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If you have some free time and you would like to take a detailed tour of the city, to become familiar with its buildings, its squares, its particular atmosphere, I would suggest an on-foot tour, to give you a taste of the spirit of Bologna, a medieval city full of history and charm.
Journey time of approximately 2 hours.
From the exit of the B&B “Bologna nel Cuore” turn left to walk along Via Cesare Battisti. The road broadens just a few meters ahead, creating a small square. The imposing baroque church of San Salvatore that overlooks the square is, together with the contiguous convent, one of the many examples of religious compounds built in Bologna during the time of the papal hegemony. This church is also the place of burial of the famous Seventeenth-century painter Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, also known as Guercino. Following the wall of the church, cross to the opposite side of the road and lift your eyes to see the large tombstone affixed to the side of a house: the birthplace of another famous man from Bologna, Guglielmo Marconi. You are now walking along Via IV Novembre, which will take you to Piazza Maggiore through Piazza Roosevelt. Facing the square, as well as the beautiful building belonging to the Caprara family, now headquarters of the Prefettura (Prefect’s Office), you will also see the west side of the Town Hall (headquarters of the municipality): notice the 14th century surrounding wall, and the tower which has been built on top of a doorway of one of the most ancient surrounding walls of Bologna.
Continuing along Via IV Novembre, you will reach a broader road which the citizens call Piazzetta dell’Orologio, that is to say, the “Clock Square”, with refers to the clock on the tower of the Town Hall. Here the medieval constructions combine with the elegant buildings of the beginning of the nineteenth century. This is a particularly appealing meeting place, due to the beautiful view of Piazza Maggiore. Furthermore, in this area of the city, you will find traditional shops which have maintained their original signs and furniture. From this side of Piazza Maggiore starts Via D’Azeglio, a pedestrian area now mostly dedicated to shopping, but with an important role in the history of the city.
You have now reached the real heart of the city: the main square, Piazza Maggiore, and the adjacent square Piazza del Nettuno. The main attractions of Piazza Maggiore are the buildings and the medieval towers. The oldest tower belonged to the Accursio family, who owned the dwellings on the side of the square where now, since the end of the thirteenth century, is the Town Hall. In 1444 a mechanical clock was mounted on the tower. The tower of Arengo, built between the buildings Palazzo del Podestà, del Capitano, del Popolo and Re Enzo (literally: building of the Magistrate, building of the Capitan, building of the People and building of King Enzo) and has maintained its original medieval characteristics. The Palazzo del Podestà, which faces Piazza Maggiore, was constructed at the beginning of the 13th century, to serve as the first headquarters of the Municipality. It is connected to Palazzo Re Enzo, which was built a few decades later to enlarge the offices of the Municipality and also, from the years 1249 to 1272, as personal dwelling of the emperor Federico II, illustrious prisoner of Bologna.
The beautiful Neptune’s Fountain crafted by the sculptor Giambologna in 1566, is harmoniously sculptured to the style of the surrounding buildings of Piazza Nettuno and Piazza Maggiore, that stretch into one another becoming one single open space. The square bearing the name of the statue, also affectionately called “The Giant” by the citizens, was expressly built to accommodate the fountain, placed next to the new wing of the Town Hall. If you turn to face the other way, with the Palazzo del Podestà behind you, you will be able to admire the majestic Basilica of San Petronio. The construction of the basilica was ordered by the Municipality at the end of the 14th century, to reassert the city’s autonomy with respect to the Pope’s authority, symbolized by the cathedral of San Pietro. The heart of the city once was where the basilica now stands: in the wide block of buildings which are now mostly occupied by the church there once were houses, towers, religious buildings. According to the original project, the church was to be bigger than San Pietro in Rome, and a huge amount of marble was bought to adorn the front and sidewalls. However, the building was never completed, as the sheer size of the church in Bologna would have diminished the prestige and splendor of San Pietro, and this would never have been allowed. Even though incomplete, the Basilica of San Petronio is the world’s fifth-largest church. To make completion impossible, in 1565 a building of fundamental importance was erected on the east side of the church: the Archiginnasio, the first quarters of the University. The Porch outside the building is still known with the name of “Pavaglione” because up till the 19th century it was used as a marketplace for silkworms, called “pavaian” in the city’s dialect. On the opposite side of the building, you will see the Palace of the Notaries quarters of one of the most important societies of Notaries of Bologna. Bologna represents one of the oldest and most prestigious areas in the tradition of the notary profession, and the quarters of the notaries were built next to the Municipality where the majority of them worked.
Palazzo dei Banchi, on the west side of the square. This building inherited this name from the small medieval houses in which the “cambiatori” (literally “changers”), the bankers of the time, carried out their profession. This building is directly in front of the Tower Hall, where the cardinal used to reside. The cardinal functioned as the Pope’s delegate in the city. Around 1565, cardinal Carlo Borromeo decided that the area of the square occupied by the bankers was unseemly, and the architect Jacopo Barozzi called Vignola was asked to design a new facade for the building. The new facade was to encompass and merge the existing buildings and cover the back lanes. Vignola invented what can only be described as an architectural curtain, richly decorated and carved into an incredible number of tiny windows that let light filter through to the pre-existing constructions.
