When I first visited Bologna some 12 years ago, I noticed a prominent old sign as we arrived. It looked to me to be from the Second World War and I imagined that “US” perhaps stood for “United States” and had something to do with directing army traffic.
Well, I was half right and it certainly dates from World War Two but it was part of Bologna’s air raid preparedness. In this post I’ll look at the impact on Bologna of that conflict and the visual memories that remain today.
Bologna has seen many armies over the centuries. Attila’s Huns passed this way in the fifth century, followed later by others such as the Ostrogoths, Longbards and Byzantines. The Middle Ages saw a drawn out war with nearby Modena and the Emporer Frederick II. There was violent confrontation with the occupying Austrians in 1848.
The Bolognese built three sets of walls over the centuries to protect the city in turbulent times. I’ve talked about the history of these and where you can see their remnants in my post The Walls of Bologna . However World War One saw the beginnings of a new for of attack from the air.
Air Raid Precautions
Following the lead of countries like France and the Britain, Italy slowly began organising air raid protection in the 1920s. The experience of the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939 gave a horrifying preview of what was to come.
Whilst allied air raids on Italy began in 1940, it wasn’t until late 1942 that work on shelters was ramped up in Bologna. Allied victories in North Africa meant that the city would soon be in range of aerial attack. The first bombardment of Bologna took place in July of 1943.
They were to continue until April 1945, with almost 2,000 civilians killed, 10% of homes destroyed and many historic buildings with their associated artworks damaged or completely lost. In 1944, for example, a wing of the Archiginnasio took a direct hit. The anatomical theatre, completed in 1638, was destroyed. It was painstakingly reconstructed incorporating what could be used from the rubble.
The most visible memories of the period are the many painted signs scattered around the city. These include those giving the address of shelters as well as indicating the locations of essential services.
Various abbreviations were used in signage. “US” stands for “Uscita di Sicurezza” and indicates a recommended route to follow in the event of air raid damage. “V” shows where a ventilation shaft is located whilst “C” is placed above a water cistern and “I” shows the location of a water outlet or hydrant.
Air Raid Shelters
Numerous air raid shelters were built around Bologna and several are still visible today. The first and most accessible is behind the monument to the poet and educator Giosuè Carducci in Piazza Carducci.
The entrance to the shelter as well as ventilator shafts are visible.
There’s a shelter relatively close to the city centre in the park of Villa Spada and another less obvious one underneath the Montagnola Park (see my post Montagnola – Bologna’s Oldest Park).
Air raid damage
Air raids on Bologna commenced in July of 1943 and continued until the defeat of the Nazis in Italy in 1945. As a major rail hub, Bologna was of strategic importance and the area around the railway station was a primary target. Today, in the vicinity of the station there are many modern buildings where there had been medieval neighbourhoods.
There were some 32 major bombardments. At times, errors led to bombs hitting civilian areas with tragic results.
Walking around Bologna, you can see buildings still scarred by shrapnel.
In 1943, an unexploded bomb was detonated destroying a large part of the 14th century Mercanzia or Merchants’ Lodge. It was restored in the immediate post war years. Another major casualty was the Archiginnasio seen in images at the start of this post.
There are various memorials in and around Bologna, mostly associated with partisan activity. Partisans were members of resistance groups who fought Nazi forces and fascist collaborators after the fall of Mussolini and the signing of an armistice between Italy and the Allies.
Perhaps the most impressive is the large display in Piazza Nettuno near the fountain (see my post The Fountain of Neptune ). Called the “Sacrario” or “Memorial”, its origins lie in 1945 at the end of the Nazi occupation when people started to leave flowers and photos in memory of family and friends at this location, where many had been killed.
After a fire destroyed many of the photos, in 1955 a permanent display was established. As well as the portraits, it also includes some wartime photos of Bologna.
Another important memorial can be seen at Villa Spada. It commemorates the 128 women from the Province of Bologna who were killed in the struggle against the Nazis. It includes works from art schools and the names of school children inscribed in clay.
At Porta Lama, one of the gates of the last set of city walls (see my post The Walls of Bologna) there is a memorial to the partisans of Bologna in the form of a plaque and two statues. Here in October 1944, a pitched clash between partisans and the SS took place with 12 partisans killed. It was the only open skirmish that took place in the city.
Walking around Bologna you’ll come across other memorials at locations associated with the deaths of partisans.
Lest we forget.