Thursday, February 07, 2013

Two-faced devils and flayed corpses: Bologna Part 2

I've been slack with my blogging this month, but I need to forge ahead with the three Bs - Bologna, Brussels and Bruges (gosh, makes my life sound so much more glamorous than it really is!) Last time, I briefly blogged about exploring Bologna on foot and via its culinary delights. I was all ready to come to this post saying that those were the highlights of my trip, and that I didn't really manage to do much else when I was there. Then I uploaded the photos I'd already pre-selected for the blog, and I realised I actually did see quite a bit when I was there. I think the "negatives" had stuck in my mind, because there were a couple of things I'd have liked to do that I didn't get the chance to.

My timing was a bit awkward - arriving Saturday evening and flying out Monday evening meant that all the museums were closed on Monday, whereas many things were a bit *too* open on Sunday, by which I mean many of the churches were full of people celebrating Mass all day long (fair enough, of course). This, coupled with the grey and drizzly weather, made it a bit difficult to plan out my activities. I had spotted a couple of activities I thought I'd quite like to do in Canedolia's recent posts about Bologna, particularly climbing up one of the two tall towers in the city centre, and doing a 4 km walk out to a sanctuary outside the city. However, I decided there was no point in climbing the tower in rainy weather, and, even though the walk to the sanctuary is almost all covered by colonnades (which is pretty cool), I could just picture the wind whistling through them, and decided I'd be cold and miserable (and probably not have a great view at the end anyway), even if I didn't get wet.

So, I had to find some alternative activities to keep me busy. First up was a visit to the Seven Churches of Santo Stefano, a complex of seven churches dating back to the 5th century (with various additions and alterations over time, of course). The churches were mostly deserted while I was there, except for a Mass in the biggest one and an old Italian lady who came and sat next to me in one, boxing me in to the corner, and talked at me for quite a while before I could interrupt and say I didn't speak Italian. It all had a very old - dim and sepulchral - feel to it, and there were some original frescoes etc. in the churches, which was nice. I didn't really have any information about the place while I was there, but there's some interesting tidbits about the different legends, history and saints associated with the churches here.

In the Court of Pilate - the basin you can see behind me was meant to be the one Pilate washed his hands in after sentencing Jesus (or something like that). It actually dates from the 8th century

13th(?) century fresco in one of the churches

There was also a small museum in one of the buildings. Detail of a painting of the Massacre of the Innocents

This is a genuinely old fresco, but it reminded me of the infamous Spanish Monkey Jesus, so maybe Cecilia Gimenez was here?
After the churches, I took a walk to the university district where I was informed I could get a cheap lunch (didn't work out so well on a Sunday, as most places were closed) and see some nice late 15th-early 16th century frescoes in the Oratory of Saint Cecilia. These were indeed, while quite badly damaged, very nice to look at, although I was infected with the photo-taking bug, especially when the beady-eyed guardian stepped out to have a cigarette. Result: a few poor-quality snaps -

This was a lot of arse for a chapel

One side of the frescoes
A better-quality version, courtesy of the web

After lunch, I decided to go to the Medieval Museum, seeing that I like That Sort of Thing. It was quite good - I especially liked a very well-preserved, old and ornate English chasuble (none of the photos came out due to reflective glass, unfortunately). I can't really remember anything else that was in there right now - some tombs I think, a small collection of illuminated manuscripts, probably paintings... It was a good collection without being particularly outstanding.

Very high heels
On Monday morning, I checked out the cathedral, including paying to go into a small chapel decorated with frescoes of the Last Judgement and the life of Saint Petronius, the patron saint of the cathedral (and Bologna). It's a huge church, supposedly prevented from being even bigger by order of Pope Pius IV, who didn't want it to grow larger than St. Peter's. It does, however, hold one record - that of housing the world's largest sundial - 66.8 metres long. I don't quite see what use an indoor sundial is, but what do I know? It also still had its massive, medieval-style Nativity scene on display, which was very cool. Photos weren't permitted, but it represented all the typical inhabitants of a medieval town like Bologna in charming scenes.

The Last Judgement in the chapel was very interesting, particularly coming after seeing Giotto's Last Judgement. The influence in the huge figure of the Devil consuming sinners is clear, although this devil has two mouths - the figure sticking out of his crotch is not being excreted out, but eaten up as well. The audioguide said this represents the Devil's inability to produce life. The influence of Dante is also clear - the Devil is surrounded by different groups of sinners being punished in customarily creative ways, from being roasted on spits, strung up by their genitals or force-fed. It's also notorious for a depiction of Mohammed (clearly labelled) being tortured in Hell. Because of this, the cathedral has been the focus of terrorist plots in recent years.

