A History Of Bologna's Walls

A history of the walled medieval city of Bologna and its ports and gates including how the walls played a part in shaping the city's future today.

Bologna, Italy, an ancient medieval city of walls, gates, towers and palaces, where royal families played and fought, where peasants begged, stole and were tortured, a place were the walls protected inhabitants from conquest.

Many sections of the once great walls surrounding this Italian province remain today. If we take a walk around the perimeter of the historical city center, we can see ten of the twelve original gates that welcomed visitors and staved off armies. Each gate was actually a well guarded complex consisting of a captain's house, the keep or central tower, the moat and the drawbridge. The gate controlled ingress and egress of people and imports as well as collected custom's duty. To the first time visitor, Bologna's walls appear to have a maze-like appearance. In reality, three rings of walls were constructed over time, due to population increase and the arrival of students and teachers, from neighboring European countries, to attend the highly regarded Bologna University, the first university in the world. Work on the last wall which measures 7600 meters in length, was completed in 1390. Citizens who worked on this wall were guaranteed a memorial plaque, two of which are on view in the Civic Medieval Museum in the city's center.

Porta Produla, one of the 12 gates of the city, is where one begins to see the few remains of the first ring of walls. This wall was constructed of selenite quarried from the nearby Monte Donato. This wall is difficult to date with any certainty with estimates placing construction between the 3rd and 4th century, A.D., others believe it is closer to the 10th century and the onslot of Hungarian invasions. Legend has it that San Petronio, the patron Saint of Bologna, fortified the city with the assistance of San Ambrogio. San Ambriogio issued the edict defying sovereign entities to attack Bologna. The line of the wall enclosed 1/3 of the city and one of the few remaining fragments can be seen in Via Carbonesi on the former site of the Roman theatre, where Palazzo Zambeccari now stands.



The first ring is known as the "wall of the four crosses" as in 392, the Bishop of Milan visited a half-destroyed Bologna, and raised four stone crosses at four points around the city as protection against attack. The first cross is known as the Saint's cross and protects the south west side of the city wall. The second cross, the Virgin's cross, is near the south western corner of the wall and it protects Via Castiglione, the most important access point to the surrounding hills. The eastern part of the wall, with its single port, Porta Ravegnana, had its cross raised outside the wall. This cross is the Cross of the Apostle's and stood to protect dangers from the nearby city of Ravenna. The fourth cross, the Martyrs' cross sits opposite Via Montegrappa, which was the road leading out of the city towards Via Emilia. It was near this cross at the Porta S. Felice that in 1805 Napoleon Bonaparte of France entered Bologna. Near this port, is the Porta Lame, the city's foremost baroque gate. This port was closed between the 15th and 16th centuries as it repeatedly collapsed. It was rebuilt in 1676. Just past this port is the 14th century Canal Port, which shuts out traffic and allows only the water to flow silently by. Not so far away from the canal, lies the important port of Porta Galliera and the remains of the Fortress of the Castle of Galliera, which the church ordered built to have control over the city. The castle's construction was started sometime during 1330-1332 and was completed and then destroyed, and rebuilt and destroyed again, for a total of five times. Finally it was completely leveled in 1511 by the Bolognese. Not so far away at Via Nazario Sauro, the defensive grate (an iron barred wall) of Porta Poggiale stood until it was destroyed by bombs in 1943.

The second ring's construction began in 1079, during the darkest time of the city's history. Wars were raged all around. The entrances to the city were drawbridges and were closed at night with heavy guards posted all around. The area the second ring of walls encompassed was double that of Roman Bologna. Porta Maggiore is located in this ring and is known as the gate of honor. All traffic and important persons passing on their way to and from Rome passed through this port. More recently, as evidenced by a white marble plaque, the Polish army of liberation entered during the Second World War. This gate was restored many times during the 16th and 18th centuries due to the constant collapsing

Through a study of the techniques and styles of architecture, visitors can better understand the myriad of changes Bologna has endured. The dichotomy of change and city's perseverance is evidenced in the construction cranes that dot the skyline and the lower steadfast fortress walls that remain.

© High Speed Ventures 2011