I wonder what a city’s statues can tell us about its history and culture?
In ancient Roman times, Bologna would have had many public statues. The Archaeological Museum has a part of a notable statue of the Emperor Nero, found in the vicinity of the site of the Roman Theatre in Via de’ Carbonesi. (see my post Ancient Roman Bologna).
Bologna’s best known and perhaps oldest surviving public statue is that of Neptune, located in the very centre of the city. It surmounts the Fountain of Neptune and was built in the 16th century as a symbol of the munificence of the Papal Government of Bologna at that time.
However, there are many other statues, most of which fall into one of three categories – religious, Italian unification and famous citizens. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Bologna was ruled from the Vatican as part of the Papal States from the early 16th century until 1860. This, combined with widespread strong religious beliefs, led to many public religious statues being built over these centuries.
One of most prominent is that of the city’s co-patron saint, Petronius. It was sculpted from marble in 1683 by Gabrielle Brunelli and stood at the end of Via Ugo Bassi in front of the twin towers. In mid 2022 it was removed for restoration and will be housed in the Basilica of San Petronius. An exact copy will be placed in the old location.
Another prominent work is the bronze statue of Bolognese Pope Gregory XIII, born Ugo Boncompagni, located in Piazza Maggiore. It was cast in 1580 by the local artist Alessandro Megnanti. As mentioned in my post Curiosities of Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, the statue was disguised as Saint Petronius in 1797 to avoid it being melted down by French troops to manufacture cannons. The incorrect inscription is still in place.
To view many of Bologna’s religious statues will require you to crane your neck, as they are mounted on tall columns.
Some were erected after particular events, For example, the column of Our Lady of the Rosary in Piazza San Domenico was erected in thanks for her saving the community from the plague of 1630. It’s the work of the noted Bolognese artist Guido Reni.
In the same piazza is another column surmounted by a statue of Saint Dominic. Whilst you’re in this area, have a look at the medieval tombs described in my post Bologna’s Medieval Elevated Tombs and admire the interior of the basilica including the early works of Michelangelo.
There are other religious statues scattered around the city and you’ll also come across small works of religious statuary in various nooks.
The creation of today’s Italy from many previous smaller states was a long process that stretched over decades. In 1848, insurrections broke out in a number of locations, including Rome. The Pope called on Austria to assist him to regain control of the Papal States.
Austrian troops occupied Bologna, and on the 8th of August a pitched street battle broke out between Austrian troops and poorly armed local citizens near the Montagnola. Around 60 Bolognesi and 400 Austrians died. A monument to the fallen was completed in 1903 and is commonly known as “Il Popolano”. It’s located in Piazza VIII Agosto in Bologna near the entrance to the Parco della Montagnola.
Ugo Bassi was a priest born at Cento, near Bologna. In 1848, Bassi joined Garibaldi, who was fighting the French troops who had been sent to Rome to overthrow the revolutionaries and restore the Pope to power. After being defeated, Garibaldi and his followers fled north where Bassi was captured, found guilty of illegally bearing arms, and executed in Bologna by the Austrians. He had never carried a weapon.
The statue was moved to its present location after narrowly avoiding being destroyed by bombing during World War 2.
It was through the shrewd diplomatic work of Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, that the French Emperor Louis Napoleon III sent an army to fight the Austrians in Northern Italy. As a result. the Kingdom of Sardinia was enlarged to include a large part of Northern Italy, including Bologna.
Piazza Cavour was a new urban space created in 1867 at a time when most Bolognese gardens were private (See my post Secret Gardens of Bologna). The bust of Cavour was completed in 1892 by local artist Carlo Monari.
King Vittorio Emanuele II
In 1888, a statue of the first King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele II, was erected in the heart of Bologna, Piazza Maggiore. Its name had in fact been changed to “Piazza Vittorio Emanuele” in 1859 when Bologna had been freed from papal rule. Satirists commented how he was facing the church with the horse’s backside facing the podesta’, which is a symbol of the civic government of the city.
This statue is the work of sculptor Giulio Monteverde. In 1944, it was relocated to a quiet corner of the Giardini Margherita as a result of anti-royalist feeling following the fascist era and the following year, the Piazza reverted to its original name. In 1946, Italy voted to abandon the monarchy in favour of a republic.
Italy’s great hero of its unification is of course Giuseppe Garibaldi and after his death in 1888, groups all over Italy began planning statues. In 1896, Bologna held a design contest for their Garibaldi statue with entries from many of the great Italian artists of the time.
The entry by Arnaldo Zocchi was chosen, and the statue facing out on to Via dell’Indipendenza is passed by thousands each day on their way to and from the railway station.
At the same time that Bologna was erecting a number of statues to key figures of unification, it also started recognising prominent citizens. Marco Minghetti was an economist and served twice as Prime Minister of Italy as well as Minister of Finance in the 1860s and 1870s.
