This probably applies to a lot of Italian cities, to be honest, but one of my favorite things is to walk down a narrow street and spot a fantastic building at the end. Graffiti and posters on each side of you and straight ahead, a rather grand building. And are those papal symbols I see on it with the triple crown and keys?
Ok, so technically the #DolceVitaBloggers theme for January is your favorite Italian city. Singular. But how do you choose? Even if you’ve only been to a handful? Before living here, I would have probably said Florence. As someone who studied art history and fell in love with the Italian Renaissance, it’s kind of hard not to love Florence. It was such an important city during the period. Plus, it’s home to my beloved Palazzo Strozzi. It’s also the first city I visited in Italy.
But on later visits, I found more places to love. Ravenna, Mantova, Venice, and of course, Bologna. I’ve been to Milan, but for various reasons, it’s not a favorite. I have mixed emotions based on mixed memories. And for the purposes of this post, which is going to be photo heavy, I can only find two photos from Milan: the Galleria and La Scala. Not even the Duomo! So just as well that Milan doesn’t make my list. Although I will always fondly remember one of the guards in the Pinacoteca there pointing out to me the best place to stand to view one of the Caravaggio paintings on display. Mega points for that!
But that’s part of my reason for loving different cities. It’s the art and particularly the architecture that I go to see specifically. So it’s not necessarily choosing my favorite cities; it’s choosing my favorite architectural gems. And that’s nearly impossible. But inevitably, when you visit a city, for whatever reason, it’s hard not to come away with special memories. And while they may be private jokes or just an overall sense of gezelligheid that you’re left with after the trip, each city becomes special in its own way. So in trying to limit it all, here are my top three. Technically, I blogged a bit about Venice yesterday, so I won’t repeat myself, even though Venice is definitely way up there!
Bologna (My new favorite Italian city)
At this point, Bologna probably is my favorite city, in part because it’s where I call home and it’s starting to feel more like home, but also because it’s just a really beautiful city. I took a two-hour walk this morning with Charlie, going in a few new directions and discovering new wonders. Even on a dreary day, the colors may be a bit muted, and the portici may be more necessary, but it’s hard to walk far and not find yourself whispering “ma che bello” as you see some stunning colonnade, architectural gem, fantastic street art, or a color that defies the grey of the sky. I really do recommend looking through more of my blog or Instagram to see more photos of just how beautiful this city really is. These following three barely scratch the surface.
As I said, Florence was my first stop in Italy (a long time ago so all of my photos are from film so they’re mostly photos of photos at this point, so excuse the quality). I loved Florence from the start and it was particularly exciting to see all of these buildings that I’d studied in detail. And here they were! Everywhere! Because I hate looking like a tourist, but I also had a somewhat decent concept of the city layout from my studies, I’d often set off in a general direction and usually found what I was looking for. My friend Cathy who bravely accompanied me on this journey might disagree or at least suggest that there was a lot of extra, unnecessary wandering. Sometimes I just stumbled across stuff unexpectedly, like the Palazzo Medici. Some stuff we never did find, like the Boboli Gardens, but that turned into a joke about there being dragons on that side of the river.
But my main goal was to see the Palazzo Strozzi and the Palazzo Vecchio and of course the Duomo, Baptistry, and Campanile. Il Cronaca! Brunelleschi! Giotto! Oh my!
I could really keep adding cities, but I’m going to limit myself to just one more, Mantova (Mantua). I went specifically to see the Palazzo Te, but while there, I stumbled across Alberti’s Basilica di Sant’Andrea (and my reaction to seeing it unexpectedly has become a running joke with G and me). We saw the outside of the Palazzo Ducale and the St. George Castle, but mainly just wandered around and enjoyed how pretty the city is. As I said, I went specifically for Palazzo Te because it’s stunning, but also because one of my favorite professors had studied it fairly extensively and written about it, so we benefited from his extra knowledge.
So I’ll leave you for now with some photos taken at the Palazzo Te. If you want to see the favorite Italian city of other Italy-loving bloggers, check out the #DolceVitaBloggers via Kelly at Italian at Heart, Jasmine at Questa Dolce Vita, and Kristie at Mammaprada. Every month, they invite bloggers to post on the seventh of each month on a particular topic. Follow their blogs and/or social media to keep up to date with reading and participating.
In looking for photos for the next #DolceVitaBloggers linkup tomorrow, I ended up looking at some of my photos of Venice. That’s when I realized that that visit was 16 years ago today. We had gone to Venice for the day, not really thinking that the day was a holiday (Epiphany/Befana). As a result, many shops and restaurants were closed. One restaurant, in particular, that G had hoped to visit was sadly closed.
It may not have been the most convenient day to visit, but in the end, it may have still been one of the best. A cold day in the first week of January meant fewer tourists. As a result, we were able to wander around, getting lost but not getting lost, and simply enjoying the beautiful scenery without jostling with hordes of tourists.
Venice truly is beautiful, especially on a relatively quiet day like the one we experienced. The canals, the architecture, the dreamy nature of the city were all there. And a few shops were still open, so I was able to buy a Murano black cat glass sculpture from a gift shop, even if we didn’t get to head over to the actual glass-making island that day. Something for another trip!
