This is a preview of the content in our Bologna + Modena Art & Culture app. Get the app to:
  • Read offline
  • Remove ads
  • Add Map function to find sites, as well as your own custom locations (your hotel...)
  • Build a list of your own favourites
  • Search the contents with our advanced text search functionality
  • ... and more!
iOS App Store Google Play

Historical Outline for Emilia-Romagna

Putting it All in Context

Alexis Tsipras's visit to Bologna, 2014

History in these parts goes back over 3,500 years, but the ‘region’ of Emilia-Romagna is a political newborn, created only in the 1970s when all of Italy was divided into regions in a long-overdue move towards decentralization. Some of Italy’s regions have an obvious historical or geographical identity – Tuscany, the Veneto or Sicily for example. This one doesn’t.

Until relatively recently, the ‘Emilian’ part of the Po valley was considered part of Lombardy, while the Romagna followed a different destiny, first as part of the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna after the breakup of the Roman Empire, and then in the Papal State. The ‘border’ between Emilia and Romagna is generally considered to be the little river Santerno that flows by Imola – but ask the question of a few locals and you’re likely to get a few different answers.


Finds of tools and statuettes of fertility goddesses testify to the occupation of the Po plain in Palaeolithic times, and small farming settlements existed all through the Neolithic, but the first accomplished culture in the area was that of the remarkable Terramare people, who made the soggy plain habitable by digging the first drainage canals.

16th century arrival of the Terramare people in the Po valley
12th century disappearance of the Terramare
c. 1000 Villanova people settle the area around Bologna
9th century coming of the Etruscans

The Etruscans, arriving most likely from Asia Minor, imposed themselves as rulers on the existing Villanovan peoples, and the new hybrid culture, organized in confederations of city-states, became the most powerful and advanced nation in Italy. From their first centres in Tuscany and northern Lazio, the Etruscans expanded over the Apennines. From their new towns of Bologna and Spina, near Comacchio, the Etruscans gradually expanded to occupy the entire Po plain by the 6th century. Already, though, they were facing a new enemy: the Celts.

c. 510 Etruscans found Velzna (Bologna)
5th century expansion of the Celts over the Alps
475 defeats by the Greeks in southern Italy and by the Celts in the Po plain signal the decline of the Etruscans
390 Celts sack Rome
c. 350 Celts take Bologna

As late as Caesar’s time, the part of Italy north of the Apennines was not ‘Italy’ at all, but called by the Romans Cisalpine Gaul, an area dominated by two main tribes, the Insubri in the west and the Boii around Bologna. Roman historians described a Celtic world in northern Italy that sounds a good deal like medieval Ireland. From 343 to 290 Rome fought its climactic battle for the rule of Italy – the Samnite Wars, in which that powerful southern Italic people was allied with the Celts and some Etruscans. Roman victories on all fronts opened the Po plain to Roman conquest and colonization.

223 Romans achieve final conquest of Cisalpine Gaul

The historian Polybius called the fight between Romans and Celts ‘unsurpassed by any other war in history’ in terms of the size and courage of the armies involved. The Romans built their great roads and established Latin colonies in the Po plain, but even after their defeat the Celts weren’t done, and the struggle in Gaul became part of an even bigger conflict, the Second Punic War, in which the Celts allied themselves with Carthage and served in great numbers in Hannibal’s army.

218 opening of the Via Aemilia between Rimini and Piacenza. Hannibal crosses the Alps, defeats the Romans at Trebbia, near Piacenza, winters at Bologna
202 defeat of Carthage, end of the Second Punic War
189 founding of Latin colony at Bononia (Bologna), conquered from the Celts

Roman surveyors, as relentless and methodical as the soldiers, carved the entire Po plain into a grid of straight roads, rectilinear towns and rectilinear land parcels called centuriae. Most of the land was expropriated from Celtic farmers and built into large estates (latifundiae) to enrich the Roman elite, though considerable areas around the new towns were granted as smallholdings to the colonists: Latins and army veterans.

49 Caesar crosses the Rubicon on his way to Rome; later extends Roman citizenship to all inhabitants of Cisalpine Gaul


98–180 the height of the Roman empire, in which an unbroken line of good emperors (Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius) preside over a period of peace and prosperity

The decline began directly afterwards. In an empire increasingly oppressive and costly, run by and for the army, commerce and cities decayed greatly. After an unsettled period in the 3rd century that saw Germanic raids into the peninsula, Italian towns began building walls.

