History of Bologna
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origins of Bologna can be traced right back to the Bronze
Age. Around three thousand years ago, a population of unkown
origin settled in the Appenine region, on the banks of the
Apose and Ravone rivers. During the Iron Age, this
population developed its own authentic culture and came to
be known as the Villanovian Civilisation.
These Villanovian villages were inhabited by skillful
potters and smiths who developed working relationships with
other civilisations such as the Etruscans, the Greeks and
the Phonaeceans. This meant the Villanovians were able to
play a central role in the trade route network covering
northern and central Italy.
In around the sixth century B.C., the settlement of villages
was eventually surrounded by the Etruscans (who brought with
them their culture) and the area was transformed into the
wealthy and prosperous Felsina. The Etruscans in Felsina
(mentioned by Pliny in one of his works) added to the trade
links already established by the Villanovians and it soon
became the commercial centre of Etruria. The population here
was a peace-loving one, which an interest in both crafts and
In around 350 B.C., Felsina found itself incapable of
repelling a rash attack by the Galli Boi who had reached the
surrounding plains. The coarse, dirty and ugly Galli Boi did
not leave any important heritage behind - except perhaps the
name of the city: it is said that the name Bologna is
derived from the word Boi or bona which means
?city? in the Celt language.
It was only after two hundred years of Celt domination that
they were finally defeated in battle by Publio Cornelio
Scipione Nasica and sent into flight. Bononia (as it was
then called) became a Roman colony. In 187 B.C., the Roman
Consul Marco Emilio Lepido had the Via Emilia constructed,
thus giving the city an important position in the centre of
Peninsula Italy?s road network.
During the Roman period, Bononia re-acquired some of its
lost splendour. Many important architectural works were
built including the Roman castrum, the road network
(part of the paving of which is still visible in Via Manzoni,
as well as the Palazzo Fava Ghisilardi, and Fava Ghisilieri
? the Roman theatre in Via Carbonesi.
The fall of the Roman Empire also brought about the decline
of Bononia. Realising that they were lacking in defences and
therefore vulnerable to raids by Barbarians, the citizens
rushed to repair the city?s defences and fortify the city
with a high defensive wall made from selenite. In an effort
to bring new hope to the weary population and re-build the
fragmented society, the Bishops of Rome (who had been
granted freedom of religion by an edict from the Emperor
Constantine in 313 A.D.) were able to have churches
In 431 A.D., the city regained a semblance of its former
vitality, mainly due to the deeds of Bishop Petronio who
reinforced the fortifications, restored the public buildings
and initiated the construction of the Basilica di Santo
Stefano. His actions left such an imprint on Bologna?s
history that nine hundred years later, the splendid Basilica
di San Petronio was built in his honour on the Piazza
Maggiore. This piazza soon became the religious and
political heart of the city.
This period of relative peace was however rudely interrupted
and between 535 and 553 Bologna became involved in the
bloody Byzantine-Gothic war. It was then the turn of the
Longobards who in 569 invaded the plains, attempting to win
the region from the Byzantines.
It was only in 727 that the Longobard king Liutprando
succeeded in defeating the Byzantines. Bologna was then
ruled peacefully for the next fifty years. Very little
evidence remains of the Longobard period, with the exception
of the Catino di Pilato (Pilate?s Basin) which stands in
the courtyard of the Santo Stefano Basilica.
In 774, the Longobards gave way to Carlo Magno who, after
being summoned by Pope Adriano I, ceded both Bologna and
l?Esarcato to the papacy. Throughout the ninth century,
Bologna was therefore ruled by Dukes who had been appointed
by the Pontificate.
The end of the first millenium brought about a mixture of
good and bad events. The Metropolitana di San Pietro was
built, the city walls were widened and reconstruction work
on the Santo Stefano Basilica was commenced.
The danger of Byzantine domination was definitively staved
off during the struggle for investiture between the Pope and
the Emperor, and this was reconfirmed when the Church of
Rome took over patronage of the city. The close ties between
the Church and the city were maintained for a long time, but
they were not always amicable ones.
In the meantime, the city began to rebuild itself and the
first municipal institutions began to appear. These were
built with the approval of the Emperor Enrico V. In 1088,
the most important university in Europe was built by the
Master of Laws - Irnerio.
This was a period of frenzied activity for the city. The
more that was happening here, the more it became a potential
target for the major powers. Regimes with colonial
expansionist urges began to set it in their sights. Federico
Barbarossa attempted to remove its autonomy by imposing his
own magistrates on the city?s government, but Bologna
refused to submit to this. In 1167, it joined the League of
Lombardy and entered into armed struggle to defend its
Bologna was a hotly contested city. It was sought after by
the Church, by the Imperial powers, and by rich and powerful
members of the nobility. There were many reasons for this,
not least its strategic geographical location, the economic
and cultural benefits brought about by the presence of the
university and its flourishing markets which had been
revitalised as a result of fervent activity on the part of
the Corporazioni delle Arti (Coporation of the Arts).
