The Piazza Maggiore (main square) in Bologna, around 1855.

Art Cities: Bologna

Featured image: Unknown artist, The Piazza Maggiore (main square) in Bologna, around 1855.

I’ve had the great fortune to visit cities around the world that offer spectacular works of art in their original locations. In this new series, entitled Art Cities, I aim to shed light on some of these wonderful locales and some of the art they have to offer. It is my hope that you visit them on your own and discover what I’ve found and more.

First up, the city of Bologna.

Bologna is the capital city of the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy. It is home to the oldest university in the world, the University of Bologna, founded in 1088. The city has long stood as an important center for arts, culture, and cuisine, earning the curious nicknames of “la dotta, la grassa, la rossa” (the learned, the fat and the red).

I traveled to Bologna last May on a research trip to see a lamentation group, made from terracotta by Niccolò dell’Arca at Santa Maria della Vita. I soon discovered that beyond the intellectual history enjoyed by the presence of the world’s oldest university, the city was teeming with culinary and artistic gems that should not be missed.

Giambologna’s Neptune’s Fountain (Fontana di Nettuno)

Giambologna, Neptune’s Fountain, 1564-66. Marble and bronze. Piazza Maggiore, Bologna.

Despite his name, Giambologna (1529-1608), also known as Jean de Boulogne, hailed from Flanders and studied sculpture in Antwerp. In 1550, he moved to Rome to study statues of antiquity. By the time he was given this joint commission with architect Tommaso Laureti (who did the overall design for the fountain) by Charles Borromeo, he had been in the service of the Medicis in Florence. Giambologna’s task was to make the figures for the Fountain of Neptune in the Piazza Maggiore, the main square, in Bologna in celebration of the election of Borromeo’s uncle as Pope Pius IV. *

(1) detail of Nereid from Neptune’s Fountain, 1564-66. Marble and bronze. Piazza Maggiore, Bologna.

The fountain is a three-tier structure, with the bottom tier supported by four Nereids (1), sea nymphs traditionally found in the company of Neptune. Four cherubs holding dolphins that symbolize the four main rivers known in the world (Ganges, Nile, Amazon, and Danube) form the middle tier, and perched at the very top sits Neptune with his trident (2), right hand outstretched with an expression of theatricality that Giambologna’s work would become known for. One of the great features of this fountain is that it is exceptionally symmetrical and meant to be viewed from any angle.

(2) detail of Neptune,  Neptune’s Fountain, 1564-66. Marble and bronze. Piazza Maggiore, Bologna.

Neptune and his command of the seas served as a metaphor for Pope Pius IV and his authority over not only the church in Bologna, but also over the Catholic world-at-large.

This monumental structure underwent restoration in 2017. By the time I arrived in Bologna, the scaffolding was removed so that I could see it in all its glory. Today, you can sit on the steps and listen to local musicians perform, an excellent way to pass the time on a hot afternoon.

Basilica di San Petronio

Basilica di San Petronio, Bologna. Photo courtesy of the author.

Named after the patron saint of Bologna, Saint Petronius, a bishop in the 5th century, the Basilica is the most prominent edifice in Piazza Maggiore. Its construction began in 1399 and was completed in 1663 with the addition of the lower naves.

Interior of Basilica di San Petronio, Bologna. Photo courtesy of the author.

The interior of the basilica composes of various arches and vaults, with terracotta-colored ribs that create a striking view to anyone who enters.

Many of the great Italian mannerists (tail end of the Renaissance before the rise of the Baroque period, marked by asymmetrical compositions, exaggerated proportions, and heightened emotional tension) have left their mark on the interior of San Petronio including Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-1573) who designed the large marble canopy in the nave, which sits in front of the main altar, and Girolamo Rainaldi (1570- 1655) who was responsible for the vaulting and decoration of the central nave. **

A stained glass window in Basilica di San Petronio, Bologna. Photo courtesy of the author.
A stained glass window in Basilica di San Petronio, Bologna. Photo courtesy of the author.

The Basilica also has some examples of the most beautiful stained glass, some which have survived since the church’s inception. Most of the stained glass had been removed and preserved before World War II, and currently, only two windows contain medieval stained glass. ***

Vincenzo Onofri, Lament over the Dead Christ, 1490-5. Polychrome terracotta sculpture. Basilica di San Petronio, Bologna. Photo courtesy of the author.

Terracotta sculptures can be found in many churches in Emilia Romagna as it was an important art form in the region in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the Basilica di San Petronio is Vincenzo Onofri’s (1490-1520) Lament over the Dead Christ, an expressive polychrome sculpture group. The Compianto or Lamentation was a common motif in Medieval and Renaissance art, consisting of a gathering of mourners around the dead body of Christ. The mourners often include Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary, the apostle John and Joseph of Arimathea. The malleability of terracotta allows for a heightened sense of emotion and expressive faces that convey overwhelming grief over the loss of Christ.

Santo Stefano

Basilica di San Stefano, Bologna. Photo courtesy of AHert.

The Basilica of Santo Stefano consists of various religious buildings that were meant to replicate the locations where the Passion of Christ had taken place. For this reason, it is also called Santa Gerusalemme (Holy Jerusalem). The dates for the building campaign of this complex is debatable: according to Bolognese tradition, it was begun by Saint Petronius in the 5th century.

Some of the noteworthy buildings include (I do not include them all here because it is my hope that you visit and discover them with your own perspective):

Courtyard view of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Bologna. Photo courtesy of the author.

