Bologna 1506-1861

The Popes Take Over

Raphael's portrait of Julius II

Continued from Bologna 1000-1505.

Julius II Makes his Move

In 1506, that most warlike and irascible of popes, Julius II, took time off from browbeating Michelangelo and Raphael to bring a big army over the Apennines to vindicate his claims on the Romagna and Bologna. The Bolognesi, who had had their fill of Bentivoglios, were delighted to see him, and in their enthusiasm they sacked and demolished the Bentivoglio Palace and chased Giovanni out of town.

It did not occur to them at the time that they had exchanged a weak local despot for a distant and powerful one. By the time it sunk in, Julius had put an end to Bologna’s independence once and for all, and a revolt against him in 1511 was crushed. From then on, the city was ruled by papal legates, with a consultative Senate of nobles, and the popes themselves spent several long stays in the city with their court.

Coronation of Charles V

In one of these, in 1530, Bologna witnessed a turning point in Italian history. The Emperor, Charles V, insisted on being crowned Holy Roman Emperor in its basilica of San Petronio instead of in Rome, which his troops had mercilessly sacked three years previously. Charles (who had been Emperor for 11 years, but was always too busy for a formal coronation) felt that going to Rome would seem like an act of contrition, and such was the low standing of papal authority that when he told Pope Clement VII that he ‘did not need to seek crowns, but that crowns ran after him’, the pope could only agree.

Charles’ double coronation, as Emperor (in San Petronio) and King of Italy (in the Palazzo Comunale), was celebrated with tremendous pomp, but it marked the beginning of three centuries of foreign domination in Italy, and the first symptoms of death for the Renaissance. Luigi Barzini notes that from then on the Italians put away their bright clothes and began to wear black in the Spanish style, as if they were in mourning – just as the Fascisti donned black shirts under Mussolini.

Counterreformation Bologna

In Bologna it was a great age for palace building, as out of the shadow of the Bentivoglio the other families could once more express themselves. But in many ways the century was a disaster for Bologna. The new totalitarian Church that emerged from the Council of Trent (which briefly held its sessions in Bologna) was determined to control every aspect of Italy’s intellectual and artistic life, and the cities under its direct control suffered the most. Carlo Borromeo, the grim Svengali of the Counter-Reformation himself, was briefly Legate, and he set the tone for the years to come.

The university, already something of a backwater (like that of Paris, and many other once-great institutions), was now doomed to increasing senility in an atmosphere of book-burnings, intimidation and the exile, incarceration or killing of humanist scholars. The Inquisition arrived in Bologna in 1553. Two years later the authorities locked up Bologna’s Jews in the Ghetto, and after they had squeezed every last penny out of them they expelled the lot in 1593.

Johannes Blaeu, map of Bologna 1640

Ironically, this age was also marked by Bologna’s only period of prominence in art, as local talent like the Carracci and Guido Reni defined a new classicizing style in art, one entirely in tune with the dictates of the Counter-Reformation Church. Bologna remained a major art centre for a century, while new churches and monasteries went up all over town. By 1650 there were 96 monastic complexes in Bologna; foreign visitors reported that the city seemed entirely populated by monks and beggars.

Times were bad, though never quite as bad as in the papal provinces further south, such as Lazio, Umbria and the Marches, reduced by the misrule of the clerics to utter penury. Bologna still made a sort of living from textiles and hemp, but carrying the weight of the Church and a decadent nobility, and closed off from the new trade routes and technological advances of northern Europe, the city’s economic prospects were nil.

For the next 200 years Bologna had practically no history at all. It slumbered peacefully through the 18th century, and through the big shake-up provided by Napoleon. Napoleon decided to make the city the capital of his new Cisalpine Republic, and brought in a planners and architects to remake the city into a Neoclassical fashion of the day, confiscating churches, monasteries and palaces. With limited money (and time), most of their changes were cosmetic, and were obliterated a century later in Alfonso Rubbiani's Gothic revival programme.

Italy unified, and Bologna starts to feel its oats

The Bolognesi surprised even themselves when they started Italy’s wave of rebellions in 1831, booting out the papal legate who was, however, soon restored by Austrian troops. They revolted again in 1848, inspired by the eloquent priest Ugo Bassi, whose execution enraged liberals across Europe.

In the last year of papal rule, 1858, Bologna finally got a railroad; that, and the new climate of united Italy (Bologna was formally annexed to Italy in 1861), helped get the old town going again. The population doubled before the century was out, in a city that was turning into one of Italy’s major industrial centres.

Next up: Bologna: 1861 to the present.

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