A peek at one of the most captivating piazzas in Italy
Located in the very oldest part of the city, the Piazza Maggiore is Bologna’s main square. It is surrounded on each of its four sides by some of the most important historical, governmental, commercial and religious buildings in the city. This huge pedestrian square (almost the length of, and significantly wider than, a football field) is a virtual living room that mirrors the social fabric of the vibrant community surrounding it.
It’s where locals and visitors congregate all day and well into the nighttime hours. Although its shape and the welcoming stone “carpet” at its center remain fixed, the contours of the piazza seem to change from moment to moment as if it were a living, breathing creature.
Piazzas are commonly found throughout Italy and other European countries. (The word literally means, “square” although not all piazzas take that shape.) The most famous Italian piazza, perhaps, is the one in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
However, we have fallen in love with the Piazza Maggiore. Admittedly, it’s the one we know best but we suspect it is also pretty exceptional compared to others. So after two prior visits to the city staying in nearby hotels, we rented an apartment in one of the ancient buildings with huge windows directly overlooking the square. From our balcony perch, we were able to observe the constantly changing sights and sounds below us.
Brief overview of the square and its history
Once a grassy area, Piazza Maggiore first opened in the year 1200 and assumed its present form about 200 years later. In its earliest iteration, the site hosted horse races and tournaments. Three sides of the piazza are lined with elegant porticoes, a small portion of the almost 40 km of magnificent porticoes in the city that led to its nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Aside from the architectural significance of the building exteriors, there are exceptional treasures inside.
Once home to the powerful guild of lawyers, the Palazzo dei Notai sits on the south side of Piazza Maggiore beside the Basilica of San Petronio, the fifth largest church in the world. The gothic basilica, which dominates other nearby structures in size, was built with a Latin-cross plan. It has an interesting history, too. It was intended to be larger than St. Peter’s in Rome but reflecting Bologna’s longtime commitment to public education, the Cardinal decided to reduce its planned size and leave its façade unfinished so the money could instead be used in support of the University (which is now the oldest university in continuous operation).
Because our stay in Bologna coincided with the celebration of the Festa di San Petronio (which falls on October 4th), we witnessed many colorful religious observances that were taking place in the square around that time.
Most other times, the gracious steps leading to the church offer quasi stadium seating for events unfolding on the square.
Next to the church (on the west side of the square) is the Palazzo d’Accursio, which for centuries has served as the seat of the municipal government. Anchored by a 15th century clock tower, its main hall has Baroque frescoes dating back to the 1600s with five allegorical scenes depicting Bologna’s virtues.
La Sala Borsa, the former trade center, now houses a modern, free, multimedia library with a transparent floor displaying archeological excavations beneath the building. Now wrapped in a Falconeri advertisement, the building is the convenient location of Bologna Welcome, the official tourist information office in the city.
Finally, on the east side is Palazzo dei Banchi, once the home of moneychangers and bankers. Built in 1412, the porticoes on this side of the square have two arched entrances that lead to the busy market area behind them. The restored apartment where we stayed was on the second floor above this portico.
The third place
I’ve always been fascinated by the sociological concept of a third place, which acknowledges the importance of public spaces that serve as homes away from home. These are the places where people congregate, converse and enjoy each other’s company when they aren’t at home (first place) or at work (second place). Third places are democratic in that they attract people from every background, age, and socio-economic class. I can think of no better example of a “third place” than the Piazza Maggiore.
The piazza is always alive with people. Whether it is bicyclists on their way to work early in the morning, lovers walking hand-in-hand, musicians, tour groups, people relaxing over a cappuccino or apertivo, or retirees endlessly debating the state of the Italian economy.
On YouTube—Debaters on the Piazza: No sound (from our perch) but plenty of action
Almost every evening, there were fabulous shows and performances on the public stage beneath us. The headliner was Spettacolo luce-acqua-fuoco, a water, light and fire spectacular. There were street performers including jugglers and magicians. On several nights, a bandstand housed singers, musicians and dancers. And on another night, we looked out the window and saw a flamethrower, who spontaneously attracted a large crowd.
With such a large number of students (the University alone has about 85,000 students in its 23 schools) and politics that veer to the left, it shouldn’t be surprising that Piazza Maggiore is ground zero for the student and labor demonstrations in the city that erupt fairly regularly.
What goes up must come down
At 4AM each morning, we heard the whirl of mechanical street cleaners preparing the piazza for the next day. Several times during our stay, scores of workers descended (and ascended) on the square like Cirque du Soleil to erect stages for new events or deconstruct them.
On YouTube—Drummers at the Spettacolo delle bandiere in the Piazza
Like other important monuments in Italy, Piazza Maggiore appears to be in a perpetual state of restoration (with a changing display of bold advertising placed on its scaffolding). A few years ago it was the west side of the piazza; this year, on the north. But it still remains an iconic and beautiful backdrop for photographs and memories.
Both as spectators from above and when mingling shoulder-to-shoulder on the ground, the rhythms of Piazza Maggiore are palpable. This living panorama may well be one of the most captivating views in the world.
IF YOU GO
ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB
- In the New York Review of Books: The Craving for Public Squares
Posts about Bologna and Emilia Romagna previously on More Time To Travel:
- Eating pizza in Bologna
- Visiting the oldest bakery in Bologna
- Italian pasta etiquette: What you need to know
- Celebrating mortadella in Bologna
- CSI Bologna: The pickpocket
- Celebrating World Pasta Day
- Visiting Majani: The Laboratory of Sweet Things
- Salame Rosa: Mortadella’s cousin
- A day in Bologna
- The warm hands that make pasta in Bologna
- A road trip on the Via Emilia
- Brisighella: Forget the spa and start pumping…olive oil
- Casa Artusi: A living museum of Italian home cooking
- The Malatestiana Library in Cesena
- Sant’Agata Feltria: On the trail of the white truffle festival