Passing through two wide arches you will enter the area behind the Palazzo dei Banchi, a grid of parallel roads dating back to the Roman period. Here the roads have maintained the names of the traditional crafts and hand-made products that could be found along those streets: Caprarie, Orefici, Pescherie, Clavature, etc. You can still come across a few characteristic food workshops, elegant bars and clubs, and specialized crafts workshops. In this area approximately 150 years ago the first covered market of Bologna called Mercato di Mezzo was founded. The market, after several years of work, has been brought back to the origin: a space to buy, taste and enjoy food.
Just a few steps away from the square, in Via Clavature, surrounded by other buildings, you will see Santa Maria Della Vita, a church governed by the religious confraternity that also ran the homonymous hospital not far from the church. This hospital took in only patients who had good chances of survival, while the hospital situated on the opposite side of the road, in front of the church (also called Ospedale Della Morte, literally the Death Hospital) took in patients who did not have any chances of survival. Today, the Ospedale Della Morte has become the Museo Civico Archeologico (Archaeological Civic Museum). The church of Santa Maria Della Vita, dating back to the 13th century, exhibits masterpieces of religious art, among which the most famous is the polychrome terracotta sculpture Compianto Sul Cristo Morto, which originally was polychrome, (various figure group in the sacred representation of Christ dead on the cross), crafted by Niccolò dell’Arca in the second half of the fifteenth century. Continue walking along Via Clavature until you reach Via Castiglione, cross the road and walk along narrow Via Sampieri.
When you reach the end of via Sampieri, you will find yourself in Via Santo Stefano. Turn right, and after a couple of meters, you will see that the road widens into a charming triangular-shaped square, the crossing point of three Roman roads. Facing this square is the Basilica of Santo Stefano, as well as some of the most beautiful buildings of Bologna dating from the fifth and sixteenth century. The different architectural styles become particularly evident if you look at the various porches. Tradition has it that the basilica of Santo Stefano was built in the 5th century by the bishop Petronio, now patron of Bologna, whose body is buried within the church. The original roman building suffered many changes and additions in the course of centuries, so much that the resulting compound is now called “the seven churches”. It is without a doubt one of the most striking testimonies of medieval Bologna. Keeping to the right of the road, after the square, you will reach the crossroad between Via Santo Stefano and Via Farini, one of the city’s most elegant roads. Solemn yet elegant is the building of the bank Cassa di Risparmio by the architect Giuseppe Mengoni ( he also designed the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan) In the nineteenth century Bologna started to modernize its architectural style, following the example of other famous European cities. Demolitions and alterations were the characteristic elements of the last three decades of the century. In 1870, the demolition of a whole block of houses permitted the construction of the Cassa di Risparmio and the adjacent garden square dedicated to the statesman Marco Minghetti. You can see his statue in the center of the square. After you have crossed the square, walking under the porch of Via Farini, you will reach the entrance to the Cavour Gallery, a real “must” for shopping fans. Right in front of the gallery, there is a garden square also dedicated to Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour. It was built at the end of the nineteenth century to create an open space for the surrounding aristocratic buildings. The oldest among these buildings were renovated, creating an eye-catching architectural coherence on all sides of the square. Carry on along Via Farini, and less than a hundred meters you will come across yet another square, dedicated to the illustrious citizen Luigi Galvani. On the side of the square opposite Via Farini you will see the apse of the basilica of San Petronio, and in the center of the square is the statue representing the scientist Luigi Galvani who, in 1786, conducted a number of experiments on frogs of extreme importance for the discovery of electricity and radio signals. In front of Galvani’s statue is the Archiginnasio (word of Greek origin meaning the place in which superior education is given), the first headquarters of the University. Cross the road, keeping to the right. Carry on down Via Farini: after having crossed Via D’Azeglio, the road takes the name of ViaDe' Carbonesi.
Where Via Carbonesi meets Via Tagliapietre, Via Collegio di Spagna, Via Barberia and Via Valdaposa, the road widens. On this crossroads, you will see the baroque church of San Paolo Maggiore, commissioned by the famous Spada family. The prospective decoration on the front of the tabernacle is the reason for which this work has been attributed to Francesco Borromini. The large statue of the altar, depicting san Pietro, is the work of Alessandro Algardi. On the right-hand side of the church, at the very beginning of Via Collegio di Spagna, you will come to the entrance to the Collegio di Spagna, constructed in 1365 for the Spanish students of Bologna under request of cardinal Albornoz. The wrought iron clock and the furnishing of the Chemist shop that you will see at the beginning of Via Barberia, a road with many stately aristocratic dwellings, are a testimony of the style of the late nineteenth century. The richly decorated façade of the church of San Paolo is a monumental background to narrow Via Valdaposa. If you walk down this road a few meters you will encounter, to your right, a real “pearl” of regional artwork from the late Fifteenth century: what once was the Oratorio Dello Spirito Santo (literally Oratory of the Holy Spirit), with a beautifully decorated front wall in terracotta. Walking along Via Valdaposa turn left once you reach the crossroads with Via Santa Margherita, and you will find yourself in Via Cesare Battisti, at n° 29, exactly where you started out.
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