It is often said that Bologna is la dotta, la grassa e la rossa or the erudite, the fat and the red. Erudite, for its university had been established in 1088 AD, making it the oldest in the world. The fat, for its rich cuisine: tortellini, ragù (vulgarly translated as Bolognese sauce outside Italy), tagliatelle and gnocco fritto all hail from Bologna or surrounding areas, and all aren’t exactly what Gwyneth Paltrow would recommend should she ever write a book on how to keep her slim figure (unless she hasn’t done it already). The red has a double meaning: it might be the colour of the city’s political views, for Bologna, and the whole Emilia-Romagna region, has always been one of the most Communist and anti-clerical areas of Italy, together with Tuscany and Umbria. Incidentally, all three had been administered by the Vatican before the unification of Italy in 1861. However, it can also be referring to the colour of the city, a fact that can be recognized either from up above or by strolling down below, at street level.
Bologna is also known, in Italy, as the Città delle due torri, city of the two towers (at least until two taller towers were destroyed one day in New York, making this a less-than-auspicious nickname). These two towers, Torre degli Asinelli and Torre Garisenda, stand at odd angles in Piazza Ravegnana and are amongst the very few remnants of a more crowded assembly, relics of a time when local families erected tall chimneys – almost a hundred – for reasons that still escape, in their entirety, the medievalists who study them. Some say they were symbols of prestiges, some that were used as defensive systems from enemies within the city, for Bologna in the Middle Ages was torn between allegiance to the Emperor or to the Pope and was therefore quite violent. Personally I consider them the proofs of a dick-measurement contest that continues to this date (hear that, Dubai and Jeddah?).
(Click on the photos to start the slide show)
A view of Torre degli Asinelli from Piazza Maggiore, built between 1109 and 1119 by the Asinelli family.
Torre Garisenda,.Originally 60 meters high, it was cut to 48 in 1351 after an earthquake.
Standing 97 meters tall, the Torre degli Asinelli is thought to have been much higher as the thickness of its walls at the top would’ve allowed for another 20 mts.
Nothing has changed much in the past 800 years here, and even the chemist’s sign had to blend in.
Climbing up the Torre degli Asinelli provides a lesson in how life was before Mr Otis set up shop, for it’s some 500 steps and frequent stops to let people come down the narrow stairs; however, once up, the views are well worth it. And they confirm in full the city’s nickname as La Rossa.
Nestled between green hills and a lush flatland, Bologna gleams ochre-red from above, a swathe of terra cotta roofs running in all directions, occasionally bisected by a straight road, the canopy of a leafy park or by another tower. Modernity is confined to the outskirts, under the guise of a new skyscraper, a maniple of high rises – condemned to anonymity had they not been designed by Kenzo Tange – and the usual excrescence of council houses that has sprouted out of every large Italian city in the 1960s.
Down at street level is pretty much the same story. Bologna is a city of bicycles and porticos, with some 38 kms of roads covered by arcades in the city centre alone. Porticos give the city a sophisticated, yet welcoming air, providing shelter to the elements and a secluded, relaxed environment, away from the traffic. In facts, stepping from a colonnaded road into one without gave a strange feeling, as if I was back out in the cold, lost amongst cars parked on the sidewalk and a target for pigeons’ dropping. Regardless of how the streets look like, with porticos or without, the colour remains the same: red.
Bologna is red also politically speaking, as this Antifa stencil shows.