What the Blaises?

How is your throat today?  A little sore?  Or maybe you’ve some wool that needs unravelling?  More seriously perhaps you’re at risk of imminent invasion?
English: Flag of the Republic of Dubrovnik.
English: Flag of the Republic of Dubrovnik. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who you gonna call?

Perhaps a man who was martyred early in the 4th Century?

_pw_5094St Blaise, St Blazey, San Biagio, St Blasius, San Blas; his reputation spread throughout the Christian world, so what made him so influential?  (In Croatia he is Sveti Vlaho.)

The former physician turned bishop miraculously cured a child who was choking on a fishbone (thus becoming the patron saint of throat problems).  His execution consisted of being beaten with a stick, having his flesh ripped off with iron combs (hence the patron saint of wool combers) before he was beheaded.  That death at the hands of the Romans was by virtue of his religion rather than as a result of any significant political act.

On route to Sebastea for his execution he reputedly intervened when meeting an old woman whose pig had been snatched by a wolf, Blaise somehow persuading the wolf to release the pig to the woman.  To repay this act she apparently brought two candles to light his cell as he awaited his end._pw_6220

His remains rest in the Italian town of Maratea’s basilica, or at least some of them do.  Parts of him are also to be found in Dubrovnik, where he finally seems to have done something of note.  Over 600 years after his death in Turkey, he appeared in a vision to a priest of St Stephen’s cathedral in the Croatian city, to warn of an attack by the duplicitous Venetians whose fleet had anchored nearby, ostensibly to refresh their water supplies, but according to Blaise, to assess Dubrovnik’s defences.  Why this long-dead Armenian should feel the need to intervene in the politics of two Mediterranean city states is unclear.

_pw_6243Whatever the spectre’s motivation, he was immediately venerated in the city, remaining part of the states iconography until Napoleon’s arrival centuries later (ironically the same individual who ended Venetian independence).  Blaise’s head and hands (and of course a part of his throat) are paraded each year on the 3rd of February,

In modern-day Dubrovnik the Saint’s patronage lives on.  You can barely turn a corner without encountering some image of Blaise, who is characterised by the model of Dubrovnik that he carries with him.  If you think you’ve heard this story before, then you may be confusing him with Petronius of Bologna, who also had a predilection for miniaturised municipalities.

Mistaken identity is easily avoided though – the twin towers of Bologna make it easy to spot that city’s patron if you should bump into them both at a party.




I’d never come across St Blaise before Dubrovnik, and then what should I find on a day in Richmond, North Yorkshire?  Not sure a pub is an appropriate tribute!

Senza Spaghetti

The TV Chef, and one-man Padstow Tourist Board that is Rick Stein is spending long weekends in locations renowned for the quality of their food for his latest series.  Whilst I totally understood his decision to visit Bordeaux and Vienna, I was surprised that Reykjavik was on his itinerary and Berlin, though it probably says more about me that I envisioned a lot of cod and sausages respectively, however I would have been more outraged if he had omitted Bologna.  Thankfully he did not.

It isn’t just the Bolognese ragu that gives the city its culinary fame; the baloney sausage also originates here, and when seasoned with myrtle berries becomes mortadella.  The administrative region of which it is capital also includes Parma and Modena, where great hams, parmesan and balsamic vinegar are produced.  This is a food-lover’s paradise.

Stein’s visit included learning witnessing the methodology for producing an Italian staple; fresh egg pasta used for tortellini, lasagne, tagliatelle and ravioli.  Notice anything missing from that list?

I still recall on my first visit to Italy being served spaghetti bolognese in Rome and, it being a school excursion, being taught how to eat it correctly.  The long strands remain one of my favourite shapes; the twirling fork action required probably playing some part in my enjoyment, but really it should never have happened that way.

I ate a lot of delicious food in Bologna but not so much as a forkful of spag bol passed my lips.  Why not?  Well for one thing the sauce that we would refer to as Bolognese is referred to simply as ragu here, whether stirred into pasta or baked between sheets of lasagne.  (With justifiable arrogance, locals also refer to parmesan as cheese, as if to say “Is there any other?”).  Whatever you call the sauce however you still can’t have spaghetti bolognese for the simple reason that spaghetti isn’t a pasta from this region (I believe it comes from Napoli), it’s made from a different type of flour, and of course it’s sold in a dried form.  Here in Emilia-Romagna the emphasis is on fresh pasta, and the weapon of choice is tagliatelle.  (According to Rick Stein the perfect ribbon should have the same dimensions as the Torre Asinelli, which seems entirely plausible).

So if you should visit the city, don’t waste too much time looking for spaghetti bolognese.  Order tagliatelle ragu and you won’t go wrong, but for the fact that there is local pasta dish which is even more delicious.

Tortellini in brodo (in broth)
Tortellini in brodo (in broth)

Tiny tortellini stuffed with a mixture of ham and mortadella and served in a bowl of exquisitely seasoned chicken broth.  Tortellini in brodo.  As ubiquitous here as spag bol is in every Italian restaurant everywhere else in the world.

Food is treated with respect in Italy and certainly in Bologna.  I think framing it might be a step too far however!


Gymnasium of the Mind

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.

_PW_4489Wooden 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._PW_4498

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._PW_4481


Petronius of Bologna

In my Venetian postings I commented on the plethora of saints that are recognised by the Roman Catholic church, and the symbolism that accompanies them; St Anthony of Padua being a prime example.  Bologna introduced me to a new name in the list of the venerated – St Petronius.  Never heard of him?  No me neither._PW_3657

Perhaps that’s because he lacks some of the trappings we associate with other saints; a gruesome death like Santa Lucia, a track record of miracles like St Francis of Assisi, an act of heroism like St George, or even some great symbolism like St Peter with the keys to heaven.