330 Constantine orders the closing of the pagan temples
364 final division of the Empire into eastern and western halves
402 Ravenna becomes capital of the western Empire

The Vandal general Stilicho defended Italy (with a mostly German army) against German invasions. After his treacherous murder by Emperor Honorius, the army had no chance of holding the western empire together. For its last two decades, western emperors were puppets while German generals held the real power; after 476 Italy was a German-run kingdom, with its capital at Ravenna. It enjoyed a period of recovery under the strong and enlightened rule of King Theodoric.

408 murder of Stilicho
409 invasion of the Visigoths, followed by their sack of Rome
452 Attila the Hun invades Italy
476 end of the Western Roman Empire
476–93 Odoacer, King of Italy
488 Ostrogoths cross the Alps into Italy
493–526 Theodoric
529–53 Greek-Gothic Wars

The greatest disaster in the history of Italy, the result of the ambition of Emperor Justinian to reconquer the lost lands of the west, led to a long, terrible war in which the flourishing Gothic Kingdom of Italy was destroyed, the Eastern Empire gravely weakened, and Italian civilization dealt a near death blow. As Italy lay in ruins, a Germanic tribe heretofore quiet and backward, the Lombards, migrated over the Alps to fill the vacuum.

539 widespread famine
540 Ravenna falls to the Byzantines under the great General Belisarius
567–8 the Lombards under King Alboin overrun most of Italy
c. 590 creation of the Exarchate of Ravenna

This period initiated the political divide between the two parts of our region, as the western half under Lombard control began to be considered part of ‘Lombardia’, while the east, still under the rule of the empire, was known as ‘Romania’. Here some important centres got their start: Ferrara (originally a Byzantine fort) and Comacchio, protected like Ravenna and Venice by its lagoons. Elsewhere, the devastation of the wars and invasions and the decrease of population had created a wasteland. In the 6th and 7th centuries most rural areas in the plain of the Po, which had depended on the upkeep of their drainage canals, once again became largely deserted.

727 Lombards capture Bologna; Ravenna revolts against Byzantine rule
751 Lombards capture Ravenna
754–6 Frankish invasion of northern Italy

As the Lombard Kingdom consolidated its power, to the point of threatening papal rule in Rome, the papacy was alarmed enough to invite in King Pepin and the Franks, whose military superiority made short work of the Lombards. The origins of the Papal State came about with the ‘Donation of Pepin’ – the Franks, upholding their end of the deal with Rome, ceded the Romagna (and much of central Italy) to the temporal rule of the popes. Though they held on to this dubious claim tenaciously, they were in fact rarely able to wield much authority over these regions until the 1500s.

800 Charlemagne crowned Emperor
952 Otto the Great occupies northern Italy, is crowned Emperor the same year; creation of the Marquisate of Canossa.

In this complex, feudal new north Italy, the new house of da Canossa was not the only great power in the region. Another was the Obertenghi, a family of Lombard origins. They ran much of northwest Italy in the 10th century and held substantial lands in Germany too. Branches of the Obertenghi eventually grew into the houses of Este, Malaspina and Pallavicini, three of the most powerful families of medieval Emilia-Romagna. Meanwhile, the rule of Otto and his successors, in the new Holy Roman Empire centred in Germany, restored order after the decay of the Carolingian Empire, and cities and culture throughout Italy started to revive. After 1000 the revival gained speed, inaugurating three centuries of nearly constant economic expansion. The booming cities organized themselves into free comuni; their efforts to increase their freedom from imperial or papal control provide most of the plot of Italian medieval history.

1055 birth of Irnerius, first of Bologna University’s glossatori.
1071–1115 Matilda, Countess of Tuscany
1073–80 Pope Gregory VII
1077 penance of Henry IV at Canossa, settling the investiture conflict between popes and emperors
1088 traditional date of the founding of the University of Bologna
1099 Modena Cathedral begun, consecrated 1184.
1119 building of the Two Towers of Bologna
1152–90 Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa
1167 founding of the Lombard League, an alliance of the comuni to uphold their rights against Frederick
1198 Peace of Constance between the Emperor and the Lombard League
1212–46 Emperor Frederick II
1221 death of St Dominic in Bologna
1226 death of St Francis of Assisi
1236 founding of the Second Lombard League
1249 Guelph victory of Fossalta (Modena), capture of the emperor’s son, King Enzo

The cities had won the first round, against Emperor Frederick Barbarossa; against his grandson Frederick II they facd another hard fight, full of dramatic reverses of fortune. By now all Italy was divided into two factions, the pro-imperial Ghibellines and the Guelphs, supporters of the free cities and their ally, the pope. Of course, one of the rights most important to the comuni was the right to battle each other, and in the shifting course of events ‘Guelph’ and ‘Ghibelline’ were often merely labels of convenience in purely local struggles.
After 1248 the Guelphs were victorious almost everywhere in north Italy, and the cities were generally free from imperial interference. But the factional fights within them continued, and nearly every city found the only solution was rule by a single boss, a signore, whose family often continued in power as a dynasty.

