A huge statue of a virile Neptune presides over the center of Bologna, facing the sweeping expanse of Piazza Maggiore and surrounded by crenellated 12th- and 13th-century palazzi and the enormous basilica di San Petronio. Just to the east the medieval Due Torri (Two Towers) lean tipsily towards each other, and beneath them the five main streets of the city spin out toward the ancient city gates. You can walk to just about any of the city’s sights from the piazza. Before you set out, take a look at one of the more intriguing presences, the Palazzo di Rei Enzo, on the northeast side. Enzo (1218–1272) was king of Sardinia and the illegitimate son of German Emperor Frederick II. While Enzo was studying at the University of Bologna, the papal-supporting Guelphs defeated the Ghibellines, who supported the Holy Roman Empire. Enzo, aligned with the Ghibellines, was imprisoned in this grim looking palace until his death 23 years later. He didn’t exactly languish in a dungeon—he was known for his lavish feasts, more than 150 romantic conquests, and a foiled escape attempt when his blonde hair, protruding from a basket, was a dead giveaway.
Staying Dry in Bologna
Almost 40km (25 miles) of porticos cover the sidewalks of Bologna. They seem purpose-built to provide the Bolognese with a venue to stroll and strut during the evening passeggiata, no matter how inclement the weather. Most are high enough to accommodate a man on horseback, as mandated by a 14th-century city ordinance. It’s said they were originally built to duplicate the porticos of the ancient Greek academies, giving students a place to walk and discourse, while pragmatists claim they allowed residents to extend the upper stories of their homes over the sidewalks, helping ease a medieval housing crunch. Showiest of all is the 3.5km (2 mi.) stretch of porticos, supported by 666 arches, that climb a green hillside to the Santuario della Madonna di San Luca (www.sanlucabo.org). It’s said that Luke the Evangelist did the painting of Mary inside, and the views of the city and surrounding countryside are riveting.
A Frenchman named Giambologna (the Italians altered his name) designed the Fontana di Nettuno (Neptune Fountain) in 1566 and gave the naked sea many rippling muscles and surrounded him with erotic cherubs and sirens spouting water from their breasts. The papal legate who occupied the Palazzo d’Accursio opposite deemed the spectacle indecent, but Giambologna got his revenge: If you approach the statue from its rear right side, you’ll notice that the left arm is positioned in such a way to suggest an indecently large . . . well, walk around the statue and see for yourself.
A Liitle-Known Treasure
Nicolo dell’Arca, famous for his carvings on Bologna’s tomb of St. Dominic, crafted another lesser-known but delightful work in the Church of Santa Maria della Vita, just off Piazza Maggiore at Via Clavature 8. His “Lamentation” is a set of life-size terracotta figures taking Christ from the cross; the expressions on the faces of the lamenters are etched in grief, and the grouping is one of the most humane and moving religious images you’ll encounter—even though they’re clumsily shored up with wood to prevent damage in an earthquake. The church is open daily (Mon–Sat 10am–noon and 3–7pm and Sun 3–7pm, but hours may vary), and admission is free.
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