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Piazza Maggiore, the heart of Bologna

The people of Bologna have been gathering on the Piazza Maggiore for centuries. This large square in the heart of the city is surrounded by beautiful medieval buildings like the Palazzo del Podestà, Pallazo d’Accursio and, of course, the giant Basilica of San Petronio with its unfinished grey façade.

Bologna was a thriving city in the Middle Ages. During this time, its residents enjoyed considerable freedom, the textile trade flourished and the University of Bologna was founded – the first university in the world. The Piazza Maggiore has been at the very heart of this progressive city. This crowded trading hub attracted merchants from around the world, and the city government carried out its duties in the surrounding ‘palazzi’. The best way to relax and enjoy the Piazza Maggiore is to act like a student and sit at an outdoor café, order a chilled glass of Chianti and enjoy the view.

Unfinished past

Look up and you can almost read the rich history of Bologna from its building façades. The unfinished façade of the Basilica of San Petronio immediately catches the eye. The first stones of this church were laid in 1390 but construction dragged on for centuries. When the city council commissioned its construction, no request for approval was sent to the bishop. After all, the basilica was meant to represent the free city of Bologna, one that was not under the yoke of the diocese. But the Pope was not going to allow this to happen without a fight, and he put a stop to the ambitious design by having the Archiginnasio University building built directly next to the construction site. The Pope wanted to have all university disciplines housed in the same building. Due to a lack of funding and technical problems, construction of the basilica ultimately came to a standstill and the façade was never completed. The Archiginnasio currently houses the Municipal Library.

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The Atrium of the Archiginnasio

Big, bigger, biggest

The church is already quite formidable in size, but was originally intended to trump even the St. Peter’s Basilica of Rome. Although the façade is unfinished, the building is certainly worth a visit. Inside, beautiful frescos by Giovanni da Modena and Jacopo di Paolo adorn the walls and the basilica itself houses one of the oldest working organs in the world, which dates back to the 15th century. Science is also represented in the church, which boasts the largest sundial in the world and also a Foucault pendulum.

The oldest palace on the Piazza Maggiore

Across from the basilica is the oldest palace on the Piazza Maggiore, the Palazzo del Podestà. It was built around the year 1200 and served as the seat of the ‘podestà’, the highest administrator in the city and his colleagues. The palace quickly became too small for all the citizens who were involved in the city council and so the Palazzo Re Enzo was constructed as an extension. The Torre dell‘Arengo dating from 1453 is worthy of notice. This tower houses the largest bell in Bologna which is used to warn the people of Bologna of an emergency. Tip: stand under one side of the vaults and you can hear someone whispering from the other side.

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Palazzo del Podestà and the Torre dell’Arengo

Enzo, the imprisoned king

The Palazzo Re Enzo is named after King Enzo of Sardinia, the illegitimate son of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor. In 1249, he suffered a defeat at Fossalta after which he was captured by the Bolognese. During the night, he was confined in a cage in Palazzo Re Enzo but, during the daytime, was free to do as he pleased – including meeting with women. Rumour has it that he fathered three daughters and one son. That son is said to be the forefather of the Bentivoglio family, who later became the rulers of Bologna. Despite continuous protests by his father, Enzo remained imprisoned until his death in 1272.

The façade of Palazzo d’Accursio

Palazzo d’Accursio o Comunale

The Palazzo d’Accursio o Comunale consists of various buildings that have been joined together over the centuries. In the 13th century, the famous jurist Accursius lived here and worked at the University of Bologna. The building later served as the seat of the Anziani (Elders), the highest magistrates in the city. The façade has a gate with portcullis, above which stands a large bronze statue of the Bolognese pope Gregorius XIII. The palace currently houses the Municipal Art Collection, with paintings from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.

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View on the map

Palazzo d’Accursio o Comunale, Piazzo Maggiore, Bologna, Italy

Photo credits

  • Palazzo del Podestà and the Torre dell’Arengo: magro_kr, Flickr
  • The façade of Palazzo d’Accursio: Marco Assini, Flickr