Even though I was using a film camera at the time (I told you it was 16 years ago), I still ended up with some of my favorite photos that day. The gondolas, of course, were ridiculously picturesque, but the real treasure was getting some photos of the Ca’ D’Oro around this time of late afternoon with the setting sun causing parts of the building to glow as if literally covered in gold. I had seen the palazzo earlier in the day and it was already stunning. Seeing it again lit by the sun was a dream come true.
A picture is worth a thousand words and I’m short on words today, so I hope you enjoy some of these photos I took in Venice 16 years ago today.
With every move, the bulk of my boxes contain books. Books make me happy. Just looking at them all lined and stacked up in my own personal library is like looking at old photos. There are so many memories tied up in the books that have made the move with me. And for every book that didn’t make the move, it feels like a loss, especially when I go to reach for one and it isn’t there.
Unsurprisingly then, libraries and bookstores are my happy places. All of those books to be discovered! Adventures to go on, knowledge to expand your world … it’s all there in those pages. The books are the most important thing to me in a library; the setting is secondary. I’ve been in utilitarian-looking libraries, and I’ve been in beautiful libraries. That said, a beautiful setting full of books is always a pleasure. The public library here in Bologna is one of those bonus places where you have a wealth of information at your fingertips, all in a visually stunning setting.
The Bologna public library is the Biblioteca Salaborsa. It is technically part of the Palazzo d’Accursio on the Piazza Nettuno, which is essentially an extension of Piazza Maggiore, the big square in town. [The fact that the Salaborsa is on the Piazza Nettuno might explain why I still don’t have an exterior photo of that part of the building, since it’s currently blocked to some degree by the restoration taking place of the Neptune fountain/statue in the square.]
The location of the library is rich with history, with archaeological discoveries dating back to at least the third century BC. It’s also had a surprising horticultural history. In the 1300s, Papal legate Androino de la Roche (a personal representative of the pope) established his own private garden, or viridarium in part of the area, as well as stables. In fact, the stables were reinforced and restructured in 1554. By 1568, a well-known botanist of the time, Ulisse Aldrovandi, turned the earlier walled garden into a botanical garden and orchard where they grew a variety of plants and herbs, including exotic plants from around the world. The resulting research that they were able to do at the university contributed to the development of modern botany.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s (1883-1886) that the current structure took form and became a stock exchange (sala borsa). It combines fairly classical design elements with newer materials, such as cast iron, combining to form a modernist style. The result is a grand building full of arches, decorative detail, and lots of light. It was a modern building for a modern era. Unfortunately, the good economic times didn’t last long and the building closed in 1903. However, after World War I, the stock exchange expanded and reopened in 1926. Then, after the World War II, it remained a stock exchange/bank during the day, and a public sports hall in the evening, with basketball and boxing often taking place. This lasted until the 1960s. After that, the building functioned primarily as administrative offices for the city.
In 1999, the city decided to turn the building into a public library. In 2001, the Biblioteca Salaborsa opened to the public as a modern library to serve the public in a new technological era. As well as hundreds of thousands of books, magazines, maps and other documents, there is extensive digital media, with videos, ebooks, audiobooks, databases, and other electronic resources. In addition, the library serves as a space for exhibits, lectures, conferences, and cultural events.
You’ll also find free wifi, a café, toilets and other amenities that make it a handy place to meet up with friends, take a break from your sightseeing, or while away some time on one of those days when the weather isn’t cooperating (though those seem to be few and far between). Usage of the library is free, though if you want to take anything home, you must be a resident and register with the library, though that is also free. (In the Netherlands, there was a yearly fee if you wanted to be able to check books out.)
It’s worth a visit, just to enjoy the interior. It was a busy Saturday when we went, and we had limited time, so I want to go back and see more of it, from different angles, when it’s maybe not quite so busy. Plus, you know, books! There’s also a special permanent exhibit in the lower levels that I’ll post about in the coming days. For now, a few photos I took inside. Pro tip: don’t have a coffee right before trying to take photos, especially if you’re trying to zoom in and don’t have a tripod. Lordy, I took some blurry photos of the ceiling that day!
I’ve lived in New York City, surrounded by skyscrapers. The scale of the buildings is truly impressive as you see them towering overhead, forming narrow canyons as you walk among them. But in many other parts of the US, it’s the outward scale of the size of cities, rather than the upward scale of tall structures, that really stands out. In Europe, the historic city centers may not take that long to traverse on foot, and many of the buildings aren’t skyscrapers, but the scale of the historic structures is often even more impressive, particularly when you consider how long ago they were built.
In Florence, the number of monumental (in every sense) buildings is impressive. When you add in the narrow streets, the buildings that seem large already then seem to double in height. On my first visit to Italy, which started off in Florence, I remember being blown away by the sheer scale and height of the front door of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. I had studied the building in many of my art history courses, but nothing truly prepared me for the reality of the size of it all.
