
Here we go.
Ten Important Things to Know About Bologna
1. Who founded Bologna?
The Bologna area has been inhabited since ancient times. Around 1200 BC, towards the end of the Bronze Age, the region of Emilia was already settled with villages, including in the area of present-day Bologna. The Etruscans would later inhabit the region, and Bologna, which they called Felzna (Felsina in Latin), became one of their wealthiest cities. Therefore, the origins of Bologna are Etruscan.
The Etruscans would later be driven away by a Gallic tribe known as the Boii, who in turn would be defeated by the Romans. In 189 BC, the Romans established the colony of Bononia where Felsina once stood; the colony became a strategic center, especially after the construction, two years later, of the Via Emilia, the Roman road that gave the name to the region and still exists today.
2. What was a common architectural feature of Bologna in the Middle Ages? (It also gave the city one of its nicknames.)
The case-torri (tower-houses) were a common architectural feature in medieval Bologna. Some historians estimated that at some point the city had up to 200 towers! That figure is considered an exaggeration today, but it is a fact that the wealthiest families built tall towers as their residences both as a symbol of their wealth and power, and as defensive bulwarks.
Today, only 20 towers remain, among them the most famous of all, the Two Towers.
3. What was the first subject taught at the University of Bologna, the first university to be established in Italy and Europe?
The first subject to be taught at the University of Bologna was law (civil and ecclesiastical). Why law? Because when the University of Bologna was founded (the Studium as it was called then) in the 11th century, the city was going through a period of expansion and of great social change, with new social classes forming, such as those of artisans and merchants.
Without a set of written laws within a new composite reality where citizens were no longer just obedient vassals, it would be impossible to resolve disputes and disagreements. The biggest controversy at the time was the one between the Empire and the Papacy, as both fought for control of Italian territories.
The University of Bologna became a point of reference for the study of law across Europe.
4. Why did Bologna’s porticos become so widespread that today Bologna is known as the ‘porticoed city’, the city with the most kilometers of arcaded streets in the world?
Porticos were born out of space and social needs. As Bologna began rapidly growing in the High Middle Ages (starting in the 11th century), as an independent ‘Comune’ and as the seat of an increasingly important University, it needed new residential and commercial spaces. From the first floor up, residents started to create additional space in their houses by extending the buildings outward; the ledge that was created was supported by wooden beams resting on blocks of stone or selenite, thus creating a porticoed space below.
Construction of porticos was standard in the Middle Ages, but they were mostly for private use. Recognizing the public benefit of having porticoes, when other cities prohibited the construction of further porticoes in order to regulate community space, Bologna instead ordered that porticoes be built on all streets where they would be useful and that their use be made public.
5. Is it true that the Basilica of San Petronio, the city’s most important church, is unfinished?
Yes, and you can see it very well when you observe the facade, which features white and red marble at the bottom, but just bricks in the upper part. The original plan, which called for a gigantic cross-shaped building, was never brought to completion; when, in 1562, the Catholic Church ordered the construction of the Archiginnasio, the first official seat of the University of Bologna, on the space adjacent to the basilica, the original projects had to be halted.
I explain everything about San Petronio, another Bologna must-see, here.
6. What are the names of the Two Towers of Bologna? Do they both lean?
The Two Towers of Bologna are the Asinelli, the tallest one – 97.2 meters high – and the Garisenda, which used to be taller, but had to be ‘chopped off’ shortly after its construction because of structural failures that caused the tower to lean dangerously. In fact, it was cut off by 12 meters to the current 48 meters it measures today.
Fun fact: the Garisenda was mentioned in the Divine Comedy by Dante, an alum of the University of Bologna!
You can only climb up the Asinelli tower and it’s an experience I recommend.
Does the Asinelli lean? Oh yes! While it’s not as obvious as the Garisenda when you look at it, the Asinelli leans too (actually you can notice the inclination depending on where you approach it from). It has an inclination of 2,23 meters (angle 1.3°), which makes it the highest leaning medieval tower in Italy!
7. What are the three nicknames Bologna is known as? Bonus if you also know a fourth one! (It’s the one I refer to in question #2.)
Bologna is nicknamed ‘la dotta, la grassa, la rossa’ – the learned, the fat, the red, referring to, respectively, its university, its cuisine, and the red-colored roofs and bricks of its buildings (red also refers to the left-leaning politics that have always characterized the city).
The fourth nickname is ‘la turrita’, i.e., the city with many towers (see #2).
8. What’s the secret to perfect tortellini?
Il mattarello (the rolling pin) e la mortadella! The rolling pin helps create the dough which will envelop a filling where mortadella gives it its character; and the mixture of pasta dough, meats, Parmigiano and spices give tortellini their unparalleled taste.
9. What famous cured meat originated in Bologna? (This one’s sooo easy!)
Mortadella of course, which I just mentioned above. Mortadella is said to have been eaten in Bologna since Roman times. It once had a much higher status than it does today, enjoyed by the wealthy, and was even protected by a law issued against its counterfeiting.
I tell you everything about mortadella in this blog post.
10. Do spaghetti alla bolognese exist?
They do, but not in the way you may think. Or maybe they don’t. The issue is controversial and remains unresolved. Because it’s too complicated to explain in a short answer (as it happens every time you talk about traditional foods in Italy), you can delve deeper into it by reading this fun article.
How many answers did you know? What did you learn that surprised you?