1256 Bologna abolishes feudalism in the communal territory
1278 Rudolph of Habsburg cedes sovereignty over Bologna and the Romagna to papacy
1307 Este rule in Modena
1325 the 'Rape of the Bucket‘ by the Modinesi from Bologna
1331 beginning of the rule of the Pio family in Carpi; they last until 1525
1348–9 the Black Death wipes out one third of the Italian population

The plague returned throughout the region in 1361, in Bologna in 1362, in Bologna and the Romagna in 1374 and again in 1382 and 1383. Much of Italy had a similar fate, and the plagues marked the first interruption of the medieval economic expansion. The cities recovered, and in the 15th century, Ferrara, and to a lesser extent Bologna, became important centres of Renaissance art.

1360s campaigns of Cardinal Albornoz to establish papal control in the Romagna; Bologna taken in 1360
1376 Bolognese throw out papal legate, establish oligarchic rule of the ‘Sixteen Reformers of Liberty’
1390 Basilica di San Petronio begun in Bologna
1401 the Bentivoglio gain control of Bologna
1470s first printing presses in Bologna
1494 Wars of Italy begin with the invasion of Charles VIII of France

After 1494, the delicate equilibrium of the small and wealthy Italian states was wrecked once and for all by the intervention of the ambitious nation-states France and Spain. The popes did as much as the foreign powers to keep the pot boiling in the decades of confusing and bitter war that followed. There was a string of calamitous popes – Alexander VI, Julius II, Leo X, Clement VII and Paul III – all intelligent men and patrons of learning and the arts, but their egomania, devotion to their families’ interests, and constant intrigues with foreign powers resulted in the end of Italian liberty and the subjection of nearly all of the nation to the eventual victor Charles V, who was both King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. For its part, the papacy won undisputed direct control of the lands of the Papal State, including the Romagna and Bologna, for the first time.

1495 Battle of Fornovo, demonstrating the ineffectuality of the Italians against the foreigners
1501 marriage of Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso I of Ferrara; Cesare Borgia’s conquests dissolve on the death of his father and the transfer of the papacy to his enemies
1506 the Bentivoglio deposed in Bologna, papal rule established
1509 Pope Julius II raises a powerful coalition against Venice (League of Cambrai), which loses all its possessions in the Romagna
1527 Sack of Rome by Imperial troops
1530 coronation of Charles V in Bologna
1547–63 Council of Trent

While Italy was subject to the unholy alliance of pope and Spaniard, the Reformation in northern Europe and the reform of the Church at Trent brought the liberal, humanistic culture of the Renaissance to an end in Italy. The new totalitarian Church that emerged from the council wiped out free thought and put severe strictures on art and the conduct of everyday life. Even the independent small states of Parma and Modena were seldom able to resist the pressure.

1553 Inquisition installed at Bologna
1559 treaty of Câteau-Cambrésis confirms Spanish control over most of Italy
1593 Jews expelled from Bologna and Romagna

As if Italy did not have enough troubles, after 1600 the economy began a rapid decay, caused partly by the shift of the richest trade routes from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and partly by papal and Spanish misrule and the loss of initiative in the merchant cities. Some agricultural prosperity remained, especially from silk and hemp cultivation around Bologna, but in this period the region was best known as a source of soldiers for the wars of northern Europe; opportunities at home were scarce. In the Baroque era Italy became a backwater, and no part of it suffered more than the Papal State, in which by 1650 the only thriving trades were church-building and banditry.

1630–1 great plague in Emilia and most of Italy
1713 the close of the War of the Spanish Succession leaves Austria as the guarantor of the existing order in northern Italy
c. 1720 introduction of maize as a food crop; Emilians discover polenta
1796 Napoleon enters Italy, creation of the ‘Cispadane Republic’ at Modena
1814 end of French rule
1815 Austrian garrison installed at Ferrara to protect the Papal State from revolts

The Congress of Vienna re-established the Papal State, gave the Duchy of Parma to Napoleon’s estranged wife Marie Louise and restored the Este to Modena, in the person of the reactionary Francesco IV. In reality, all Italy was to be managed by Austria, but after the big Napoleonic shake-up things would never be the same. In the decades of the ‘Risorgimento’, liberal thought and Italian nationalism were reborn. The secret societies called the Carbonari and revolutionaries such as Mazzini and Garibaldi led the fight for a united, democratic Italy, while conservative patriots hoped for unification under the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont); the Bolognese poet Giosué Carducci and composer Giuseppe Verdi also played important roles.

