If you find yourself strolling along the streets of Bologna near the city’s center, don’t be surprised if you turn a corner and come upon an anomaly. It will stand unapologetically as traffic whizzes by, a thumb of unruly masonry with its flanks sawed off. The amputations were necessary to make way for thoroughfares teeming with cars and motor scooters, the automobile age making these remnants of Bologna’s medieval wall more nuisance than necessity. The protective shield against invasion began its rise during the thirteenth century, was expanded during the fourteenth century and was mostly demolished by the beginning of the twentieth. Only ten entry points that once served as the city gates remain, the two no longer standing San Mamolo and Sant’Isaia.
Medieval Architecture in Bologna
The extant ones have lyrical names like Castiglione, Santo Stefano, Maggiore, San Vitale, San Donato, Mascarella, Galliera, Lame, San Felice and Saragozza. I was fascinated by these relics because they are pieces of the Bolognese cityscape that would have been new when two of history’s most renowned poets walked through the oldest parts of town. Dante Alighieri first visited the university in 1305 to discuss his ideas with the leading professors there. Many sections of the wall and a number of its gates would have been works in progress at the time. When Francesco Petrarca attended law school there between 1323 and 1326, the barrier and its entry points would have been among the town’s most modern architectural accomplishments.
One of these in particular was on my list of things to see in Bologna so I ambled along the porticoes that hem the streets leading to the university campus one sunny September afternoon, my destination Porta San Donato. I rounded a corner and saw it—the structure looking so out of place in its setting that I felt I could infer how the surrounding architecture might have looked when the poets made their way through this part of town. The demeanor of the machicolated tower with its rim of strategic ornamentation now reads as somewhat crude but I wonder if it wouldn’t have been perceived by Bologna’s residents as relatively elegant then but a letter Petrarch wrote says it wasn’t so. He is writing about the excursions he would make with his friends during holidays; about how they would often return to the city after dark: “The gates stood wide open; or if by chance they were shut, the walls did not baffle us. Only a weak palisade, half in ruins, surrounded that intrepid city. What need was there of walls or bulwarks in time of peace?”
Petrarch in Bologna
If the wall was crumbling, the gates have stood the test of time. How remarkable it was to see one of them dumbly frozen there, its purpose defunct, as students and business people raced along the sidewalks without giving it a second thought! It’s not easy to grasp the subtleties of life so far in the past when contemporary times are spinning at full tilt so I was glad to have a number of anecdotes about Petrarch when he was a student to bring that bygone world to light. In my favorite story from his time at school, we see him as a stubborn young man who was willing to do just about anything to stay immersed in poetics. Some biographers say it happened in Bologna, while others maintain he was in Montpelier at the time.
His love of the classics was keen, and this flew in the face of everything his father Petracco had planned for him. Adamant that his son would take his law studies seriously, he transferred him to Bologna when the university in Montpelier had failed to inspire him to embrace jurisprudence. “Neither the abilities of the several professors in that celebrated academy nor the strongest exhortations of his father were sufficient to conquer the deeply-rooted aversion which our poet had conceived against the law,” writes Thomas Campbell, who published his lengthy Life of Petrarch in 1841.
When the boy’s father realized he was spending so much of his time and money on Latin poets and orators, he visited him to call him out. Petrarch had a suspicion that his father would be pissed at the books that composed his small library, so he hid titles by authors like Cicero and Virgil, whose works he had collected. But his efforts were in vain, as his father promptly rooted them out and threw them into the fire.
Petrarch’s histrionics were so intense Petracco relented, rescuing Cicero and Virgil before they were completely consumed by the flames. As he presented the scorched volumes to his son, he declared, “Virgil will console you for the loss of your other MSS, and Cicero will prepare you for the study of law.” What I love about this incident is it humanizes a man who has become so celebrated that it’s easier to put him on a pedestal than to think of him as a real person. Campbell tells us the story is all the more poignant because Petrarch had spent all of his money on that library—to the point that he barely had enough left to survive—when he should have been buying books for his studies.
Medieval Italy As Monopoly Game
Given his level of devotion to classicism, it’s no surprise that Petrarch quit law school as soon as his father died, deciding to build a career in the church that would allow him as much time as possible to write. Though he would leave quite a literary legacy, looking back along the trajectory of his life, there were only a handful of stints when he was truly left to his own devises, as he would find himself continually pulled into the world of political skirmishes between Europe’s aristocracy and the papal court. Reading Campbell’s account of those conflicts during the battle-weary fourteenth-century, makes it clear why Bologna’s wall and gates were so necessary. Bu since we know from Petrarch that the wall was crumbling during his college years, would it have been strengthened as times grew more dangerous? I wonder as I make my way through the university campus that didn’t exist when Petrarch was in school here.
