Saturday, June 7, 2014

Bits of Bologna (the city, not the lunchmeat), Part 1

On Wednesday, June 4, Dave and I took a day trip to Bologna, a bustling city in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, north of Florence. On the new Freccia Rossa fast trains the trip is a mere 35 minutes from Florence, which is sort of shocking given that when I first started coming to Florence that was a 60+ minute train ride on the fastest train available. Oh, the technology!

Indeed, this was my first trip back to Bologna since 1995 and interestingly I found that I remembered some things differently than they were. This will be born out below when I mention San Domenico. One thing that impressed me then and impressed me this time too was the color. I love it!! Oranges, burnt red, natural brick--these are the palette of Bologna.

Unlike Florence, or Siena or Pisa, two other towns nearby, Bologna does not cater to tourists. In fact, we saw only one postcard/souvenir shop and that was near the city center and really a Tabacchi  selling mainly cigarettes and snacks rather than a dedicated gift shop. As a result, we felt very much like we were seeing Italy sort of "off the beaten path," which was a nice change of pace.

Our first stop was the Piazza del Nettuno, which is connected to the Piazza Maggiore, linking, quite directly, the former political and religious centers of the medieval and Renaissance city. You can see from the image below how the Piazza gets its name--from the famous over life sized, 1566 bronze statue of Neptune by Gianbologna (not a native of the city, but French from Boulogne). Many of the ensemble's forms are based upon ancient statuary (including the obscene mermaids around the base). 
As you can see, it has also become a comfy resting place for resident pigeons including the one settled on Neptune's head. Also note the azure sky and orange building...stunning.

Next we rounded the corner and entered the church of San Petronio with its curiously half-finished facade. Medieval and Renaissance Italians were notorious for not finishing the facades of their churches, which essentially amounted to a layer of expensive "marble icing" over the building's exterior. As a result, Italian facades are not architecturally integral to the structure's stability, so when money ran out or enthusiasm waned or committees couldn't make decisions (often!) facades were not finished and so it was the case here.

San Petronio is a huge and fascinating building started in 1390, but not finished until the 17th century (speaking of money woes). BUT, this was where Charles V (von Hapsburg) was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Clement VII (de' Medici) in 1530, so hardly a minor site, despite being unfinished at the time.

Notice the use of brick on the interior. Bologna lacks a rich source for stone, but has clay aplenty and therefore embraced this natural resource, which makes for some really striking buildings. Here we have French Gothic a la Italian Bologna.

Once inside, I was particularly excited to see the altarpiece of St. Roch by Parmigianino, but alas it was covered with scaffolding, as were several chapels here. As it turns out, this church was impacted by the earthquake of 2012 and the structure is still languishing under braces and scaffolding, especially in the side chapels. 

On the other hand, the big surprise (and there always is one) was the Cappella Bolognini painted by Giovanni da Modena between 1408-20. The frescoes depict the travels of the Magi on the right wall and the most vivid scenes of Hell I have ever encountered in Renaissance painting on the opposite wall.  Good fun. It might be hard to see, but my favorite part is the center of the left wall where the "Blessed" are sitting in what look to be Renaissance theater seats watching God in his almond-shaped halo above.

We paused for a delicious lunch at the restaurant, Diana and I couldn't help but notice how the juicy-sweet cantaloupe of my proscuitto e melone was the same color as the streets of Bologna. See further evidence below.

Exhibit A

Exhibits B, C and D.

Love, love, love these colors.
These images were taken on the way to the Pinacoteca or civic museum and indeed the reason we went to Bologna in the first place. Why? Because they have Raphael's Sta. Cecilia altarpiece which I have not seen since 1995 and didn't see this week either! Why? Because the museum's website said it was open until 7 p.m. when in fact it closed at 1:30. Thus, my dear friends, I submit this post as an excellent example of my mostly love-but sometimes hate relationship with Italy. This sort of thing happens all the time. Why do we still love Italy? Well, the photos speak for themselves, I hope!

So, if you want to see Sta. Cecilia you'll have to do what I did and Google her.

After much cussing we moved to Santa Maria della Vita where, three steps into the building, Pisa experienced a fast-moving summer deluge. The sky looks blue in the images, but this storm still managed to whip up out of nowhere. It felt poignant in a way because this is the work we came to see...

Niccolò dell'Arca's late 15th C. tour-de-force, terracotta Lamentation over the Dead Christ. These are life-sized figures and leaving aside any religious beliefs one may or may not have, or the odd way grief is gendered in this work, the two female figures on the right (Mary Magdalen and another Mary--the Virgin is actually third from the left) are among some of the most affecting pieces in Italian 15th C. sculpture. The piece was originally painted, hence the strange spots of color that remain.

  Once the rain abated we made our last stop--again another, unassuming and surprising church. In this case it's San Domenico, which in fact is the most important church of the Dominican order and houses the body (and head, separately) of its founder, St. Dominic, sainted in the 13th C.  

The late medieval building was redecorated on the interior in the 17th C. and as Dave remarked, one could hardly find a more incongruous exterior / interior combination in all of Italy. 

Not surprisingly the highlight of the building is off the right side aisle, namely the tomb of St. Dominic.  [continued, see Part 2]

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