My beloved Palazzo Strozzi is even larger, measuring around 105 feet/32 meters high*, and still remains impressive to me. (Although after all those years in Utrecht, it suddenly seems a bit shorter, since the Domtoren measures in at 368 feet/112.5 meters. Seriously, it’s a GIANT bell tower.) When I visited Florence recently, I still felt a thrill when I saw the Palazzo Strozzi peeking through the gap at the end of a narrow street. As I got closer, it grew taller and taller and soon my head was tilted all the way back as I gazed up at the beautiful rustication and spectacular cornice.
My father, who was a professional photographer for years, often suggests getting people into a shot to add some interest or give a sense of scale. There’s no shortage of people in Florence, and there were even more people milling around the palazzo this time than during my first visit. All of the tiny ant-like figures really do give a sense of the scale of the building, whether it’s the doorways, the height of the building, or the width of it. And it’s really hard to fit all of it into one photo! It’s a grand, monumental, beautiful building and the scale of my love for it, even after all of these years, is truly hard to measure.
*I had a surprisingly hard time finding the height of the Palazzo Strozzi listed online. I knew I had included it in the paper I’d written on the building, and sure enough, I found the height in the rough draft I have among my notes and photocopies from my research, all bundled up in a big binder. I feel vindicated in keeping all of that through all the moves now.
At university, while studying Renaissance architecture, I wrote a paper on the origins, styles, and uses of rustication. Rustication is essentially the rows of tooled, raised stone often found at least on the ground level of buildings and sometimes around doorways and windows and the corners of buildings. It’s been around since classical times and showed up frequently in Renaissance architecture, unsurprisingly.
After the blood, sweat, and tears that went into that paper, I could have never wanted to think of rustication again or I could have fallen in love with it completely. In my case, it was the latter. Roommates at uni had to put up with me pointing it out everywhere and talking about it incessantly; parents have had it pointed out extensively; my dear friend who travelled to Italy with me the first time REALLY got the full brunt of my fascination; and G has had to watch me caress it lovingly. And now I have a blog so I can tell EVERYONE about it!
There are a variety of forms of rustication, especially as it developed and became more stylized over the years, but no matter the form, I’m a sucker for a good bit of rustication. So imagine my joy when I was wandering around town one day with Charlie, going wherever his nose directed us, when I came across two buildings facing each other with some truly fantastic rustication. Charlie soon grew impatient, but there was no dragging me away. I was going to soak it all in. I’m still trying to find out about one building, but I did find out about the other, which truly is a fascinating building in its own right: the Palazzo Bocchi (pronounced BOH-key; hear it here).
The palazzo was commissioned by Achille Bocchi, an Italian humanist writer, emblematist, historian and lecturer in Greek, poetry and humanae litterae at the University of Bologna. He lived 1488-1562, and his best-known book, written in 1555, was Symbolicarum quaestionum de universo genere. I love the following description of it:
[It] “takes as its subject the whole of universal knowledge: physics, metaphysics, theology, dialectic, Love, Life and Death, packaging them under the veil of fables and myths.”*
Life, the universe, and everything else, indeed!
Bocchi commissioned the palazzo design in 1545/6 from Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, one of the great Mannerism architects and also a native of Bologna. Vignola was responsible for the Villa Farnese in Caprarola and is grouped with Palladio and Serlio as the three main architects who spread the Italian Renaissance architectural style throughout Western Europe. Nice company to keep!
Bocchi soon turned his palazzo into the home of his Hermatena Academy. The name is the combination of Hermes and Athena, as Hermes was the god of eloquence, and Athena was the goddess of wisdom, arts and science. An appropriate combination for his interests.
I haven’t seen the inside, but it includes frescoes by Prospero Fontana, a Bolognese artist important in his own right, who also painted frescoes in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
However, I have seen the outside and the wonderful Bolognese colors, along with the truly eye-catching rustication. The rustication runs along the base, up to the bottom of the windows on the first level. They are fairly typical rectangular raised stones that are slightly rounded and rough in texture, placed in even rows, much like brickwork, but on a much larger scale. Interestingly, the columns around the door and the frames around the first level windows are also rusticated, as are the corners (quoins). It is typical in these instances to leave space between the rusticated blocks.
Hebrew and Latin
What really makes this building so unusual are the inscriptions within the Palazzo Bocchi rustication on the facade. It is uncommon to have anything written into the rustication in this manner, and in this case, one side is in Hebrew and the other in Latin. The Hebrew side is a verse from Psalm 120: “Deliver me from the liars, God! They smile so sweetly, but lie through their teeth.” The other side, in Latin, comes from Horace’s Epistle 1: “Rex eris, aiunt, si recte facies” (Do well, thou shalt be crowned).
The Palazzo Bocchi is located at Via Goito 16, but it does seem to be a private building at this point, or at least not specifically open to the public. It’s worth a visit, though, just to see the exterior and some of the other buildings on the street. Via Goito on one end leads onto Via Oberdan, which is home to a variety of shops and restaurants and leads out onto Via Rizzoli, another major street that takes you to the two towers or to Piazza Maggiore. And really, no matter where you end up wandering, you’re sure to run into some beautiful buildings.
*John Manning, The Emblem (2002) p.114.