Sunday, 12 June 2011

Bologna 2011

One of the main signatures of the city of Bologna is the remaining collection of towers. These seemed to serve little purpose than to claim the attention and impress. Two of the most famous stand aside one another, both list somewhat and from some angles it looks like the shorter one is in the process of tumbling, like a large detonated chimney stack, against its bigger brother. The larger one can be climbed via its 470 or so steps. I took this task on somewhat reluctantly and rather slowly. The views were of course worth it. Like with most of the places we visited, there were very few people about indeed. So by achieving the tower top you joined the company of the elect, somewhat nearer to God than thee.

Bologna in June ought to have been an opportunity to catch the sun. On this occasion it was as much to do with avoiding the rain. Fortunately there are over 30 kilometres of loggias which protected us as much from that rain as from the occasional strong and welcome sunshine. In medieval times, these loggia were built as night shelters for indigent pilgrims. They had therefore to be constructed so that the width would accommodate the length of a man lying down.

This very public spirited gesture became a thumbprint of the city’s architecture to this day and the many variations in decoration and stone colour are a delight to look at as well as a method of protecting the populace from the elements. The ‘social’ aspect of the design is echoed in the population retaining, for many years, a Communist regional government. One which seems to serve the people conspicuously well in comparison to the generality of corrupt political enclaves in Italy.

Currently the indigents seem to congregate, along with their ill tempered noisy dogs, at the main entrance to the opera house. Here, loud drunkenness seems to be tolerated, at least during the day and despite the miles of loggia, the only sleeping rough that we saw was a group of eight men who nightly lay under the overhanging eaves of an empty modern shop.

This socialist government clearly does not shy away from encouraging capitalism in its more naked forms; especially if it bolsters Bologna’s reputation as an ultra wealthy city which glories in conspicuous consumerism. Every corner seems to accommodate a Janus-like bank with faces in two streets at once. It is difficult to find shoes for under 150 Euros and pen shops proliferate where 300 Euros seems not too much to ask, even if it is clearly too much to sensibly pay.

But the big draw on Euros is women’s fashion and what is seen in the windows is also evident on the streets. It is a very well healed community; the most well-off per capita in Italy. There is a profusion of that Berlusconi-like combination of the distinguished elderly man with a very young woman, fawning on him and obviously wearing quite a quantity of his Euros. Here for a number of young pretty women the knack of falling in love where it is most advantageous has become an art form 

As in many southern European cultures the concept of the passargerio is enjoyed. People promenade about seemingly aimlessly, but quite often to show off. The young and stylish will almost block up some loggias in the evening, simply chatting and laughing in bunches, then moving off in pairs prominade to the next impromptu meeting point. Even if basically blocking the entrance to bars, they are by no means inevitably drinking, just being social. There are secrets to a satisfying life that can be learned through observing the way this city operates.

We had decided in advance that we wanted to get into some late night jazz and the utterly useless guide book suggested just the place. A modish café by the side of a canal. We were assured the glitterati hung out here and the Jazz was super cooool. The look of this supposedly louche spot was curiously like a prim English tea room. We looked in during the becalmed lunch hour, the presence of a baby grand was reassuring; we would give it a late night go.

We turned up around 10.30, exactly at the point when a birthday party was disintegrating in a desultory fashion. The birthday girl looked deeply unhappy; clearly this had not been the hip and joyful gathering intended. The few remaining guests were taking their leave, some sneaking away while the birthday girl was in the loo. The iced cake was only slightly dented, the atmosphere sour. More to the point…..there were no musicians and on the departure of the girl and her two more loyal friends……we were the only remaining patrons.

It was 10.45 pm and as so often; the real party was going on somewhere else, a place we had not been told about. Another night we passed the place late on and there was no one inside and only one table occupied outside. How fickle fashion is: the train arrives, a vibe is created and the train moves off towards a new destination leaving a rather depressed vacuum in its wake. Our unusual attempt to get to where the late nights become early mornings had misfired.

This is the oldest university city in Europe and holds thousands of students within its ancient heart. Some are practicing the Dolce Vita in fairly grand style. The sassy Nu Bar is buzzy and attracts a great combination of the moneyed young and middle aged. The staff take a full part in the socialising, some making it clear that the schmoozing is the priority.

Many students turn the grunge look into studied high fashion, but the politically minded join nightly symposia; sitting on the paving in a semicircle around speakers. Some extemporise and others read from notes. The banner this summer reads, ‘Revolution Bologna Democrazia Reale’ This political cell meets in the main square beside the famous Neptune fountain and under the eyes, not of the police, but the army, who maintain a casually watchful eye and ear on what is going down. Each evening that we passed, the meeting held between 50 to 70 youngsters; usually with one or two much older men, who I assume had political rather than carnal hopes of their young acolytes.    

Food is a big element of the social life here: there are a lot of well reviewed restaurants. One tradition in the city is the early evening drink where the bars offer a buffet of snacks. Some provide elaborate arrays of food, even unshelled prawns, Parma Ham or Parmigiano and there seems not to be any limit to indulgence apart from your own. This for the price of a drink.

