Saturday, 9 June 2018

Bologna embodied (note to self).

Last night was as sleepless as the previous one. No thunder, but it was Friday and a fun packed Bolognese weekend beckoned - the local dance venue (big tent the size a a small stadium) turned the amp up to eleven. Super woofers pulsated past midnight. Without a thunderstorm to relieve the humidity the temperature hovered in the upper twenties. It was a sweaty uncomfortable night. Sometime in the middle of it we had a short conversation - the gist of it was - we were hot, we had experienced Bologna's delights, both culinary and cultural, why we're we staying here? We agreed, tomorrow we move somewhere more comfortable and less expensive. With that thought in mind we dozed off.

Come the morning it was wall to wall blue, das Deutsch Jugend were in the process of packing to leave; somehow our urge to leave dissipated. Partly this was due to tiredness, after two broken nights sleep we simply could not muster the mental energy to pack-up. 

Sarah had recommended an interesting café called 'Vettro' in the Giardini Marguerita on the southern edge of the city. Let's go there for coffee, we agreed, but have another lunch out in the market area beforehand. So, back into the city on the 11.00am bus. 

It was good that we did, because the day turned out to be one of the best we have had in all of our travels. Not for any special reason, Bologna is simply a remarkable place to be in, especially at the weekend when its residents pour into the centre and occupy it with a style and panache that only Italians can achieve.

So - five reasons why Bologna is a must visit city...

Street theatre

1. Glorious food

South east of Milan, situated on the southern edge of the Po valley, where the rich alluvial plain meets the foothills of the northern Appenines, lie a string of ancient cities - Parma, Reggio nell' Emilia, Modena and Bologna. Each lies within a day's cart ride from the pastoral uplands to the south and the arable Eden to the north. Consequently these places have been a major agricultural and markets centres for centuries, millennia even. Unsurprisingly, each has produced a culinary gem - ham from Parma, Reggio's parmesan, Modena's balsamic vinegar, and Bologna, drawing on the riches of the whole region, developed ragù Bolognese and a whole range of hand crafted stuffed fresh pasta dishes. 

The tangle of alleys and small streets in Ghetto Ebraico to the east of Piazza Maggiore host dozens of excellent restaurants and specialist food shops as well as markets for fresh produce and fish.

great produce
scores of places to eat

aperitif time

Bologna's 'porticoes' - arcades - are afforded world heritage status. A travesty, in my view, beautiful though these are, it's the handmade pasta that's the thing! 

2. Dream-like arcades

However, if food cannot be awarded world heritage status, then in terms of material culture it is entirely understandable why Bologna's arcades achieved the accolade. There are miles of them throughout the old heart of the city. Some on the main streets are tall and stately, towering above the crowds of shoppers below. Others on backstreets are more modest, curving sinuously out of sight, or creating odd perspectives like living de Chirico paintings.

Even on a Saturday afternoon some of the streets in the south of the city were almost empty. The rich oranges and ochres of the stuccoed archways, the burnt umber brick work, the receding perspectives, momentarily empty and unpeopled, assume a dreamlike atmosphere - quiet and a tad melancholic.

Between the columns, down shadow striped arcades, figures appear, then vanish. The real and the imaginary coalesce. I thought about Walter Benjamin's unfinished 'Arcades' project - his homage to the street life of Belle Epoque Paris - the magic realism of the city.

3. Colours and textures

Perhaps Bologna is the most beautifully coloured city I have ever seen. Some places, like Cadiz or Marseille are memorable because they are bathed in a translucent light. In Bologna it is the colour of the buildings themselves that creates its visual impact. There is a melange of ochre and orange stucco, brick, brown as old leather, mixed with paler beiges and greys. Then unexpected interpolations - a strawberry pink Baroque façade or the Cathedral, part covered in gleaming marble, part crumbling stone.

4. La Bella Figura

Italians have to be the most embodied humans on the planet. It is often asserted that they lack a sense of personal space. I think the opposite is true, they have an acute sense of body space and they are so comfortable in it they are happy to share it. What is certain it is impossible to visit Italy without being confronted by 'la bella figura', either as a representation or in the flesh. 

Bologna's central square is dominated by the 'Neptune Fountain'. Created by a Flemish sculptor, Giambologna in the 1560s it is twice life size and impossible to ignore. Neptune himself is represented as a standing nude in full-on late Michaelangelo style - all rippling muscles.

At his feet four putti represent his power over the world's great rivers, the Ganges, Nile,  Amazon and Danube. The god's hand hovers over the the river cherub's head in a gesture of blessing and domination, the essence of Catholicism.

Below this tableau, at eye level, are four mermaids. Water spurts from their breasts and their bodies seem to melt into the fish creatures they ride. If you give them more than a cursory glance they seem surreal and a little disturbing.

The conventional interpretation of the group is that it is an allegory of the dominance of the Papacy
over four continents - Bologna for centuries was one of the Papal States. However, the inferred dominance of the masculine over the feminine is also obvious, an aspect of the work contested at the moment as the entire monument is overshadowed by a half-building sized graphic of a bright blue female nude - part of a temporary outdoor exhibition promoting the newspaper 'La Republicca'.

Google Translate: Lately the future is seen all disturbed in full of lines....
The meaning of the images purports to be about differing ideas about the future, but even Google Translate could not unravel its precise meaning for me - perhaps they are meant to gnomic.

What struck me was the the way the giant female nude had been placed deliberately to dominate the statue of Neptune. Was this a reflection of a fundamental shift in gender dynamics or simply a different, but equally patriarchal, objectification of the female body? The problem with images is they are fixed, like a still from a film. They are prone to being divisive because they have an innate propensity to become idealised and idolised, as if the image craves the iconic. It acquires symbolism, is taken as representative of a stereotype or an idealogy therefore contentious. I found myself wondering, as a male viewer, is it even possible for me to envisage what the imagery of a gender equal society might look like?

The life of the streets is more fluid and spontaneous; narratives resist the iconic because they are inherently dynamic. Some cities have such vibrancy that as a visitor you are gifted a walk-on part, you feel like an extra in some unfolding drama. Consequently the place feels inclusive rather than divisive. Bologna's quieter backstreets may be dream-like, but the centre and the busy streets around it are dramatic. There is always something going on, a spectacle to watch, a happening to be part of.

5. People, faces, street theatre

Bologna's architecture, though beautiful, is not its most abiding memory; what remains uppermost is its human culture - food and faces.

I like taking candid shots, but do feel a little awkward about it, after all, I don't have permission to snap passers-by. Gill is more direct, she simply asks people - I cannot recall her being refused. Certainly in Italy it would be unlikely. I think people take it as a compliment.

As well as the inadvertent performance of everyday life, Bologna hosts an astonishing variety of buskers and street theatre.

Bob Marley puppet show:

Impromptu walking jazz band 
Acoustic ragtime - perky but cool

Chanson - soulful but inadvertantly funny

Indie singer songwriter - heartfelt and affecting
And finally... Spanish guitar and amazing one-handed bicycle percusionist....

How to sum up a day like today? It has certainly been one of the most memorable in our wanderings, invigorating, thought provoking, fun... what more can one ask?

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