La Dotta Bologna*
*La Dotta, Italian, ‘The Learned One’

With the richest historical legacy in Europe after Venice, and home to the West’s oldest university, Bologna is a city as modern and enlightened as it is magical

Imagine a city such that, wherever you look, if you are near the city center you can see, feel and touch its historic texture. The only thing that keeps you from feeling you have been beamed back to the Middle Ages in a time machine as you stroll through its streets are the electrically lighted shop signs and the modern vehicles with their modern-dressed drivers.  Bologna is a city that arouses conflicting feelings in a person. A trifle dreary, perhaps even dark, on account to its texture, but a city that is warm and welcoming when you delve a little deeper into it and lose yourself in its streets. One enormous medieval theater, seemingly reanimated in all its myriad aspects.

I traveled to Bologna from Istanbul one beautiful spring day to be a consultant on a Turkish stand being set up at a fair. First to Milan and from there by train to Bologna. The fairs held in this city, which has been heavily engaged in trade throughout its history and is one of Italy’s most important transportation hubs, draw people from all over the world. Although fair visitors don’t have much time to take an interest in the city itself, for me this visit was an opportunity to soak up the atmosphere and experience everything like a native. And to hook up with my Italian friends whom I had not seen for a long time...

Together with Milan and Turin, Bologna is one of Italy’s most extraordinary cities, a status it has always managed to preserve as a transportation hub from time immemorial and an advanced industrial region. Its residents are voracious intellectuals, known throughout Italy for their left-leaning views. Thanks to which, and to the blood red tiles and bricks of its medieval buildings, Bologna has always been known as ‘La Rossa’, ‘the Red City’, an epithet that befits its multiculturalness as well. ‘La Dotta’, as the title of this article indicates, also leaves its mark on Bologna, which is a university town to boot.  Its population expanding in every new period, Bologna’s streets today are thronged with more young people than you will see in the average European city. And this is not attributable to the city’s being particularly populous. The city center easily boasts two young people per square meter. Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna is acknowledged to be Europe’s oldest - indeed the world’s oldest according to those who don’t count Alexandria - and the names of just a few of its graduates suffice to indicate this city’s importance to learning and culture: Dante, Copernicus, Thomas á Beckett, Albrecht Dürer, Marcelo Malpighi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Umberto Eco.

Besides its fairs and its university, Bologna’s cuisine is another prime component of its fame. The name Bologna immediately springs to mind all over the Emilia-Romagna region at the mere mention of cheese and charcuterie products, as you will soon notice from the gigantic cheese wheels, colorful bottles and myriad other products that will catch your eye in the restaurants scattered all over the city. Another Bologna epithet, ‘La Grassa’ or ‘The Fat One’, lays emphasis on the city’s rich cuisine and famous Bolognese sauce, instantly recalled by those with a little interest in Italian cooking. The Italians call this meat-based tomato sauce ‘ragu alla Bolognese’. My local friend Andreas and I surrender wholeheartedly to the restaurant and cooking madness that permeates the Po Valley and, aping the natives, ask for ‘Tagliatelle al ragu’ when ordering our lunch.
Sated now and feeling pleasantly stuffed, we commence a brief tour of the city. This is a city that exudes history from every nook and cranny. Although the light drizzle is a reminder of the region’s damp climate, you can stroll around the entire city center and never get wet. Approximately 38 kilometers of arcades (45 km in the city as a whole) cover almost every street and join all the squares, providing every possible protection against snow, rain and temperatures that can easily soar over 30 C in summer. And wherever you wander on your city stroll, all roads lead eventually to the Piazza Maggiore.

Gracing the square in all its glory and greeting passersby from beneath the porticoes, the Fontana di Nettuno is one of the city’s icons. It is  impossible to feel anything other than sheer awe in its presence. Another impossibility is reining in the urge to go up and examine it in detail. For the Fountain of Neptune is a truly outstanding depiction of the god of the sea, with its supple contours, the bronze body stained by time, and the surrounding figures that recall to the sea. Across the Piazza Maggiore the Palazzo Re Enzo will enter your line of vision. But the most impressive structure on this square is the San Petronio Basilica. Unless you look closely, you will not notice that while half of it is built of high quality marble the other half is made of simple bricks. This basilica, a cause of onerous taxes and untold oppression in its time, later had, unfortunately, to be completed in bricks. When looking at this architectural masterpiece, which was meant to be even grander and more splendid than its counterpart in the Vatican, you will feel both regret for its half-finished beauty and empathy with its contemporaries who sacrificed themselves for its sake. Housing Foucault’s pendulum and other matchless artifacts, San Petronio is one of the best-preserved buildings in the world today.
If you happen to go to Bologna in summer, you are likely to encounter Beppe Maniglia, the city’s scantily clad ‘certified lunatic’, who makes music on his electro guitar with his supporters as backup. Running for mayor of the city in every election but never winning, Maniglia’s biggest campaign promise is to have a giant public swimming pool built in the center of Bologna, which can get very hot in summer. Who knows? If you go to Bologna next summer you might just be surprised at how ‘cool’ this old city has become!