Church of Saint Stephen or of the Holy Crucifix is a structure that dates back to the 8th century and is of Lombard origin. The remains of the saints Vitale and Agricola can be found in the crypt, as well as a fresco detailing not only the martyrdom of these two saints but also that of Saint Stephen.****

Edicule in Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Basilica di San Stefano, Bologna. Photo courtesy of the author.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre: this octagonal building was made to mimic the Sepulchre in Jerusalem (see image below). In the center, surrounded by twelve pillars used to contain the relics of Saint Petronius, but was moved in 2000 to the Basilica di San Petronio. The church also includes a water source that is meant to evoke the Jordan river.

Edicule in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of AP Photo/ Sebastian Scheiner.
Courtyard of Pilate in Basilica di San Stefano, Bologna. Photo courtesy of the author.

The Courtyard of Pilate: accessible from exiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the courtyard is evocative of the place of Jesus’s condemnation. There is also a 14th-century stone rooster called the “Gallo di San Pietro,” a reminder of the Denial of Peter, described in the Gospels in the New Testament.

Santa Maria della Vita

Altar of Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna. Photo courtesy of the author.

The main reason I ventured to Bologna was to see the Compianto del Cristo Morto (Lamentation over the Dead Christ) by Niccolò dell’Arca, a life-sized sculpture group located in Santa Maria della Vita, a late-Baroque style church near the Piazza Maggiore.

I was first introduced to dell’Arca in a course about Michelangelo. After the death of his most beloved patron, Lorenzo de’Medici in 1492, Michelangelo left Florence and traveled to Bologna in 1494 to work on a commission to complete the monument that contained the remains of Saint Dominic, began by dell’Arca in 1469. Michelangelo finished a free-standing sculpture of Saint Petronius (image on left), left unfinished by dell’Arca and an Angel with Candlestick (image on right) on the right side of Saint Dominic’s sarcophagus.

I remember distinctly seeing dell’Arca’s Compianto del Cristo Morto, and remarking at its utterly devastating portrayal of grief. It was nothing like anything I’d ever seen before. From that moment on, those sculptures have stayed in the forefront of my mind, and so I jumped when the opportunity presented itself to behold them in all their glory in situ.*****

Not much is known about Niccolò dell’Arca.****** He was born in either Apulia or Bari in 1435 and died in Bologna in 1494. His most significant contribution to Renaissance sculpture was his life-sized terracotta figures lamenting over the body of the dead Christ located in the sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita. The sculpture group was completed either in 1463 or as late as 1490, according to some art historians.

Niccolò dell’Arca, Compianto del Cristo Mortoc. 1463?. Terracotta sculpture. Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna. Photo courtesy of the author.

Tucked away on the right side of the main altar is the Compianto. The figures, set in a semi-circle around the dead body of Christ on a decorated slab at the center of the composition, are shown in various stages of mourning. While some figures, like John the Evangelist, seen propping his chin up with his hand, maintains composure, others add an emotional auditory component to the scene like the Virgin Mary, with mouth open and hands clasped as if caught in a moment of prayer.

(1) Detail of Mary of Cleopas, Niccolò dell’Arca, Compianto del Cristo Mortoc. 1463?. Terracotta sculpture. Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna. Photo courtesy of the author.
(2) Detail of Mary Magdalene. Niccolò dell’Arca, Compianto del Cristo Mortoc. 1463?. Terracotta sculpture. Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna. Photo courtesy of the author.

Mary of Cleopas (1) and Mary Magdalene (2) are the two figures that explode with emotion not replicated in traditional lamentations before and since dell’Arca’s representation. These two women feel the pathos and loss of Christ with every fiber of their being, and through dell’Arca’s masterful command of the medium of terracotta, the intense anguish not only in their expressive faces but in the turbulent drapery is powerfully conveyed. I challenge anyone who sees these not to be moved to tears; it is quite a powerful experience.

Tagliatelle al ragù bolognese from Il Tinello.

Today the city is well-known for artists like Elisabetta Sirani (who I wrote about in a previous post), Giambologna and Niccolò dell’Arca, as well as the home of bolognese sauce used in dishes such as tagliatelle al ragù bolognese (which I enjoyed at Il Tinello, see image) and lasagne alla bolognese. The Emilia-Romagna region is also famous for Lambrusco, a sparkling red wine made from a grape bearing the same name. I highly recommend enjoying both these dishes with a glass of Lambrusco.

Further Reading:

Great blog on the various sites of interest in Bologna

Giambologna, 1529-1608: sculptor to the Medici: an exhibition organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain, etc., catalog edited by Charles Avery and Anthony Radcliffe. London, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1978.

J. Pope-Hennessy, Italian Renaissance Sculpture. London, 1958.


* Documents in the State Archives in Bologna were used by W. Gramberg, Giambologna, Eine Untersuchung über seine Wanderjähre (Berlin) 1936.

** “Basilica di San Petronio” 7 November 2018. Retrieved April 1, 2019. 

*** Glass Windows of Basilica di San Petronio

****Ousterhout, Robert G. “The Church of Santo Stefano: A “Jerusalem” in Bologna”. Gesta Vol. 20, No. 2 (1981), pp. 311-321. The University of Chicago Press. JSTOR.

***** in its original location.

******He also is known by the following names: Niccolò da Ragusa, Niccolò da Bari, and Niccolò d’Antonio d’Apulia, the latter two as to denote his birthplace. He is known as dell’Arca due to his contribution to the Arca di San Domenico, the monument containing the remains of Saint Dominic in Bologna.

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