Petronius lived in the 5th Century when the Roman Empire still existed to some degree (though it’s western half was in decline), and in fact his father had been a high ranking official, so Petronius came from a noble background.

So what is his claim to fame?  Well he is the patron saint of Bologna, a bishop of the city who died in the mid 5th Century and whose greatest act seems to have been to order the building of the church of San Stefano about which more in a subsequent posting.  _PW_4626-Edit-Edit

He doesn’t seem to have been celebrated as a saint until the 12th century when after nearly seven hundred years his relics were conveniently discovered (I’ve written before about how a good relic can guarantee income from visiting pilgrims).  Churches were then built in his name culminating in the present basilica.  If it looks a little underwhelming that is because during it’s construction Rome feared that Bologna was building a church which would rival St Peter’s and so cut off funding, which is why it is clad in marble only at lower levels._PW_3734

It’s still worth a visit though – containing as it does the aforementioned relics, some remarkable sculptures, and an astronomical calendar designed by Cassini that was sufficiently accurate to lead to the introduction of the Gregorian calendar and the leap year.  (There is a tiny hole in the ceiling and a marble channel on the floor that shows the date where the corresponding dot of light appears at noon)


There are plenty of images of the saint around the city and he’s usually easy to spot.  St Peter may have had his keys, but St Petronius carries something a little more obtrusive.  He is usually portrayed carrying the whole of Bologna._PW_4702

Twin Towers

I used to have a beautiful photograph of the Tuscan hill town San Gimignano (I think by Andrea Rontini) bathed in the golden hour light of the setting sun.  Sadly in “the great divide” my ex won that particular toss of the coin and the image of a town known as the “Medieval Manhattan” because of its multitude of towers that sprang up in a kind of one-upmanship.  (When the town imposed a height limit to curb this, one family then built two!)

Bologna has its own claim to being New York’s twin however.  The skyline of the old city is dominated by a tower both taller and more slender than those of San Gimignano.  Get closer to it and you’ll see that it has a partner, a squatter and somewhat stunted neighbour._PW_4058

The city once sported 180 such towers, but now only about twenty remain and none so notorious as these two.  Their proximity to one another is one factor in their favour, their location at the junction of five of the main routes of the walled city is another, yet they are emblematic of the city for another reason.  They both lean.

Torre Asinelli is the taller, and much straighter of the two, but having ascended the 498 worn wooden steps to the top it would definitely benefit from some right angles. It’s diminutive neighbour, Torre Garisenda, leans at an altogether more precarious angle, which when combined with the diagonals of Asinelli creates a disturbing visual effect.

Built in the early 12th Century both towers began to list shortly afterwards, with Garisenda quickly assuming it’s present stoop, inspiring Dante’s description

As when one sees the tower called Garisenda from underneath its leaning side, and then a cloud passes over and it seems to lean the more,thus did Antaeus seem to my fixed gaze as I watched him bend…

Divine Comedy, Inferno, XXXI, 136-140


Originally 60m in height, it was shorn of 20% of its stature in the 14th Century as a result of safety concerns.  How much greater must the contrast of the two sets of angles seemed before that?_PW_4695-2

I have seen artists impressions of the city bristling with 180 similarly tall structures, yet surely this can’t have been the case.  The rivals that remain around the city lack the same impact, but there is another clue that suggests these two were always the dominant pair.
It was customary in religious paintings for the city’s patron saint to be portrayed holding Bologna safely in his hands.  In all of these the two towers stand proud, almost as an early form of trademarking.

Perhaps they feared completion for the tourist market from Pisa!_PW_3472_3_4


Portico Quartet

English: Nick Mulvey of the Portico Quartet, p...
English: Nick Mulvey of the Portico Quartet, playing at Cully Jazz Festival 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some years ago I came across the music of Jack Wylie, Duncan Bellamy, Milo Fitzpatrick and Nick Mulvey; a modern jazz sound which was given an exotic touch by Mulvey’s choice of instrument – the hang.  Together they were known as The Portico Quartet until Mulvey (and then his replacement Keir Vine) left the band.  Unsurprisingly they are now known as Portico.

I’d never given much thought as to the origins of their name until I visited Bologna.  The city is famous for its food, its university, its political history, and it’s jazz festivals.  The first clue.  When you visit you realised it has another speciality, the architectural feature known as a portico, a sort of extended porch where a roof supported by a colonnade runs alongside a building to provide a covered walkway.  In Bologna you cannot escape them, which is good news for photographers._PW_3751

We love a good portico because in one feature it provides so many things that create great composition and interest.  Contrast where light spilling between columns loses its power as it reaches further into the space, light broken by the shadows cast by those same columns.  _PW_3432There there is the repetition of identical or near identical objects which can be used to create a surprise when the pattern is broken, or simply to lead the eye further into the picture.  This being Italy you also have the wonderful ochres that colour walls and columns, given further interest by the patina of grime that develops over the years.  I must have photographed dozens of examples while I was there._PW_3421

I don’t recall it raining while I was there, but the truth is in a city of so much cover I might well not have noticed, which takes me back to the band and the origins of their name.

In Bologna to play an open air gig they were rained off, and so grabbing their instruments they regrouped under the nearest cover and began to play and improvise in this alternative venue.   As soon as you visit Bologna it becomes apparent that there could be no other explanation.

So here is my Portico Quartet, four of my favourites from the many I could have chosen.




…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.