Mike Stiff

My Kind of Town: elegant, compact, with a historic core that is alive and thriving

Mike Stiff

Italy is a place that I’ve had an affection for ever since my student days and a study trip to Venice and Vicenza in the capable hands of Alan Colquhoun and Allen Cunningham in 1974. That trip generated an appetite to explore more of this diverse country.

Like Germany, modern Italy is a union of independent states, and its major towns were originally capital cities. Each was a grand embodiment of the province it controlled and developed its own identity. Compare Milan and Naples: it is not just the climate and architecture, it is the dialect, the food, the customs and, of course, the people that are so different.

Twenty years or so ago, I would have probably chosen Siena as my kind of town, but the sleepy provincial place I knew has become a victim of its own popularity, losing some of its charm in the process. It is firmly on the day-trip tourist’s schedule. If you do go, stay the night as it empties out after dark and starts to regain its charm.

Today, though, my thoughts turn to Bologna, Europe’s oldest university town, the capital of Emilia Romagna and Italy’s seventh-biggest city with around one million inhabitants. It is renowned for its food, and perhaps because of the large number of students, is still staunchly left-wing.

Standing 6o metres up on the stump of one of its medieval towers, looking across a terracotta roofscape, the view appears to be timeless. So it is surprising to discover that Bologna was heavily bombed by the Allies towards the end of the second world war. Considerable damage was done to the historic core, most of which was rebuilt in its original form.

Bologna was the most anti-fascist of all Italian cities, but even so there are still built reminders of Mussolini’s era, a staid classicism that nevertheless seems to blend into its surroundings. There is a fine Carlo Scarpa showroom for the furniture company Gavina, but if you want modern architecture you need to head out of the city to Fiera to see Kenzo Tange’s administrative centre.

On the way, pick up the newly-restored Esprit Nouveau pavilion, a 1970s replica of the 1925 Le Corbusier original in Paris.


But you don’t go to Bologna to discover modern architecture. The historic core is elegant and compact, the public realm defined by almost 40 kilometres of arcades. Because the university is embedded in the city fabric, there is a youthful vibrancy to the place and it still functions much as it has done for centuries. The elegant Piazza Maggiore is dominated by the vast and incomplete Basilica of S Petronio. Though it was planned to be bigger than St Peter’s in Rome, the ambitions of the Bolognese were scaled back by the Vatican.

Nearby, the Archiginnasio contains a beautiful timber-lined anatomical theatre from 1595. Continuing this surgical theme is the bizarre collection of anatomical waxworks in the Palazzo Poggi, not for the faint-hearted, but not to be missed either. The Bolognese seem to rather enjoy life-like renderings of the human form, and the church of Santa Maria della Vita contains the extraordinary terracotta sculptures of Niccolò dell’Arca from the late-fifteenth century. In contrast, still lifes by early-twentieth-century artist Giorgio Morandi are calm and restrained. As well as a museum of his work, Bologna contains his home and studio – Casa Morandi – which offer a fascinating insight into his world.

Of course Bologna is perhaps best known for its cuisine, which takes centre stage. Next to the amazing Tamborino delicatessen, the Mercato di Mezzo sprawls across several blocks. You can buy lunch and take it into one of my favourite bars, Osteria del Sole, join a communal table and wash it down with some very affordable local wine.

More than anything, Bologna reminds us of what is great about European cities; they are palimpsests, layered not only with history but also with politics, religion and commerce. But most importantly the historic core of Bologna is alive, local, thriving, and adapting to the changing pressures of our globalised age.