One evening we were enticed to the extent that we carried out a bar and buffet crawl, no meal then even possible, let alone needed. At one bar in addition to the excellent bits and bobs, to our surprise, a Pizza was delivered to every table. Again, a very sociable tradition which no doubt delays many workers from getting home on time to read a bedtime story to tired tots.

The look of the town is elegant and even what may be faded mostly looks simply well aged, well loved. Wandering and encountering the hues of terracotta through to pale yellow highlighted what a colourful cityscape these lucky people live within. Many squares are set aside to allow bars to spill their tables and chairs across them rather than give car parking space the priority.

The cathedral is on the main thoroughfare and is inches from the traffic. It is a dank, gloomy place; ignored by the guidebooks and cold shouldered by the tourists. There is nothing there to delay one from exploring the main events which lie elsewhere.

Taking up one entire side of the main piazza is what looks like the Duomo, but is not. San Petronio’s Basilica, named after the patron saint of Bologna is much more a centre of worship than the cathedral and it contains generations of commissions of art with which the church is adorned. It is pretty vast and can accommodate almost 30,000 worshipers. Despite its size it feels welcoming rather than coldly imposing.

Most of what you see is 15th Century and remarkably, this was a civic church, not built by the bishops, not created by The Church and was only handed over fully to the Vatican authority in the 1920s. Clearly this philosophy of communality is one that sits comfortably in the bones of the people here. Perhaps partly because of the proximity of the university and the lack of grasp of Rome, one of the most significant artifacts in the church is laid out on its enormous floor. A sundial, the longest one in the world at 66.8 meters was designed by one of the science faculty and in a side chapel is a recreation of Foucalt's Pendulum. A rare melding of science and faith here.

 The broad front of the building was adorned in scaffolding which was covered in a photograph of the building itself. The city seems to be spending a lot of its money maintaining its structures, defying the economic condition and harmonising with one piece of graffito in the student area that equally defied the present conditions by declaring in large and in English, ‘FUCK AUSTERITY’.


My useless 'Insight Guide' was reticent about one of the must see buildings, 'Santo Stefano'. It is not merely one building, rather it is a series of interlocking chapels that grew over the years into a marvellous medieval jumble. The buildings run from the 5th to the 13th centuries. Here again scaffolding shrouds a deal of the exterior and not before time. This beautiful portmanteau is suffering in many major and minor ways.

The entrance takes you both to the newest and the oldest parts; up a steep flight of stairs you see Baroque disfigurements and down a few stairs the crypt, reserved for prayer is a chapel with Roman columns surmounted by Frankish capitals. Once this site was a famous temple to Isis. As so often the early church would stamp on the earlier institution by acquiring the site and promptly building over to obliterate the pagan places.

Back into the church you might spy a small side door and if you are tempted to explore, you are tipped into darkness and mystery. You are in a roughly circular, high chapel with one small window that allows a Stygian look at the large edifice that takes up most of the interior space. It struck a chord with me, I had seen something like it a long time ago. It suddenly came to me. Here in Italy was an embellished adaptation of the Holy Sepulchre from the church of that name in Jerusalem. Low down in the tiny grated opening is the site where the remains of the city’s patron saint rested until in the year 2000 when they were removed to the vast central church named for the saint that I describe above.

Many more interesting sights await you including a striking statue of St Peter looking very much like as Assyrian emperor with closely curled beard, a stern gaze and a firm grasp on those keys.

The floor plan of the buildings looks like a complex jewel case. The jewels themselves all need careful attention to restore them, but what is extant provides a journey into an archaic world of mystery and symbolism, darkness and light.

While up the tower we spied another stonking church we had not visited. It was of course covered in scaffolding and plastic. By coincidence it was the site of a free end of term concert by the music faculty students. A late timed concert that included the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with a young but terrifically virtuosic soloist. As can be supposed the giant bathroom acoustic blurred and covered the orchestral detail; what bassoons one wondered? They were seen but not heard. There was then the Mozart Coronation Mass. All very enjoyable, but don’t believe all the press about how wonderfully Italians sing consonants; the choir’s words were a vague though pleasant wash of sound.

As so often the packed to the rafters audience provided diversion as they moved about during the music; even taking seats with them. This was as much a photo opportunity for proud parents as it was a chance to hear what was being presented and there was a lot of pointing and loud whispering. Directly behind us was a trio of what looked like eight year old girls. One had the habit of kicking the kneeler which reverberated through our pew. Jane and I were getting pretty rattled and dirty looks directed behind us did nothing to attract any responsible adult to do anything. Without interval it was a long sit for the little ones and eventually they made enough distracting noise for a mother to move forward and intervene; which meant tears, loud ones.

Wandering back to our hotel we stopped off where there was recorded jazz drifting out to the pavement and we had one final Prosecco to the strains of Sarah Vaughan.     

I sign off with a rare 'Self portrait with wife.'.

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