Sunday, January 18, 2009

Red Bologna

Shortly prior to our arrival in Bologna we realized that we had booked into the wrong hotel. There are two similarly named hotels and we managed to book ourselves into the one on the outskirts of town. It was bitterly cold when we disembarked from the train so we caught a taxi. Our hearts sank as it took us away from the old city and into a bleak light-industrial zone. The hotel turned out to be fine, just unfortunately situated... but at least there was a bus stop only five minutes walk away.

We settled into our room which these days entails throwing our stuff into a corner and plugging in the rechargers for anything we don’t need to use immediately. We then availed ourselves of the bus service. I managed to buy tickets at the local tobacconist using a mixture of mime and the bizarre pidgin I have developed from all the Romance languages. My Italian sounds like a Frenchman speaking Spanish, my Spanish is akin to a consumptive speaking French, and I am afraid to visit France lest they mistake me for a Turk and deport me.

The number 52 bus got us into town somewhat more quickly than the taxi got us out (why am I not surprised?). We were deposited back at the train station and set off from there. Bologna is no more or less easy to get lost in than Milan. Here I must add some advice that you don’t find in the guidebooks. Italians are fond of dogs of all varieties from the little pocket-sized canine/rat crosses to things larger than the flats most Italians live in. Unfortunately their concern and responsibility for their pets does not extend to what comes out of them. When walking around an Italian city remember – if it’s brown, walk around.
JB hasn't mentioned the public statuary with which Bologna abounds. This is one of four sculptures in the main public gardens... as you can see, the lion is so surprised by its successful kill of a young camel that its tail has gone completely rigid... in another tableau, another equally rigid-tailed tiger takes on an anaconda... or maybe a boa constrictor...whatever, they both want the antelope corpse. There were also mermaids. After the gardens there's an enormous square, which also has sculpture... most notably this one of a young man attempting to stop pigeons from roosting on his sleeping friend. (SS)

Anyway, after tramping randomly up a couple of streets we found ourselves outside the Museum of Medieval History. It is truly worth a visit. The staff are friendly, the exhibits are interesting and include pieces from Aldrovandi collection, and, best of all, it’s free. All the places we visited that day were free... which was fortunate because over the next couple of days all the places we visited were closed. A curse on the festive season.

Having sated our curiosity we decided to sate our hunger. Eventually, we found an amusing little café/bar run by a superannuated punk and featuring pictures of Frieda Kalho on the walls. We tried, unsuccessfully, over the next couple of days to find it again. We trawled every street in the city, or so it seemed, to no avail. On our second last day we rediscovered it. It was about twenty meters from the main square. Mind you, everything of interest in Bologna is about twenty meters from the main square. Needless to say, it was closed.

As I have just suggested Bologna is a fairly small town that huddles around its main square like a puppy guarding its food bowl. The buildings in the centre are predominantly three or four storey structures that cover whole blocks. The upper floors are residential/business apartments. The ground floors are shops stepped back from the street and colonnaded. Most of the footpaths are paved with slick marble while the roads are cobbled. Both are liberally sprinkled with the mementos of dogs, and should be marked ‘Slippery when wet – messy always’. As it was snowing, raining or sleeting while we were there we spent our time doing a kind of slalom stroll – step, slip, dodge, step, slip, dodge, step, slip, yuk!

We were luck enough to find the old medical school that also functioned as the world’s first university or vice versa. In its day all the illustrious students or cash heavy donors were honored by having their family crest adorn the walls. This meant that those responsible for local heraldry had to stretch their imaginations to the breaking point and quite often well beyond. There are little plaster shields painted with bushes, buildings, bushes on buildings, buildings on bushes, swords, stars, burning bushes, bulls, black bulls, white bulls, half a cow, and in one case a leg. I could go on but wont. Check out the pictures either here or on the associated Flickr site.
The best thing was the anatomy room. A wooden ceiling bedecked with astrological symbols hangs over wooden walls bearing statues of various saints (I assume). At one end is a raised pulpit-like thingy with its own little roof supported by the statues of two flayed men. Tiered seating surrounds a pit with an hourglass shaped marble topped dissecting table. It is very cool.

For some reason that escapes me the allies bombed the university during the war. From what I have seen of Iraq and the Gaza Strip nothing much has changed. However, the Bolognese, or reasons I can understand perfectly, rebuilt it. Good on them!