Luigi Galvani was born in Bologna in 1737. Galvani was a professor at Bologna University and experimented with the effect of electricity on animal muscles. If you look carefully, you’ll see frog’s legs, which he used in experiments, on his open book.
Mary Shelley is said to have been influenced by his work in her conception of the idea for her novel “Frankenstein”. Numerous English words, such “galvanised”, are based on his name.
Augusto Righi was a Bolognese physicist. He’s best known for his work in radio waves in the 1890s. His statue can be found in the garden of the Physics Institute in Via Irnerio.
The poet Giosuè Carducci was born in Tuscany but at a relatively young age he was appointed Professor of Italian Literature at Bologna University and he spent the rest of his life in the city. In 1906, Carducci became the first Italian to receive a Nobel Prize in literature. The Museum of Italian Unification now occupies his home, and adjacent to it is a small park where his large memorial is located.
The large impressive monument sculpted in Carrara marble was built over twenty years from 1908 to 1928.
Piazza Maggiore was the location of a large daily food market until 1877 when it was moved to allow the piazza to become a more dignified space, free of the daily rubbish left behind. The market was moved to Piazza San Francesco and in 1910 an indoor location, the Mercato delle Erbe, was constructed on Via Ugo Bassi.
The facade included two fountains featuring bronze statues of satyrs. The area was bombed during World War Two and the facade and front section of the market were subsequently demolished which explains the unusual entrance to the market today down a short arcade. The bomb damaged satyrs had various homes before being installed in front of Porta Galliera in 2002. This is the large city gate close to the railway station, see my post The Walls of Bologna for more.
Following on the theme of mythical creatures, there are two centaurs in the law courts or tribunale in Via d’Azeglio, based on originals by Furietti. You can see one in the entry courtyard of the building, Palazzo Legnani-Pizzardi.
The inauguration of new statues in Bologna dropped off in the twentieth century, although in 1927 an equestrian statue of Benito Mussolini was installed inside the Littoriale football stadium, now the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara. It was cast with bronze from cannons captured from Austria in 1848. After the war it was melted down and the bronze was used to create new statues.
After the fall of Mussolini in 1943, Italy was occupied by Nazi forces and widespread partisan activity began, including within the city of Bologna. In 1947, local artist Luciano Minguzzi created two statues of partisans using the bronze from the statue of Mussolini. They had various homes before being installed at Porta Lame, one of Bologna’s remaining city gates, in 1986.
In 1944, Porta Lame was the scene of a pitched battle between partisans and combined German forces and Italian fascists, with 13 partisans killed.
Bologna was a city traversed by numerous canals which now run mostly underground. Some of these were used by generations of women to do the washing.
In 2001, a statue commemorating these women was completed by local architect and artist Saura Sermenghi. It’s located at the intersection of Via della Grada and Via San Felice, near to where there was once a canal laundry area.
The statue has been the subject of some controversy. The artist has explained that her concept was one of “un gioco di ruoli fra chi guarda e chi e’ guardata” – “a roleplaying game between who looks and who is looking”. She went on to say that if a third person comes along, their attention is drawn to who is looking at the statue rather than the statue itself. Some remain unconvinced.
Roberto “Freak” Antoni
Bologna born Roberto Antoni is considered the founder of “rock dimenticale”, or punk rock, in Italy. In 1975, he founded the comedy punk band “Skianthos” in Bologna. He was also known as a writer, actor, poet and disk jockey. “Freak” died in 2014 at age 59.
Through the efforts of the “We love Freak” Association, the statue was created and in 2018 installed in Parco del Cavaticcio, which is adjacent to MAMbo. It was sculpted by Daniele Rossi using Carrara marble from the same quarry used by Michelangelo and it weighs a hefty 980 kilograms.
Another much loved Bolognese musician was Lucio Dalla. He started his musical career as a clarinettist in a jazz band. Lucio was well known as a composer and singer from the 1970s with hits such as “Caruso” and “L’anno che verrà”. He died in 2012.
His bronze statue, the work of Antonello Paladino, has Dalla sitting on a park bench in Piazza Cavour, facing the house where he was born. It was donated to the city by his cousin Lino Zaccanti. The location is that referred to by Dalla in his song “Piazza Grande”.
Una famiglia vera e propria non ce l’ho
E la mia casa è Piazza Grande.
I don’t have a real family
and my home is Piazza Grande.
A walk through the history of Bologna’s public statues certainly underlines the changes in what was important for its people, from religion through independence to pride in its famous citizens and culture. There’s also a clear trend from great respect to a more light hearted representation of figures of renown.
If you have an interest in statuary, a visit to the monumental cemetery is a must. I describe it in my post La Certosa – Bologna’s Fascinating Monumental Cemetery
© P. Granville 2022