Giambologna

…was a Renaissance sculptor who worked in Italy and was heavily influenced by Michelangelo.  Surprisingly, given his name and that he was responsible for the city’s most famous artwork, he wasn’t born in Bologna.  He wasn’t even Italian.

Born in what was then a part of Flanders, but now sits in France he was named Jean Boulogne, so it’s easy to see how the transition came about.

His greatest works have a classical influence, and having his workshop in Florence he completed many works for the Medici, and it is said that Cosimo Medici prevented his leaving the city so that he could be the sole beneficiary of Giambologna’s talent.  The Boboli Gardens in Florence were a home of many of his works.

It is his first commission that is most famous to those visiting Bologna.  His bronzes are the figures at the heart of The Fountain of Neptune.  The Pizza del Nettuno is ordinarily dominated by the great sea-god (though when I visited the citizens of Bologna had chosen to dwarf it with their Christmas tree).

Given the Papal commission that led to its construction I was a little surprised at the female figures around the base, though their impact was lessened by the nipple jets being out of action when I saw it!  They aren’t the sole providers of curvaceous flesh however.  My guide book referred me to the popularity of photographing Neptune’s shadow as it fell on the Palazzo Communale; I’m not sure of any other significant reason but it does highlight that the old boy has an outstanding pair of buttocks.

Trident of '07 Maserati Quattroporte
Trident of ’07 Maserati Quattroporte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One last thing that we should thank Giambologna for;  Neptune would be virtually unrecognisable without his trident, it symbolises his power. He had already been protecting the city for over 350 years with that trident when a local car company took it for their logo.  Maserati seem to have done fairly well with that power.

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Blame Game

Emilia-Romagna, the administrative region of Italy of which Bologna is the capital, is the richest, at least going by per capita income.  With Christmas looming large when I visited there was plenty of that income being exchanged,  especially in some of the more exclusive shopping locations.  Capitalism is alive and well.  Hardly surprising since we are in the wealthy north of the country, where the Lega Nord, the alliance of right wing political parties is at its strongest.  This is the north of Berlusconi.  The north of Benito Mussolini.

And yet there’s another side to Bologna.  The city has a different political philosophy to the region.

When here in England we were just coming to terms with the arrival of Norman invaders, Bologna founded the world’s first university in 1088, and it’s still one of the city’s greatest assets, meaning lots of students in the population.  Students who normally harbour more left wing sentiments.

This is a macrocosm of the country as a whole.  Italy is the only European country to have had both Fascist and Communist governments in some literally very violent swings of the political pendulum.  The period from the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s was known as the Anni Piombo, the years of lead, a reference perhaps to the bullets fired during a period of terrorism where both left and right committed atrocities in the pursuit of power.

At 10.35am on the 2nd of August 1980, Bologna railway station was bombed.

Monument for the victims of the neofascist ter...
Monument for the victims of the neofascist terrorist “Bologna massacre” (1980), at the Stazione centrale, Bologna, Italy. Picture by Giovanni Dall’Orto, November 19 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

85 people died in the blast.

200 more were injured.

It was the worst atrocity on Italian soil since the end of the second world war.

The police and courts judged that members of a Neo-Fascist group were responsible, though the legal and extra-legal process of disinformation, trials, appeals, counter appeals and acquittals lasted until 2003 in a typical Italian process of obfuscation.  Not surprisingly there are plenty of alternative theories as to who was responsible including:

  • The Italian Secret Service
  • The CIA
  • Mossad
  • Palestinian terrorists

any of whom may have been acting on behalf of western governments to carry out false-flag terrorist acts it is claimed.

Like so many of the atrocities committed during those years, the inherent corruption at the heart of Italian culture makes it impossible to discover the truth.  There are two terrible ironies though.

When Bologna’s university was founded it was primarily to translate and study the Digest, one of the key texts of Roman Law.  The city that was prominent in the development of medieval law found itself unable to apply the law to the most terrible infringement.

In the same year that the bombing took place this memorial stone was placed in the city’s main public space, Piazza Maggiore.

_PW_3674It commemorates those who died in Nazi internment camps 35 years before.  A generation later and the lessons had already been forgotten.  And now we’re a further generation on.

Bologna Jazz

I mentioned in an earlier post the origins of the Portico Quartet’s name, and really where else could they have been to acquire that moniker, for apart from the city’s architectural signature it has hosted an annual jazz festival since 1958, making it even older than me!

_PW_4105The city loves jazz.  On the Sunday that I began exploring I found the central area closed to traffic, an opportunity that appeals to the Italian psyche; time for a market, or sports event, or in this case some jazz.

A small stage had been set up near to Piazza Maggiore and with consummately poor timing I arrived in between sets, but th_PW_3760e mix of music that the sound engineer was playing to crowds of pre-Christmas shoppers was superb.

Jazz clubs like Cantina Bentivoglio host bands most nights of the year
and there are other signs too.  When Bologna born actor and musician Lucio Dalla died in 2012 it is estimated that 50,000 people attended his funeral here.  He is commemorated in a subtle piece of art that adorns a wall at the junction of Via d’Azeglio and Piazza dei Celestini where his shadow plays on._PW_4380

In a Hollywood style tribute to those who have played here, since 2011 _PW_4896marble stars are are placed in the pavement of the “Strada del Jazz” (Via Rizzoli).  Dalla has a star here of course, but others who have already been honoured include Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Chet Baker and of course Miles Davis.

On the day I visited a group of young musicians were taking selfies with a double bass around Miles’ star (perhaps a hint to the people of Bologna to include Charles Mingus next year?) but most of the passers-by were focused elsewhere, because however you want to celebrate jazz there is one way that beats the others hands down.