There were a large number of craftsmen?s workshops in the
city, and these even gave their name to some of the streets,
which are still visible today in the mercato di mezzo
Many illustrious personages were buried here and great
funereal monuments - such as the Glossatori Arches which can
be seen near the Piazza San Domenico and the Piazza Malpighi
? were built for them.
In the thirteenth century, waves of discontent continued to
wash over the citizens of Bologna, due to the alternate
domination of the city by both the Guelfs and and the
The Emperor Frederico Barbarossa never actually managed to
subjugate Bologna, and his nephew, King Enzo of Sardinia was
even taken captive during the battle of the Fossalta. He was
incarcerated until his death in a palace which bears his
name to this day:Palazzo Re Enzo.
The Church met with a different fate, but it was no less
effective. Often, when the citizens of Bologna felt they?d
had enough of the abuse of power of the Papal Legate, they
would rail against the Rocca di Galliera. This building ?
constructed by Cardinal Bertrando del Progetto - as the
official residence of the Papal Legate - was the stronghold
of the Catholic Church in Bologna.
Bologna courageously resisted all attempts at subjugation,
even during the bloody civil wars which were to follow. The
powerful Geremei, Lambertazzi and Pepoli families fought for
domination of the city for years, siding from time to time
with the Papacy or the Emperor for support.
It was only the fury of the Papal Delegate which managed to
temporarily curb the heated disputes which were taking place
between the opposing factions to the point where even he
only narrowly managed to avoid being thrown out of the city.
Bologna did however, have its moments of glory. The Santa
Maria dei Servi church was built and the San Domenico
basilica was finished.
Contruction work on San Petronio was commenced in 1390.
In the fifteenth century, the Bentivolgio family came to
power. There was also a power struggle between the Viscounts
of Milan and the Pope for domination of the city, from which
the church emerged victorious. The Rocca di Galliera was
consequently rebuilt. Pope Alessandro V felt that the city
was finally at peace and attempted to stabilise the
political sitution. He died in 1410 and his body was
preserved in the sepulchre at the San Francesco basilica.
However, the tensions in the city were still simmering away
and relations with the church continued to be problematic
until the nineteenth century. Every time the church
attempted to calm the population, it would alllow itself to
be calmed. However, as soon as the papal legate became in
any way controversial, the citizens of Bologna would once
more be up in arms.
Bologna?s other enemies ? the Viscounts ? took full
advantage of the situation and continually threatened the
city, in an attempt to realise their ambition of territorial
expansion into Emilia. The Bentivoglio family repeatedly
attempted to reinstate the rule of the Signoria (or
?nobility?), as did both King Francia Luigi XII and
Cesare Borgio, grandson of Pope Alessandro VI. In 1506, the
church once more intervened and it was Pope Giulio II that
finally liberated the city from domination by the
Bentivoglio family and reinstated papal rule, definitively
making Bologna part of the Papal State.
In the years which followed, various major events took
place: in 1530, Carlo V was crowned Emperor in the San
Petronio Basilica, and in 1542, Bologna hosted several
sessions of the Trento Council. Various important
institutions were transformed as a result of the papal
domination e.g. the University came to be housed inside the Archiginnasio,
in order for its autonomy not to be limited.
During this period, many great architectural works were
built including the Palazzo dei Banchi in 1565, Piazza
Galvani in 1563 and the Ospedale della Morte (today
housing the Civic Archaeological Museum) which was also
built in 1565.
In this way, Bologna reacquired some of its faded glory and
prestige. While the corruption-riddled nobility were
involved in the worldy, secular life of the city, the papacy
struggled to maintain law and order.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the city?s
population was decimated by the Plague, but it was still
constantly under development. Magnificent palaces were built
and there was an increasing amount of activity in the world
of the arts.
In the eighteenth century, Bologna began to enjoy a better
standard of living as a result of successes in both the
agricultural and textile industries. The University regained
some of its antique splendour with the addition of the
Institute of Sciences which was housed in the Palazzo Poggi,
donated by Luigi Ferdinando Marsili.
Bologna was the papal state?s ?second city? (after
Rome), and in the nineteenth century, it became involved in
a series of historical events which changed the face of
Europe. In the Napoleonic period, it was at first the
capital of the Cispadana Republic and then, it left the
papal state to became part of the Cisalpina Republic. During
the Restoration, Bologna was restored to the papacy.
However, Bologna soon became actively involved in the
Risorgimento movement which culminated in the driving out of
the Austrians and the definitive severing of Bologna?s
centuries-old ties with the papacy. In 1859, Piedmont was
annexed and became part of a unified Italy.
Today, Bologna is often seen as Europe?s cultural capital.
It take pride of place in Italy?s road network and its
prestigious University is world-famous. It is an ancient
city with a widely-respected artistic heritage (the Caracca
and Reni Schools originated here) which has promoted various
cultural initiatives on an international scale. It is a city
which is known for its strong identity, its inter-cultural
exchange programmes, its towers, its gateways, its
magnificent palaces and for the joie de vivre of its
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