Palazzo Poggi (Museo)
Art and Science, Bologna-style
One of the grandest palaces in Bologna, Palazzo Poggi (1549-60, though some parts are a century older) is the work of Bartolomeo Triachini. It was completed at the time when family boss Giovanni Poggi had just become a cardinal and nuncio to Spain, the pope's ambassador to King Charles I. His position supplied money enough to make the new palace a showcase of Renaissance art.
In 1712 the Poggi became the home of the Istituto delle Scienze, founded by Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsili with the hope of bringing the new empirical sciences of the day into Bologna and breathing some life into a University that was growing mouldy under papal rule—in fairness, the Church fully supported the effort, especially after the Bolognese Prospero Lambertini became Pope Benedict XIV. A new library wing was built, and for the astronomers Marsili added the adjacent observation tower, the Torre della Specola.
The Palazzo became the seat of the University in 1803, moved from the too-central Archiginnasio, where Napoleon’s men were worried that the students would cause trouble. Today it is still part of the University, and much of it is open to the public as the Museo di Palazzo Poggi.
For a cardinal, Giovanni Poggi's tastes tended more towards mythology and Renaissance humanism than religious themes. The hall of the palazzo is adorned with Pellegrino Tibaldi’s witty frescoes of the Story of Ulysses (1549), an early and influential example of Mannerist illusionistic quadratura ceiling painting that was closely studied by the students of the Carracci Academy and inspired Annibale's great fresco cycle in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. There are more elegant Mannerist paintings, scenes of banqueting and concerts by Nicolò dell’Abate, in the University Library.
Long in disarray, with only a few dusty rooms open to the public at uncertain hours, the Museo has been thoroughly restored in a lengthy programme that began in 2000. It houses historic galleries of scientific finds, arranged as an attempt to recreate the spirit of the collections in the time of Luigi Marsili. These include what remains of the fabled 'Microcosm of Nature'—the natural history collections that once filled the home of the Father of Modern Natural History, Ulisse Aldrovandi.
Other rooms concentrate on the electrical physics work of Luigi Galvani. There is a medical and anatomical collection, with a wide variety of slightly queasy-making anatomical wax works, including the completely disturbing 'La Venerina', a reclining, naked pregnant woman split wide open.
A copy of G. Pittoni and D G Valeriani’s Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton in Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum shows him performing his optical experiment with a prism (housed in the same room where Bologna's physicists did their own experiments on Newton's theories). There are rooms dedicated to military science, geography and navigation, subjects dear to the heart of Luigi Marsili, a soldier and diplomat before he left the busy world behind for scholarship.
And there are beautiful Japanese woodcuts in the Oriental Art Collection, and a Quadreria, or Portrait Gallery, with 700 paintings of Illustrious Men who have had something to do with Bologna, from the 1500s to the 1900s.