walking tour: Florence, Rome, Milan, Venice, Naples


Bologna Free tour
Bologna Free Tour


Bologna, city, capital of Emilia-Romagna region, in northern Italy, north of Florence, between the Reno and Savena rivers. It lies at the northern foot of the Apennines, on the ancient Via Aemilia, 180 ft (55 metres) above sea level. Originally the Etruscan Felsina, it was occupied by the Gallic Boii in the 4th century bce and became a Roman colony and municipium (Bononia) c. 190 bce. It was subject to the Greek exarchate of Ravenna (6th century) and then passed to the papacy. It was occupied by the Visigoths, Huns, Goths, and Lombards after the barbarian invasions. After a feudal period, Bologna became a free commune when the emperor recognized its rights in the early 12th century. The conflict between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines (two parties in medieval Italian politics) led to the city’s domination by a series of signori (lords)—the Pepoli, Visconti, Bentivoglio—before it was incorporated into the Papal States by Pope Julius II in 1506. Thereafter it enjoyed more than three centuries of peace and prosperity. Papal rule was interrupted only by a brief period of French control (1797–1814) before Bologna was garrisoned by the Austrians (1849–60) and was united to the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Occupied by German troops from September 1943 until it was recaptured by Allied forces in 1945, it suffered heavy air and artillery bombardment.

Giunta Pisano: Crucifixion

Crucifixion, painting by Giunta Pisano, c. 1250; in the Basilica of San Domenico, Bologna, Italy.

The arcaded streets of the central part of the city, built on the old Roman town, still preserve a medieval aspect, characterized by the leaning Asinelli and Garisenda towers (300 feet [91 metres] and 150 feet [46 metres], respectively, and both built in 1109–19). Among numerous medieval palaces (palazzi) the most notable are the Palazzi Comunale (town hall), Podestà, Mercanzia (chamber of commerce), and Re Enzio (where King Enzio, son of Emperor Frederick II, was imprisoned from 1249 until his death in 1272). The Palazzo Bevilacqua (1477–82), with a magnificent inner courtyard, is one of the finest in Bologna. The seat of an archbishop, the city has many magnificent churches, including San Petronio (begun 1390, never completed), where the emperor Charles V was crowned by Pope Clement VII (1530); San Francesco (1236–63; restored after World War II damage); San Domenico, formed in 1221 to house the tomb of the saint; the Baroque San Pietro Metropolitana cathedral; and Santa Maria dei Servi. San Stefano is the name given to a group of four Romanesque churches of the 11th to 13th centuries erected on the ruins of a pagan temple and incorporating earlier foundations.

The university, one of the oldest and most famous in Europe, dating from the 11th century, attained its greatest renown in the 12th–13th centuries. It originally had no fixed location; lectures were generally held in the great halls of convents until the Archiginnasio Palace was erected under Pius IV (1562). The university moved to the Palazzo Celesi in 1803; the Archiginnasio was restored after World War II. The university’s most eminent teachers included Irnerius and Francesco Accursius (Accursio), noted jurists; Ulisse Aldrovandi, Marcello Malpighi, Luigi Galvani, and Giosuè Carducci. Famous natives of Bologna include Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of radiotelegraphy, and the popes Gregory XIII, Gregory XV, Lucius II, and Benedict XIV. Bologna is noted for its great communal and university libraries and others with special collections, such as that of the conservatory. The Civic Museum, founded in 1712 and accommodated since 1881 in the Palazzo Galvani, contains important remains of past civilizations, including collections from the Umbrian (Villanova) civilization and the Etruscan necropolis. The art gallery houses a fine collection of paintings of the Bolognese school (the Carracci, Francesco Albani, Guido Reni, Domenichino, Guercino, Francia, Pellegrino Tibaldi) and numerous other works, the most famous of which is Raphael’s “St. Cecilia.”

spaghetti and Bolognese sauce

Cooked spaghetti being put in the pan with hot Bolognese sauce.

Bologna is of paramount importance as a road and rail centre through which must pass most traffic between central and southern Italy and the north. Until World War I the city was chiefly dependent upon agriculture based on the surrounding fertile plain. Although still an important agricultural market and food-processing centre—the city is cited as the source of the popular tomato-based meat sauce for pasta known as Bolognese— Bologna also has developed into an important industrial centre; its chief manufactures include agricultural machinery, electric motors, motorcycles, railway equipment, chemicals, and shoes. Pop. (2011) mun., 371,337.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen.