It is often said that you need to know the past to understand the present. That also applies to cities and it is certainly true for Bologna, a city that experienced in the Middle Ages a time of major development and prosperity; it was then that foundations were laid for what the city was to become, and is today: forward-thinking, industrious, tolerant, business-savvy, culture-loving.

Bologna’s historic center won’t strike you for the grandeur of its monuments, as it happens in other Italian cities; its allure is in the streets, in an urban fabric that has retained its medieval structure so that when you walk around you can still feel its medieval past, especially if you know where to look.

A good way to start delving into Bologna’s medieval past is by checking out the Museo Civico Medievale (Medieval Museum), housed in the Ghisilardi-Fava Palace (via Manzoni 4), where works of art and objects from the Middle Ages are on display.  

An important part of the medieval history of Bologna is related to the university, which was founded in 1088, the first in Europe. Known as Studium, it initially focused on legal studies. Between the 12th and 13th centuries, a groups of jurists came to prominence. They based their teachings on the ancient Corpus Juris Civilis of Emperor Justinian and were known as ‘Glossatori’ because of the brief notations, called glosse, they often made to legal texts. Glossatori came to be highly regarded in Bologna, which is why funerary monuments of great beauty were made for them.

You can see some of them in the Medieval Museum; they often depict a professor teaching a lesson to students, a recurring theme of Gothic sculpture. A favorite is the bas-relief from the Arca (Ark) of jurist Giovanni da Legnano, portraying students in class; the student in the center, looking intent, with a hand on an open book and the other sustaining his chin, is especially effective.  

[Photo: Fragment from the tomb of jurist Giovanni da Legnano, portraying students in class, on display at the Medieval Museum in Bologna.]

You can see other funerary monuments in front of the Basilica of San Francesco in Piazza Malpighi and on Piazza San Domenico.  

[Photo: Funerary monument of the 'Glossatori' in front of the Basilica of San Francesco on Piazza Malpighi.]

The Medieval Museum houses a reconstruction of Bologna as it looked at the end of the 13th century, when the city began to expand beyond the second ring of walls (the so-called Cerchia dei Mille, built around the year 1000), which had 18 entrance gates known as torresotti; you can see one on Via San Vitale, near Piazza Aldrovandi. In the 13th century, a third ring of walls was excavated; of those walls, only the gates remain, which you can see around the viali, modern-day avenues that circle the historic center. If you’ve made your way to the torresotto in via San Vitale, continue to the end of the street until you reach the gate (Porta San Vitale); you’ll have a good photo op of the Torre Asinelli, a symbol of Bologna, from there.

Towers indeed were another essential element of medieval Bologna: during the Middle Ages, the city had more than 100, hence the nickname la turrita, city of many towers; their main function was defensive, but, with time, they also became a symbol of power. Only about 20 towers remain today; among the most famous are the landmarks Two Towers (Due Torri), the Torre Prendiparte (which today houses a Bed and Breakfast), and the Torre dell’Arengo above Palazzo Re Enzo, which was used to summon people to the piazza for important announcements.

[Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, with the Palazzo del Podestà and Torre dell'Arengo.]

Thus we’re now in Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s main square, whose construction began in the 13th century; it has since been the heart of city’s life. This is where citizens gathered to listen to the enunciation of new laws and to witness capital executions. The square was also home to one of Europe’s biggest open-air market until the mid-1800s. Many of the buildings surrounding the square were also built during the Middle Ages, including Palazzo D’Accursio, Palazzo del Podestà, and Palazzo Re Enzo; construction of the Basilica of San Petronio began in 1390.

Continue to the nearby 14th century Palazzo della Mercanzia, the place that hosted the Foro dei Mercanti,  where trading and business activities were regulated. Built in brick and Istrian stone, the crenelated building features two large Gothic arches; above them is a small balcony where the judges of the merchants’ court read their sentences. Every working day, the merchants’ court gathered at the sound of the bell known as ‘Lucardina’, now preserved in the Medieval Museum. The statues of Justice and of the saints protectors of the city that were once here are also in the Medieval Museum. Today, Palazzo della Mercanzia houses the Chamber of Commerce of Bologna: the business activities of the city have been regulated in this same place for 700 years.

[Palazzo della Mercanzia, where the business activities of the city have been regulated for 700 years.]

During your stroll of medieval Bologna, you’ll walk under another typical feature of the city, built right in the Middle Ages: the porticoes. They began being built between the 11th and 12th centuries to enlarge houses due to the swelling population of Bologna as a consequence of the university’s growing importance. The best way to understand how porticoes helped make additional room in existing houses (by adding space that jutted out and was sustained by the portico) is to head to Casa Schiavina on Via Clavature (see photo below). Another outstanding example of medieval portico is at Casa Isolani on Strada Maggiore. Erected around 1250, it’s supported by nine-meter-high wooden columns and, if you stand on the other side of the street, you’ll see how the third floor of the building sticks out and is supported by the portico.

[Casa Schiavina on Via Clavature shows how houses were enlarged thanks to porticoes in the Middle Ages.]

To conclude your stroll of medieval Bologna, I’d like to mention a little-known fact that gives an idea of how the city was already forward-thinking back then: Bologna was in fact the first city in Italy to abolish slavery with an act, the Liber Paradisus, issued in 1256. It said that God created man in paradise “in perfect and perpetual freedom”. You can see the Liber Paradisus online at this link

Need a place to stay in Bologna? Check out our recommendations here.