My sneaky snapshot
Close-up of the Devil (Mohammed is lying on the rock on the upper-right). Source

My final activity in Bologna (after getting my hair cut and doing a bit of shopping in the sales - I scored two cheap tops I'd had my eye on in H&M back in France, and a pair of leather boots) was a visit to the original HQ of Bologna University, possibly the world's oldest university, founded in 1088. I was going off a brief description on the map I had, but didn't really know what to expect. I just thought since it was free and I had an hour or so to kill, I might as well check it out. I was pleasantly surprised - the 17th-century wooden operating theatre, with its statues of flayed bodies, is unexpectedly attractive, and the walls and ceilings are covered with the crests of former students. I also sat for about 20 minutes chatting to an Italian guy who used to live in France and was killing some time having come up from Rome for the day for a 30-minute meeting with someone.

Me (with salon-fresh hair) in the operating theatre

Hallway in the university

It's hard to get a good picture of the operating theatre, since it's quite a small space, but the all-wood interior makes it strangely homey

Ceiling covered with students' crests

Close-up of the anatomical sculptures
So, surprise surprise - while at first I thought I hardly did anything in Bologna, it turns out I packed quite a lot into my short visit, and still left with plenty of other activities I could have done if my timing and the weather had been a bit better. As usual, I enjoyed being there in the off-season, although from what I gather, it's not the most crowded or touristy part of Italy even in the height of summer. All in all, a nice relaxing trip to a destination that I'd never really thought of going to!


  1. Interesting. And your hair looks great! M x

  2. It sucks that the weather wasn't the best and that you had very little time, but it sounds like you had a great trip! I love the new hair!

    1. It was a nice little break, and of course I went to Padua as well, so the whole thing was a bit longer but still a bit of a whirlwind visit. I decided my budget wouldn't stretch for another night! Thank you, although it never looks as good when I do it, of course!

  3. I went to Italy for a summer with my parents because my mother had a conference in Bologna. We did the standard Italian jaunt (Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan) but we spent over a week in Bologna and it was my favourite city of the trip. When I'd arrived, I didn't know very much about it and was looking forward to the more touristy cities but was pleasantly surprised and delighted by my time in Bologna.

    1. I think the less touristy places or the places where you don't have high hopes or a busy schedule often do turn out to be the best! That sounds like a great summer trip!

  4. Isn't Bologna the place that gave us the expression "a load of old boloney"?

    1. I think the "mortadella" gave rise to what Americans call baloney (which I think is like lunchmeat), and maybe the expression comes from there? Not sure!

    2. What's the betting that comment was from "D".....

    3. Ahhhh mortadella!! No! Growing up in an Italian household, my packed school lunches were always foccacia with roasted red pepper, mozz, olive oil and mortadella. I was always so embarrassed, plus I was terrified (still am) by mortadella! I wanted the American lunch like everyone else had. How I got out of it was telling my mom that it looked like Zia Grazia's face (which it did, she had a lot of birth marks) and my mom actually agreed and started using prociutto instead. Still Italian but much better than ham with nuts and moles on it!

    4. Maybe it's lucky I didn't get to try any then!! Apart from the questionable mortadella, that looks like a yummy lunch though!

  5. Love the haircut. What made you decide to have it cut there?. it's a long way to go back for a trim! LOL!

    Pontius Pilate waited a long time to wash his hands.....800 years!

    Statues of flayed bodies sound a bit gory. Glad you didn't post pictures!

    Love Denise

    1. Thank you! It cost 10€ and to be honest, I like not having to have a conversation with the hairdresser, haha!

      The wooden statues are the flayed bodies actually, but it's a bit hard to see! Not too gory anyway!

  6. Great haircut! It really suits you and frames your face quite nicely. Have you been reading the headlines about how women should not travel alone, do you also think it's a bunch of...boloney? He he he...couldn't resist!

    There's something about exploring a place off season on your own that I feel is so makes it feel like it's your own personal discovery. : )

    1. Thanks! Needed one, especially for interview. No, haven't seen any headlines. Because it's dangerous or something? Firstly, you're most likely to be attacked by someone you know anyway, secondly, just telling women not to travel isn't the answer if there really is a problem (and I've never felt unsafe, or not more than I might walking around at night anywhere).

      Definitely, feel much more like a trendsetter without the crowds haha!


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