Bologna this morning

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The towers of the Asinelli (taller) and Garisenda families. It’s not just the camera’s vertical distortion: the shorter tower really does lean that much. At one point there were 170 such towers in Bologna.

It was quite a pleasant trip from Ravenna to Bologna on the coach, despite the unrelieved flatness of the plain; the sun was shining, there was lots of fruit blossom, and somewhere in the distance there were snow-capped hills.

Like Ravenna, Bologna is a town built predominantly of brick. You think you see decorative stonework, but actually it is generally terracotta mouldings. It has numerous palazzi, each one appearing to vie with its neighbours, but they abut one another like a row of Edwardian terraces. There are arcades everywhere, protecting you from both rain and sun; the earliest I saw was a Renaissance stoa against the side of San Giacomo Maggiore (below), but there are much later, more monumental ones on Mussolini-era blocks. Even “my” hotel in Milan – a hyper-modern eyesore – has an enormously high stoa running round it.

Some of the painting that we saw was from the Counter-Reformation era of the second half of the sixteenth century. The Council of Trent instructed artists to produce clear, emotive works which would function as aids to piety – hence paintings such as Guido Reni’s Lamentation which I saw in the afternoon in the Pinacoteca. Architecture was also covered: this was the rise of the Baroque style and the oval church, which embraces you in its arms as soon as you step over the threshold. None of this advancing up the nave stuff.

08CBB97B-6610-4382-860F-85B5C1BF1246We came to a little cluster of buildings – two churches and a campanile with the aforementioned arcade attached. Above the arcade was a long wall of blind arches, which I have learned to call “articulation” – breaking up a blank space with solids and voids in this case.

The first stop was the Oratory of St Cecilia to look at the ten frescoes, begun in 1505, by Francesco Francia, Lorenzo Costa and Amico Aspertini, depicting the life of St Cecilia and her husband, St Valerian. The panels are separated from each other by trompe l’oeil pilasters. Even after all these centuries and a fair amount of damp, the frescoes still radiate colour. A few have been detached from the wall and rehung in a separate frame, which sounds like an impossible task. Pre-Council of Trent, it was acceptable to add landscapes and classical ruins to your sacred story-telling.

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Marriage of St Cecilia

Next door is San Giacomo Maggiore, a great brick barn of a church rather like the Frari in Venice. It was built for the Augustinians who, like the Franciscans, preferred simplicity and preaching to grandeur; they’d probably be horrified by all the added chapels, tombs and works of art that have been added over the centuries. Our destination was the Bentivoglio chapel with yet another Madonna and Child with Saints. This one was by Francia and was superbly done, but . . . Anyway, I now have a different take on why St Sebastian crops up everywhere: it gave the artist a chance to demonstrate his ability to paint a classical nude. (Always “his”, apart from a few paintings in the Pinacoteca by Lavinia Fontana, who was taught by her father.)

Next (oh, this was a packed day) was Santa Maria della Vita and its astonishing terracotta Lamentation by Niccolo dell’Arca from the mid-fifteenth century.

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Finally, a visit to San Petronio (1290-1659), which was a place I had seen before. I realised – how had I missed it?! – that it is actually unfinished: the brick façade should be completely covered in marble.

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There is a small museum inside which contains small marble panels made by Properzia de’Rossi – a very early female sculptor. The church itself (it’s not a cathedral; as in Venice, the city was more dominant than the papacy, so the cathedral is an undistinguished building) is full of masterpieces, but the only one I took in was a horrible (because effective) Last Judgement by Giovanni da Modena and others. Lucifer dominates the depiction of hell, based on Dante’s divisions.

Something else I recognised was Giovanni da Bologna’s fountain (1560). How on earth would you explain this to a Martian?

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