Bologna: 1000-1505

The Medieval Explosion

Bologna in the Time of Dante

Continued from Bologna: 1000BC-1000AD

Bologna: A Medieval Boom Town

All Europe started to revive after the Dark Ages, around the year 1000, and in few places was the sudden upsurge of medieval civilization more pronounced than in Bologna. This previously sleepy and unremarkable community started off the new millennium with a bang, founding one of Italy’s first free comunes and starting what would become Europe’s first university.

Bologna had benefited from the new trade fostered in the Po valley by the first great commercial metropolis of western Europe, Venice, and now the city was starting to generate wealth of its own, from trade in wool, linen and hemp (for ropes) as well as luxury manufactures, especially silk. The presence of 2,000 students provided another boost to the economy, and led to a new industry – Bologna was the first city in Italy where books were copied for sale.

By the 1100s Bologna was a boom town on an American scale, with tower-fortresses of the urban nobility zooming up like modern skyscrapers – some 200 of them, more perhaps than any city outside Florence. By 1200 Bologna, with its 50,000 inhabitants, had become one of the great cities of Europe, surpassed only by Venice, Constantinople, Paris and Milan (Genoa and Palermo were probably about the same size).

Thanks to its university it had become the intellectual centre of Italy, and the money was flowing – there were 242 goldsmiths in the town, compared to only 60 in Rome. Like Modena and Ferrara, medieval Bologna was a city of canals that powered mills for its many manufactures and provided a shipping outlet to the Po.

The extent to which the city was thriving can be seen in its walls. From the original rectangle of late-Roman times, the city expanded to fill a new circuit in the 1100s that was nearly six times the original size (following Piazza Malpighi, Via Marconi, Via Riva di Reno, Via Righi, Piazza Aldovrandi, Via Guerazzi, then down to the Palazzo di Giustizia). Only a century later, the city had quadrupled in size again, and had to build its final wall, now the 4 1/2 mile ring of boulevards (the Circla) that encloses the centro storico today.

Guelphs and Ghibellines

Guelf and Ghibelline fighting, from a 14th C. MS

Bologna played its part in the political battles of the time as one of the principal cities of the Lombard League. In the 1200s it was occupied with the typical factional strife, in which the local Guelphs (the Geremei) usually had the better of it over the Ghibellines (the Lambertazzi).

Yet in spite of the usual brawls, the city was unusually progressive. The Guelph merchants and nobles helped secure the abolition of serfdom in Bologna’s territory by the Paradisius law of 1256 (a European first), while warring continuously with Ghibelline Modena. Bologna defeated that city decisively at the Battle of Fossalta in 1249, capturing the talented Enzo, King of Sardinia and natural son of Emperor Frederick II. Defying custom, Bologna refused to ransom him and kept him locked up until he died in 1272.

The Pope tries to take control

Soon after, Bologna formally became part of the Papal States through a legal sleight-of-hand – Pope Gregory X got his supporter Rudolph of Habsburg crowned as Emperor and King of Italy, and in return Rudolph donated sovereignty over Bologna and the Romagna to the papacy. The popes (now in Avignon) attempted to assert their control in 1327, sending Cardinal Bertrand du Pouget to rule the city. He did his best to destroy the comune, abolishing most of its offices and functions, while building a fortress at the Porta Galliena to intimidate the citizens. After only six years he had so infuriated the Bolognesi that they ran him out of town.

But, as in so many other cities, the inability of the factions ever to behave themselves made the city ready to hand power to a single boss, a signore. The first was a banker, Taddeo Pepoli (1337–47), and when he died his sons shocked the Bolognesi by selling the office to the Visconti of Milan.

The city had bigger things to worry about. The Black Death of 1348 carried off a third of the population, a similar rate to that of most Italian cities. Trade was severely disrupted, and the huge spaces enclosed by the newly completed city wall would remain empty for a century or more.

Still, Bologna was worth fighting over. The Visconti of Milan ruled through their man Giovanni da Oleggio until 1360, when he was forced to relinquish it to the formidable Gil Albornoz, a veteran of the wars against the Moors in Spain who spent a decade leading armies through Italy trying, with considerable success, to re-establish papal control. The Bolognesi found their second spell of papal rule no more palatable than the first, and they regained their independence in a revolt of 1376, setting up a council called the ‘Sixteen Reformers of the State of Liberty’ to govern them.

For a while, it worked just fine. As the economy recovered, the Reformers began an ambitious building programme, including many of the public buildings around Piazza Maggiore and San Petronio, a municipal (not a Church) effort that was intended to be the biggest basilica in the world.

Enter the Bentivoglio family

Eventually however, the council and the city came to be dominated by a single family, the Bentivoglio, whose name – which might be translated as either ‘Wish-you-well’ or ‘I-love-you’ – contains a good dose of irony either way. Their rule continued the flowering of local culture, despite a sensational family saga of violence, assassination, high-living and questionable legitimacy – the paternity of Annibale Bentivoglio was decided by a throw of the dice.

Giovanni II Bentivoglio, by Ercole de' Roberti

The first Bentivoglio signore, Giovanni I, lasted little more than a year before being murdered by a mob (1401–2). His son Anton Galeazzo seized power in 1420, but Pope Martin V eventually forced him out and he too was killed. Another interim of papal predominance and factional strife was resolved in 1445 by bringing Annibale back from exile. He got the knife within a year, but this time the family held on a bit longer. Annibale was followed by another Bentivoglio bastard, Sante (1446–63), and then the energetic, cultivated and thoroughly tyrannical Giovanni II, who lorded it over the city for 43 years.

Despite the patronage of Giovanni, Bologna had little to contribute to the arts of the Renaissance. In painting, sculpture and architecture, the city usually took its cues from Florence, and the greatest works to be seen are all by outsiders: plenty of Ferrarese (Ercole de' Roberti, Francesco del Cossa, Lorenzo Costa), Tuscans, notably Jacopo della Quercia, Nicolò dell’Arca from Puglia, the delle Masegne from Venice and Giovanni da Modena.

Next: Bologna 1506-1861.

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