Just play._PW_4929-2

It’s The Real Thing

In the UK the coffee market is booming.

According to a report in the Financial Times last year we consume 1.7bn takeaway coffees each year from 18,000 retail outlets, and it seems we haven’t reached saturation point.  Gregg’s (the bakers) and JD Wetherpoon (the pub chain) want our custom too and it’s expected that in the next 5 years there will be almost 21,000 places to get our caffeine hit.Bologna

Most of those coffees sold will be in large cardboard cups with plastic lids, and whilst when I say large we still haven’t reached American size servings, but Costa’s Massimo is apparently 20 0z.  A pint.  Really?  A pint of coffee?

Perhaps this just offends me as a lover of tiny espressos, but my usual choice is a cappuccino, which when served from one of those big chains becomes a large cup of foamed milk with a submerged shot of bitterness in the bottom.  Why did that become the acceptable option?  I guess the global power of Starbucks is the answer to that question.

Costa promote themselves as “Britain’s favourite coffee shop”.  I’m not sure on what basis they claim that status – is it because they sell the most, which would hardly be surprising since their outlets are ubiquitous, or because the nation prefers their product to the alternatives?  I find it hard to believe it’s the latter.

Costa of course is an Italian name, and so it alludes to authenticity in their offering.  The language of coffee is Italian; espresso, cappuccino, Americano, latte are all familiar to us, but in Italy you can add in ristretto and corretto.   All very well until you remember that Costa is simply a brand belonging to Whitbread, the former brewers who also brought us Premier Inn and Brewer’s Fayre.  Not quite so Italian.
And so to my recent visit to Bologna, a city that thrives on food
production, but the emphasis on taste doesn’t stop there.IMG_2064

Order a coffee here and you get something very different to the bland milkiness of the cardboard cup.  A cappuccino is still made with foamed milk, but not so much as to dissipate the flavour of the espresso at its heart.  And that flavour is important.  So much so that to ensure you can fully enjoy it, you will also be served a small shot glass with each coffee you purchase; not full of grappa (unless you specified caffe corretto) but of water, and probably sparkling water.  It’s the perfect palate cleanser so you can taste your small, flavoursome, and often beautifully presented coffee.

Another reason for me to love this country.  Now what to have with it…?_PW_4826.jpg

 

No Churchgoer

I used to be.

I used to go religiously.

That isn’t strictly true; I went for the music and the ceremony, and what little faith I had evaporated when my first marriage ended, in much the same way as my status in that community evaporated at the same time.

Still, I probably went to church as many times in those days as many do in a lifetime, and the thing is I continue to spend a lot of time in religious buildings.  Now its for the architecture and symbolism though.

And so one morning during my trip to Bologna I opted to visit the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca, a hilltop church built in the 18th Century, though the site has existed since the 12th.

The significance of the church is that it’s home to an icon of the Virgin Mary, supposedly painted by Luke the evangelist, a Greek physician who managed to fit in a bit of portraiture alongside writing the gospel.

There are two ways to the church, by road and by a covered passage (this is the city of porticoes after all) that runs 3.8km up the hill and was designed to offer protection to the icon on it’s regular trips down the hill to the city.

I knew the way up the hill was some way out of town, so left by the Saragossa Gate and kept walking, hoping for a sign that would lead me to the portico.  I didn’t find it, but seeing a sign for the tourist bus route I took a road that led uphill.  Meeting a woman walking her dog I checked I’d done the right thing.  She confirmed that I was on the right track.

A kilometer or so further on and I’d seen no further evidence, so I began to question her advice.  Perhaps my mistake was to say “sono Inglese”.  Perhaps she held a grudge for some unknown reason.  I decided to head off road when I saw a pathway leading up the grassy ridge to my right.  It seemed like a good idea, though when the dew began to seep through my boots I questioned that too until I reached the hilltop and saw the church.  On a different hill.  With a deep and wooded valley between us.Venezia-1-5

I never made it to the church, but it was still worth ascending to the heavens.  And carrying a telephoto lens._PW_4248_49_50

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Back. To Bologna.

So in what appears to be an annual event, I distract myself from the bitterness of another festive season on my own by opting for a few days in Italy. Not Venice this time, nor any of the other Italian favourites I’ve visited over the years, but to the city of Bologna about which I knew very little before visiting.

What I did know was the history of terrorist terrorist atrocities carried out by mysterious networks during the “lead years” when fascists and communists fought each other’s ideologies, and also that it’s famous for its food culture and the world’s first university. These latter facts form the central elements to the Michael Dibdin novel set in the city from which I’ve bastardised my title in which Aurelio Zen is almost an incidental figure to the tussle between an academic who is thinly veiled reference to Umberto Eco, and a TV chef whose PR machine is much greater than his actual talent. You can take your pick for the inspiration there.

Dibdin clearly didn’t take this novel to seriously (even sending up his own leading character when the academic discusses writing a novel featuring a nosy French detective called Nez) and the city is not painted in the same detail as Venice in Dead Lagoon, so I arrived relatively ignorant, spending three days walking around mostly within the bounds of the original medieval walls.

What I found was the radical politics expected of a student city, a few very exclusive shopping streets, plenty of food and drink, history, science, art, jazz… and canals! This is no Venezia, but hidden below the streets is a network of rivers and canals that have been mostly build over. My own hotel took its name from this fact and made me welcome by providing a picture of Rialto in my room.

So join me in exploring Bologna in a few more Italian posts.

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