The Palazzo del Podestà, seat of government since the Middle Ages, grew up around the Torre dell’Arrengo (1212), with its bell that was used to warn the people in case of danger. The palace complex, which played various roles in its long career, grew by additions; the biggest of these was the 1244 'New Palace' opposite the Torre dell'Arrengo, which quickly became known as the Palazzo Re Enzo.
Like the Basilica di San Petronio, which faces it across Piazza Maggiore, this clumsy, two-headed palace is a testament to old Bologna's odd incapacity for ever getting a major project coherently finished. Giovanni II Bentivoglio had the Palazzo del Podestà remodeled with a Renaissance facade in 1484 by hometown architect Aristotele Fioravanti, who later went on to Moscow to design parts of the Kremlin.
Under the Popes the Palazzo languished; in the 16th-18th centuries, the piano nobile was used as a theatre, and in the 19th century for a game resembling court tennis. Early in the 20th century, it just escaped being turned into a medieval pastiche by Alfonso Rubbiani; the same period saw it frescoed inside by the fashionable Art Nouveau painter Adolfo De Carolis and his students with scenes of the history of Bologna.
Although the building is only open during special exhibitions, stroll through the ground floor's shopping arcades to see the 'Voltone': a large frescoed vault, decorated with terracotta statues of four of Bologna's patron saints by Alfonso Lombardi (most cities were content with one or two patrons; Bologna, hedging its bets, has eight). The Voltone covers what was once the intersection of two medieval lanes, where merchants and notaries once had their stalls, and where blasphemers were pilloried and criminals hanged.
The Voltone is famous for an acoustical trick. Have someone whisper in one corner, and you can hear it loud and clear in the other.
Piazza Maggiore 1
Hours Upstairs only open during exhibitions.
Images by: Paul Hermans, Creative Commons Licence, CucombreLibre