Running alongside Bologna’s cathedral is a street of shops and cafes aimed at the well-heeled visitor (of whom there are plenty) but if this were all that caught your eye you would easily bypass one of the city’s gems as you missed the archway into the courtyard beyond.
Actually street is a word that always feels like a misnomer in Bologna where the ubiquitous colonnaded porticos give every thoroughfare a sense of importance. (They did justify a post of their own after all!) This then is the Via dell’Archiginnasio, and the gem in question is the Archiginnasio, also known as the Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, or nowadays the Biblioteca communal dell’Archiginnasio, none of which gives much clue as to the building’s importance. The last name refers to a library, and the building is home to some 35000 manuscripts, pamphlets and illustrations, but before you decide that sound dull read on.
I’m not sure of the meaning of Archiginassio. Certainly if you google the term all the results will refer to this building, so perhaps the usage is unique. Ginassio is Italian for gymnasium, but the building’s history has been one of mental rather than physical development. From the mid 16th Century, this was the main site of the city’s famous university, and it remained so for nearly 250 years.
Take the time to visit and the building will repay you in two ways.
The first is the decoration that covers every wall and ceiling. Here you will find a multitude of coats of arms in frescoes and reliefs; a heraldic representation of the students who represented their nation whilst attending. So many qualified that in order to find space the less scrupulous would damage existing displays to create an opportunity for their own. With seven thousand here, it’s an impressive sight.
Venture up to the first floor and there’s another treat. The anatomical theatre that was installed in 1637. Even were it not for the macabre stories this room can tell (I was fortunate enough to eavesdrop as a group of international surgeons were visiting with a knowledgable guide) the decoration of the room is fascinating.
Wooden statues of significant individuals in the development of medicine, astrological symbolism, and two carved figures who have been flayed to reveal the muscular structure beneath the skin. Gli spellati, (the skinned ones) were designed by the Baroque painter Ercole Lelli, a native of Bologna.
We are fortunate that the room is here at all. In January 1944 it was devastated by Allied bombing, but using the many paintings and photographs that had captured the room over the years the theatre was painstakingly restored. Let’s hope that these images won’t be needed for a similar opus.