We decided to head home and discovered that the Bolognese transport system is efficient and cheap but baffling like those arty bathroom fittings in pretentious restaurants. The buses do not run in circuits. Nor will the bus that takes you from point A to point B and on to point C necessarily return from point C to point A via point B. We returned to the train station and caught a bus with the same route number (52) as that had brought us from our hotel to the city that morning. We assumed that we could ride the bus for the whole circuit and just hop off when it came to our stop. It was not to be. The bus stopped in the middle of nowhere and we were informed that this was the end of the route. We pointed out to the driver that we had hoped to go to a place called Caladona(?) at the other end of the route ie: the point from which he had apparently come. He nodded and told us to wait where we were for the return bus that was due in about ten minutes. We patiently waited in sub-zero temperatures. Eventually we saw a bus approach. It was the same bus we had just gotten off with the same driver grinning like a monkey. We reiterated that we wanted to get to Caladona. He nodded. We climbed aboard and were driven back to the train station where we were again told that this was the end of the route. At this stage we realized that it is not the route number but the destination sign that you have to watch out for. This is confusing because the route maps at the bus stops suggest a bus of a given number will return along the same route. Anyway, we waited getting colder and increasingly disgruntled as a series of number 52 buses heading in the wrong direction arrived and departed until we gave up and caught a taxi.

The bus driver neglected to tell us that we had to catch the 52A bus to get back to Caladona. He also neglected to tell us that the stop for 52A was not near the stop for route 52 but was, for some unfathomable reason, located on the opposite side of the square in front of the station. We later discovered that we could have caught the 52A bus from the main square in the city. Which was frustrating because no matter which direction we walked the main square was where we always wound up - unless, of course, we were going to the train station to catch the 52A bus.

The main square is surrounded on three sides by shops and restaurants the fourth side is taken up with a huge cathedral. The lower half of the cathedral is made of grey stone and features the usual statues of saints etc. The upper half was made of red brick which lead me to think that the original architect was concerned with style while a later one was called in to bring the job back to within the budget.

There was a queue of people waiting to visit the cathedral while two men stood behind a barricade and prevented people from taking suspicious looking bags in. I don’t know what their criteria were but think it was just inconvenience. Thus one person would be singled out from a tour group, or couple would be split up. People with shoulder packs would not be allowed in while others with designer handbags big enough to hide a Humvee in would. I looked around for a sign saying ‘bagagli non Prada, passo nada’ but couldn’t see one. Shiralee checked out the cathedral. I stood around outside smoking and trying to look suspicious just to keep the bag guardians on their toes.

The next day everything was closed in preparation for New Year’s Eve. We took the opportunity to look at the architectural features of the town. There aren’t that many. But what Bologna does have is towers. The city is dotted with them. I can understand the logic of the towers in Venice; spotting in-coming vessels and all that. In Bologna it just appears to have been one-up-manship. There are two particularly notable towers – so notable they make really crap models, keychain thingies and T-shirts etc of them. They are notable because they both lean precariously. So much so they make the tower in Pisa appear the epitome of architectural rectitude.

Both towers were built by the Visconti clan. The first achieved a height of about 30 meters before it achieved a tilt of about 15 degrees. Seeing his symbol of potency was rapidly becoming an ad for renaissance Viagra, Count Visconti cancelled work on the tower and immediately started on another right next to it. The second tower achieved a height of about 45 meters before slumping to an angle of about 10 degrees towards the original tower. Mind you I doubt if we saw any old tower in Italy that boasted a right angle amongst it merits.

After being shut out of all the interesting places and tiring of looking at a bunch of variously askew ones, we decided a drink was necessary. Eventually we found a little bar that was so cute we wanted to adopt it. It appeared to be run by and for students. The young folk seemed a little nonplussed that two antediluvian creatures like us had managed to beach ourselves on their doorstep but they were happy enough to ply us with drinks and take our money. They sat around talking excited way young people do about important things like philosophy and haircuts or the philosophy of haircuts, and playing Led Zeppelin on the stereo. If this was an attempt to drive us away it was a mistake. However, when they switched over to Bruce Springsteen we decided to leave.

The main square was a hive of activity as the city was planning its New Years Eve bash. In Italy this involves drunken youths and fireworks – always a good mix. It also involved overly loud rubbish music and an enormous statue of a wolf wearing a dunce’s cap. We were tempted to stay and watch the festivities but as the temperature dropped and the rain started we decided to give it a miss.
New Year’s Day fairly quiet as the city recovered from the celebrations. No doubt nursing hangovers, treating burns and reattaching fingers. So we just strolled about commenting on the vast quantities of dog ordure and looking at closed things and trying to find that cute little cafe. One thing I noticed is every place city we have visited has shops dedicated to knives and catering to all your cutting and stabbing needs. They display huge ranges of weapons that would be banned anywhere else unless they were bolted to a wall plaque. What is it with Mediterranean’s and weaponry? In Turkey there were shops full of guns (hopefully fake) in Italy it’s knives (obviously not). It makes Australia seem very safe and tame.

