Street of Toffs and Boffins
Via Zamboni, one of the city's main east-end radial streets, connects the Two Towers to the University and the Porta San Donato. Originally it was called Strada San Donato; the renaming honoured Luigi Zamboni, a law student at the University who distinguished himself as a spy and soldier against the pope in the tumults that accompanied the French Revolution. Before his death in a papal prison, it is claimed Zamboni invented the red-white-green tricolore that would become the Italian flag.
Among the noble family compounds in the area during the Middle Ages was that of the Bentivogli, the family who would rise to become Bologna's tyrant bosses. They built their great Renaissance palace on this street, setting the scene for Via Zamboni to become the most fashionable corner of Bologna. The Bentivogli were expelled in 1507, but in the decades that followed, as Bologna enjoyed its last flush of Renaissance prosperity, this street filled up with more imposing palaces. The University was already here, and narrow Via Zamboni became the place where dons and dukes rubbed shoulders.
It is indeed one of the narrower streets in Bologna, and made even narrower by the porticoes that lined it—but Bologna is a city where even the wealthy have to grow accustomed to living in the shadows.
Via Zamboni heads eastwards from the shadows of the Two Towers. The first sight along the way is the little deconsecrated church of San Donato, with its curious painted Rococo facade. Adjacent to this, the Palazzo Malvasia (1535) was perhaps the first palace built on the street after the fall of the Bentivogli; now it's a hotel. Between the palace and church, note the archway underneath a leering grotesque mask.
The arch, the only surviving entrance to what was once Bologna's Jewish Ghetto, is the famous Voltone of the Malvasia family. There was a system of pipes leading to the mask, and whenever one of the Malvasia was named to a public office the family would throw a festival for the neighbourhood and wine would pour out of the Voltone's mouth.
Next comes the Palazzo Magnani, at no. 20, designed by Domenico Tibaldi (son of Pellegrino). Today it's a branch of the Unicredit bank, but they'll let you in to see the palace's artistic treasure, a lively, very scenographic series of frescoes by the Carracci on the Founding of Rome (by appointment, +39 051 6408221.
Across the street is Piazza Rossini, a little square that should be an attractive neighbourhood gathering place, but is instead a miserable parking lot. Wherever you see this in a prominent place in an Italian historic centre, there are probably politicians about, and here they infest the Palazzo Malvezzi de' Medici (1560), now the home of the Provincial Government.
Across the piazza stands San Giacomo Maggiore. This was the parish church of the Bentivogli, and they built the lovely portico facing the street. Even after their fall the wealthy neighbours in the new palaces continued to embellish the church. The University's Conservatory is adjacent to the church, along with the beautifully frescoed Oratorio di Santa Cecilia, where concerts are often held, and there are plenty of rehearsal rooms and students' apartments on the side streets—as you'll hear, if windows are open, it's altogether the most musical corner of Bologna.
Across from San Giacomo's portico, the elegant Palazzo Malvezzi Campeggi (begun 1560) was the home of the Malvezzi, a powerful family that were bitter enemies of the Bentivogli and helped chase them out of town. Maybe they were just bad neighbours, for just one palazzo away, where Via Zamboni widens (slightly) into Piazza Giuseppe Verdi, stood the biggest palace ever built in Bologna, the fabulous, lost Palazzo Bentivoglio. Its site is now occupied by the Teatro Comunale.
Further down, past Largo Trombetti, is the sprawling Palazzo Poggi (1590), long the main building of Bologna University and now the home of the University Museums. Beyond this Via Zamboni passes a corner of the Pinacoteca Nazionale before coming to an end at the Porta San Donato.