More reasons to visit Bologna
There have been murmurings that I short-changed the lovely city of Bologna, by implying that the only thing worth seeing was the Medieval Museum.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Give me the choice between Bologna and Florence, and I would choose Bologna at least eight times out of ten. Sure, Florence still wins on text-book “great art” (unless you’re a fan of the Carracci brothers, who were Bolognese born and bred). But on almost every other tourist check-list, Bologna is out there way ahead. In particular, the food is streets better and considerably cheaper, the people are not obviously out to rip you off, and there is a sense that the city still has a purpose other than fleecing its visitors. The Bolognese exist with, not just for (or off), the tourists.
If you want to experience the delights of the Museo Civico Archeologico, then get there quickly. It shows every sign of being in the middle of a ghastly modernizing refit. But at the moment you can still see in one gallery a wonderful late nineteenth-century display of some excellent classical Athenian vases.
What’s striking about this are not only the elegantly old-fashioned cases with a cram of objects identified by unpretentious fading type-written labels (in Italian only, I warn you); nor just the unashamedly neo-classical (or rather “neo-Etruscan”) murals that provide the backdrop. The real impact comes from its decidedly Italian focus on the Greek pots on display.
One of the biggest puzzles about the great masterpieces of Athenian painted pottery is that the vast majority of surviving examples were found not in Greece, but in Etruscan tombs in Northern Italy. (Wedgwood’s factory was called “Etruria” because in the eighteenth century it was still widely, and not unreasonably, believed that these greatest hits of ancient ceramics were actually made in Italy.) Exactly why so much “Greek” pottery turned up in Etruria, and whether it matters to our understanding of it, has been the subject of unending dispute. Archaeologists range from those who blithely ignore the Italian find-spot to those who think that the design themes were specially chosen by the Athenian artists with the Etruscan funerary market in mind.
Most European museums pay only lip service to the Italian context. The British Museum is a good example: the pots are displayed with the Greek art, even if the label gives away that they were actually dug up at Tarquinia or wherever. In Bologna, you can see them not lionized as “art”, but displayed archaeologically as they were found, with all the Etruscan bric-a-brac and bodies. It comes as quite a shock.
The other place definitely worth seeing is a complex of monastic buildings around the church of S. Stefano. Here is an extraordinary mediaeval attempt to reconstruct the sacred landscape of Jerusalem on Italian soil. This general idea goes back at least to the Roman emperor Hadrian, who reconstructed some of the most famous landmarks of his empire in his vast palace (now tastefully called “villa”) at Tivoli. At S. Stefano, you can find a replica Holy Sepulchre, and a courtyard of Pontius Pilate, including the bowl in which he washed his hands (in fact a piece of eighth-century Lombard work).
But take care what guidebook you have to hand, and make sure that it knows its bible. The usually excellent Blue Guide decodes some of the main elements of S. Stefano – but then turns aside to notice “a delightful cockerel sculpted in the 14C”.
Err….wasn’t there something about a cock crowing three times?