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Fuel for the mind: Bologna and the Romantics

by Suzanne and Andrew Edwards

Picture above: Piazza Nettuno with the Neptune fountain in the heart of Bologna’s mediaeval centre. The marble and bronze structure dates from the late 16th century (photo © Suzanne Edwards).


Stendhal, Byron, Goethe and Mary Shelley are among the many writers who made time for the Italian city of Bologna. Often overlooked in favour of Florence or Rome, Bologna’s intellectual history informs the texture of the modern city as Suzanne and Andrew Edwards discover when they visit Bologna in search of fuel for the mind.

Every city has its own aura, an intangible atmosphere that seems to pervade the fabric of the buildings and streets. Take the frenetic chaos of Naples, for example, which is sensed before ever setting foot in the Spanish Quarter. Arriving at the airport or train station, even the unsuspecting visitor will perceive that their experience is going to be markedly different from a visit to, say, Pisa or Turin. Bologna, by contrast, is the life of the mind made manifest. For the first five hundred years of its existence, the city’s university, the earliest in Europe, had no fixed location. The university was the city and lectures could take place anywhere from a monastic institution to a public building, or even in the open air.

Bologna’s position on the fertile southernmost margin of the River Po’s extensive plain has, along with the economic driver of academic innovation, favoured its development. Tortellini, mortadella and salami were produced with as much frequency as lawyers, scientists and writers. This fuel for the body and mind continues to draw visitors as it once did at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. The entire Romanticism movement, with its attendant poets and painters, is intrinsically linked to Italy, although places such as Venice, Milan and Florence more readily spring to mind than Emilia-Romagna’s capital. However, behind Bologna’s elegant facades hide many colourful tales of those who sought inspiration and experience from Italy’s queen of academia.

Bologna style

Not far from Piazza Nettuno, with its extravagant fountain of Neptune, complete with trident and skirt of water-spouting nereids, is Via Ugo Bassi. This thoroughfare cuts through the heart of the mediaeval city and is lined with the usual commercial outlets and banks. Number 7 is the home of Coccinelle, a purveyor of elegant handbags. The building above, reaching five storeys, is a rather unprepossessing mirror image of its neighbours, smart but unadorned. Closer inspection reveals two plaques, one incised in stone and the other bronze. The Italian script on the larger of the two plaques recalls the stay of Lord Byron in 1819, in what was then the Albergo del Pellegrino. Fulvio Cantoni’s 1926 monograph on Byron’s stay shows that apart from the remodelling of the shop, the building remains little changed from its time as a hotel.

Byron came to the city in pursuit of Teresa Guiccioli, his married mistress. The propriety of staying in a hotel whilst he cuckolded Count Guiccioli was soon forgotten as he spent much time at the palazzo then owned by the Count. Palazzo Savioli, as it is now known, is at the end of a long stretch of porticoed pavement in Via Galliera. These arched porticoes are the most elegant and prolific feature of Bologna’s street architecture and further proof of the city’s wealth, although John Polidori, Byron’s erstwhile medic, was surprised, when he visited three years prior to his lordship, to see the arches adorned with ‘For Sale’ signs. The disfiguring feature today is sadly the indifference of graffiti, although where else but Bologna would you find, alongside the usual tags, quotes from the ancients in Latin.

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