Bologna – a city on the edge

Bologna's main square

Bologna’s main square

At bus stops across Bologna, posters for the latest news magazines featured the gap-toothed grin of a bespectacled middle-aged man alongside the valediction “Ciao Maurizio”.

The face, I was told, belonged to the city’s popular councillor and former mayoral candidate Maurizio Cevenini, who killed himself last month by throwing himself from a balcony of the civic offices on Via Fioravanti.

According to the Bolognese daily, Il Resto del Carlino, Cevenini’s suicide was due to illness and thwarted political ambition rather than the financial crisis. But in the days following his death, the widows of Italian businessmen who killed themselves because they had been ruined by the recession made their grief public. The women waved white flags and marched from the city’s hospital where Giuseppe Campaniello, 58, died after he torched himself in his car in front of the tax building.

To these signs of the economic fault lines running through Emilia-Romagna was added a vivid reminder that its topographic nature is also unstable. During my four-day visit, the walls of the Hotel Corona d’Oro, our group’s elegantly appointed hotel in the historic heart of the city, were shaken by a 6.0 magnitude earthquake. No damage was done in the main towns and cities, but in the countryside six people were killed and thousands of homes were evacuated.

A stone-hearted ironist might note that our claim to heritage and continuity rests on flimsy foundations.

Proof of human persistence in the face of fickle history was provided at Acetaia Villa San Donnino, near Modena. Here Davide Leonardi, a wiry, dapper man, showed our group around his traditional balsamic vinegar house and explained how the product is derived from cooked grapes, aged at least 12 years. The best stuff is aged for a quarter of a century or more. It has a kick like a dirty martini but proved surprisingly tasty on ice cream, a bitter streak balancing the sweet vanilla.

A talent for culinary eclecticism, of course, runs in the Bolognese veins. At Cantina Bentivoglio we tried the famous ragu with tagliatelle and learned that the search for the typical Bolognese sauce is as quixotic as the hunting of the snark. Every mother worth her salt has her own version and the reputations of chefs have been made or lost on combinations of bacon, sausage, carrot, celery, onions and tomato puree.

The crown prince of post-modern molecular gastronomy is Massimo Bottura and his court is Osteria Francescana hidden down an unprepossessing alley in Modena. The place has become something of a temple for foodies and has received three Michelin stars. A meal for two with wine won’t give you much change from €400.

We were treated to a tour de force of flavorsome legerdemain by the much-lauded chef.

One course, entitled ‘Five ages of Parmigian Reggiano in different textures and temperature’, was Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch revisited.

A 24-month-old Parmesan was beaten into mousse, a 30-month-aged came as a foam, the 36-month was a sauce, while the oldest, at 50 months, was presented as a burst of Parmesan air.

Treating ingredients as bric-a-brac to be light-heartedly jumbled in the same pot seemed an apt approach in Emilia-Romagna, where the architecture also exhibits a mongrel heterogeneity. In Ferrara, we puzzled over a cathedral that combines Romanesque frescoes and Gothic statues on its exterior with a unabashed Baroque interior. At Azienda Hombre, a vintage Maserati collection nestled within a working farm. Commachio, a tiny town linked by 13 bridges in a lagoon where the Reno meets the Adriatic, bears the scars and signs of sackings by Goths, Lombards and Venetians. The region is nothing if not contrary.

Back in Bologna, our tour guide threaded us through the city’s crepuscular canyons while teasing out its knotted history. As unforgettably documented in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Bologna was bombed remorselessly by the Allied forces during the Second World War. That so much of its medieval, Renaissance and Baroque buildings survived is due more to capricious fortune than to the accuracy of the airmen.

If you are pushed for time, the Basilica of Santo Stefano, known to locals as the “Seven Churches” is a kind of ecclesiastical theme park, which will bring you up to speed on the most important architectural developments in one spot. The cobbled square where it sits is a lovely place to have a drink.

The city is a maze of porticos and alleyways where pools of light penetrate only periodically. But any sightseers who get lost amid the monuments can orient themselves by finding the famous Two Towers, situated at the intersection of five roads. The taller of the two at 97 metres is the Asinelli while the smaller, leaning, tower is the Garisenda.

They have survived attacks from arsonists and lightning bolts from the heavens – fitting emblems for an ancient city which seems forever to tremble on the verge of extinction


This article was first published in The Argus on July 2, 2012