On our last day we managed to visit an excellent museum in the Plaza Prodi. It is a large selection of the collection of Aldrovandi. The collection was an integral part of the world’s first university and had later been broken up and distributed to various other sites. Luckily, it was reassembled – most of it anyway – and is now displayed in what appear to be 18th Century display cases in a series of rooms all with ornate ceilings and edifying religiously themed murals on the walls. Unfortunately, but understandably, the lighting was very dim. This and the fact that the glass in the display cases was rippled made photographing most of the objects nigh on impossible.

The collection spans just about everything of interest to your average early natural philosopher. Rocks, plants, dessicated fish, a couple sets of testicles (at left), bits of creatures both real and chimerical and so forth all with meticulously hand written labels. There are original etchings and woodcuts from early publications including a couple really famous ones. There is the sea horse drawn as a normal horse with fins on its forelegs and a fish’s tail tacked on its rear. My favourite is of a fish that looks like a medieval monk who has been surgically enhanced with the limbs of a merman. You sometimes wonder whether the illustrators ever actually saw the subject of their illustrations or were just told about them over one to many glasses of wine at the local taverna.

Anther room is full of displays from the first university department dedicated to the study of childbirth. Not only was this department the first to study such a thing seriously but was also the first to, quite reasonably you would think, to allow women to attend lectures. They did have to enter by a separate doorway from the male students mind you. The display cabinets are full of plaster models of the various stages of childbirth and examples of various infantile abnormalities. They also house a variety of gruesome looking devices supposedly designed to assist the birthing process but probably account for a large number of the abnormalities on display. This room could be used as an effective contraceptive by merely showing the displays to any self-respecting young woman.
The last two room were full of anatomical models. Shiralee says they are not as good as the displays at La Specola, but if you can’t get to Florence these will do just as well. The displays are not fascinating solely for their accuracy and difficulty of manufacture but also for the morbidly touching details that have been added and the way the figures have been posed. Disembodied limbs are displayed in the middle of performing some action and framed in folds of cloth. A pair of wax hands appear to be sewing something. A human mouth screams from under its shroud. A pair of eyes frantically search the room probably looking for the screaming mouth they used to live above. Definitely not for the faint hearted. But those inclined to cruelty could have a lot of fun showing it to young children just before bedtime.
After that we visited the Museum of Zoology. The invigilator seemed surprised but not pleased that we had shown up. Only half the lights were turned on or maybe the rest just didn’t work. The displays are all run down, dust covered and shabby, and include some of the worst examples of taxidermy I have ever seen. Stuffed birds have lost their feathers, deceased monkeys have eyes missing and bits of wire poking out of their heads. An unfortunate pig looks as though it has been used as a football during an office party. Unidentifiable creatures rot in jars from which the preserving agent has leaked or was drunk during the same party. One butterfly case is merely a set of pins and labels accompanied by tiny piles of dust. However, some beautiful pieces still manage to survive seemingly despite the best, or worst, intentions of the curators; that is assuming there are any curators. Annoyingly, the money that could have been spent maintaining the collection was wasted on a thoroughly unintelligible contemporary installation in the foyer.

The theme of the displays is puzzling. They start out in the usual manner with cabinets full of creatures of the same species or from the same country but after a while the logic goes missing. In one display a bear seems to be fighting a group of rodents. One cabinet holds a pile of left over bits of mountain goats. Another display groups some weasels and a Chihuahua seemingly on the grounds that they are the same size and colour. There is a case displaying the front halves of a group of lions. In another a group of hedgehogs stares forlornly at a fallen comrade. It is weird.
As a public museum it is a disgrace, but if it you imagine it as the private menagerie of an eccentric collector it is wonderful. If I win the lottery I am going to make them an offer for the collection. My camera ran out of power half way through so you should check out Shiralee’s Flickr site to witness the full glory of it. We wanted to stay for a while longer but our train was due and we had to leave.
We also visited the very fine archeology museum -- which, as well as having huge amounts of stuff pulled out of the ground locally including wonderful collection of Etruscan things, was also hosting an exceptional temporary exhibition of Japanese woodcuts. Why oh why did we not buy the catalogue...? (ss)

More pictures from the Zoology Museum and Bologna generally:

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