1830–1 Revolution in Bologna, followed by Modena, Parma, and the Romagna. Government of the ‘United Italian Provinces’ set up; the revolt is soon crushed by Austrian troops

1848 revolutions across Europe, and Italy; Carlo Alberto of Piedmont wars against Austria, and loses
1849 collapse of revolutionary regimes; Garibaldi flees across the Romagna to Venice
1858 railroad reaches Bologna
1859 revolt in Modena throws out the Este after 553 years; revolt in the Romagna. Both join Piedmont by plebiscite
1861 King Vittorio Emanuele II becomes King of Italy

Italian unity proved a disappointment to many under the oppressive and corrupt governments of the following decades; their liberal economic policies, while building modern industry, caused considerable hardship and dislocation in rural areas. Beginning in the 1870's one third of the population was forced to emigrate. Emilia-Romagna, where a large class of landless agricultural labour existed, became the most radicalized section of the nation, the birthplace of the Italian Socialist and co-operative movements.

1872 large land-clearance and drainage programs in the Romagna
1874 socialist-anarchist revolt in Bologna
1881 Andrea Costa founds the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Romagna, and a year later becomes the first Socialist deputy in Parliament
1895 Guglielmo Marconi of Bologna sends the first radio signal
1896 first consumers’ co-operative founded at Molinella, near Bologna

After the First World War, and Italy’s disappointment at Versailles, the nation became polarized between the revolutionary movements and unions of the left, and the frightened propertied classes, who turned to the new Fascist party, led by the Romagnolo and former Socialist Mussolini, for salvation. In the years before Mussolini’s assumption of power, Emilia-Romagna was the key battleground.

1918–20 the ‘Red years’, waves of strikes throughout industrialized northern Italy. Massacre at the Palazzo d'Accursio
1921–2 wave of violence by Fascist gangs against leftist institutions, co-operatives and municipal governments
1922 Mussolini’s March on Rome; he becomes head of the government
1937 hundreds of Emilia-Romagna men escape Italy to fight with the International Brigades in Spain
1940 first Ferrari built in Modena
1943 the Allies invade Italy

The Allies’ concentration on opening a new front in France led to stagnation on the Italian front. A failed offensive in August 1944 against the German Gothic Line, which extended across Emilia-Romagna, let the Germans and Fascist militias mop up Resistance groups, while allowing more time for Allied bombers to wreak havoc on the region’s cities. Rimini was perhaps the most heavily bombed city in Italy. Bologna and Ravenna were also hard-hit.

1943 the partisans set up a short-lived free zone in the Apennines, the 'Republic of Montefiorino', and then conduct pitched battles with the Germans in Bologna
1944 the ‘march of death’; SS massacres in several villages, notably Marzabotto, in reprisal for partisan activities
1946–8 the first post-war elections give Italy a Christian Democrat government, while Emilia-Romagna votes solidly Communist in local elections
1947 massive, successful strikes by tenant farmers in the Po plain

After liberation, the Americans saw to it (quite understandably, in the context of the Cold War) that the new Italian Republic was a limited democracy at best. But while Italy was manipulated to ensure permanent control by the centre-right Christian Democrats, Emilia-Romagna bucked the trend by becoming a bastion of enlightened Communism. Their government did business no harm at all, and the region paradoxically also became a bastion of the ‘third Italy’ of small, successful, often family-run manufacturing firms. Recovery was rapid, especially in agriculture (while the percentage of workers in that sector fell from over 50% of the work force to 10%), so much so that the Po plain saw extensive deforestation. A big chemical industry grew up in Ravenna and Ferrara, metals and machinery thrived in Bologna and Modena, along with ceramic products and textiles in several centres, and beach tourism in Rimini.

1956 Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin and the Hungarian revolt cause a split and serious soul-searching among the Communists
1964 death of painter Giorgio Morandi
1970 region of Emilia-Romagna created, with elections for a regional assembly
1970s the Anni di Piombo ('Years of Lead'), a decade of political crime and right-wing terrorism climaxing in the Bologna rail station bombing, killing 85 people
1998 election of conservative Mayor Giorgio Guazzaloca in Bologna
2012 Devasting earthquake strikes the area north of Bologna

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Filippo Riniolo