In his book Petrarch and His World, Morris Bishop says Bologna was the finest city the poet had ever seen. “Bologna was in transformation from medieval huddle to the spacious city we know today, with widening of streets, the creation of open piazzas, the construction of the Palazzo del Comune and the Palazzo del Podestà and the churches of San Domenico, San Giacomo, and San Francesco,” he wrote. “It’s 180 towers, topped by the Torre Asinelli, over 300 feet high, made the city seem from afar to be invaded by giants stepping over the ruinous walls.”
Walking back to my hotel along the Via Irnerio, named after the great thinker who is credited with founding the university in Bologna, I made my way around the Parco della Montagnola, Bologna’s oldest city park, toward the ruins of the Castello di Galliera. The original building was built between 1330 and 1332 when Bertrando del Poggetto was the cardinal in residence. It remained only a few years, the structure’s first brutalization concurrent with Poggetto’s expulsion in 1334. It seems the castle was destined to end up in ruins from the start, as it was the symbol of oppression to whichever rebels were up in arms during the continual shifts in power that were commonplace in medieval Italy.
The castle’s remains eerily reflect Petrarch’s sentiments when he visited Bologna in 1364 during a brief window of peace that was rare in that century. He was in town to pay respects to a new representative of Pope Urban V, and he was touched by the change in the city, which had been flourishing when he studied at its university. “I seem to be in a dream when I see the once fair city desolated by war, by slavery, and by famine,” Petrarch wrote. “Instead of the joy that once reigned here, sadness is everywhere spread, and you hear only sighs and wailings in place of songs. Where you formerly saw troops of girls dancing, there are now only bands of robbers and assassins.”
The castle’s last gasp of glory took place in 1507 when Pope Julius II regained control of the town for the papacy and reconstructed the building. Though he fitted it with a moat and eight watchtowers, it was once again destroyed in 1511 when the French wrested the control of Bologna from him and gave the city back to the Bentivoglio family. Porta Galliera was afterwards separated from the castle’s ruins, moved across the Via dell’Indipendenza in the mid-1600s. The Baroque structure was designed by Bartolomeo Provaglia, who was also responsible for the design of the beautiful Palazzo Davia Bargellini with its two sculpted giants flanking the palace entrance. He still shines as one of Bologna’s exemplars at creating Baroque beauty in architectural form.
Oblivious to Historical Architectural Icons
And though the new gate is beautiful in its proportions, it’s the neoclassical entrance to the Parco della Montagnola, which skirts the castle’s ruins, that makes the haggard glob of bricks seem so profoundly forlorn. The park’s origins date back to 1664 but the French aesthetics weren’t added until the early 19th-century when Napoléon, who had invaded Bologna, ordered architect Giovanni Battista Martinetti to design a public space there. The monumental scenographic staircase with its lovely balustrades and sculptural reliefs, designed by Tito Azzolini and Attilio Muggia, was built in 1896.
I sat for a while and watched the city’s populace striding past the ragged hunk of medieval brickwork without a sideways glance and it occurred to me I was seeing in action something Petrarch wrote in a letter to a friend after touring the ruins of the ancient section of Rome. “The veneration which they had for them was vague and uninformed,” he claimed; “It is lamentable that nowhere in the world is Rome less known than in Rome.”
With this sentiment, he touches on a point I have seen repeatedly during my travels as I have marveled at the age I witness in Europe. Life has become so busy that these historical icons are relegated to mere backdrops for the manic swirl of everyday life. I wonder what Petrarch would have thought about the pace we keep in our lives today, a speed that leaves no time to appreciate the architectural treasures that have witnessed the cultural progression of so many epochs.
Considering it took him weeks to travel from France to Italy on horseback and that he was known for having a procession of horses following him to carry his library wherever he went, I’m guessing he would be thrilled to whoosh by Bologna’s ruins on a train bound for Avignon. The fact he could now download all of those books and keep his own works-in-progress in a mobile device would have boggled his mind, though I’m betting there would still have been a number of first editions of Cicero and Virgil tucked into his backpack!
The Modern Salonnière and Far from Oblivious in Bologna © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns. You can see recommendations for books from many of her posts on her Amazon Influencer page.