SAIS Seeks Out Bologna’s Secrets

Bolonga Skyline
Photo Courtesy: Fatima Nanavati


Bologna, home to the SAIS Europe campus, is often ignored due to its scruffy and scrappy first impression. However, along with its fascinating history, delicious cuisine, and creative festivals, it also embraces a series of city secrets that many locals spend years uncovering. With the help of a few native Italians and astute local professors, SAIS students went on a hunt to discover these and not only found a few favorites from the official list of Bologna Secrets but also added a couple of their own special treasures.

  1. Neptune fountainThe Neptune Fountain: This is a surprising and hilarious addition to the official list of secrets in Bologna. Built in the mid-1500s, the monument represents Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, extending his reach and controlling the waters surrounding Italy. However, it is said that the sculptor, Giambologna, was offended by instructions from the cardinal to reduce Neptune’s virility (specifically, the size of his penis) due to strict religious rules at the time. Giambologna complied but not without secretly designing the statue’s outstretched finger in a manner that would restore the God’s dignity. So, if you stand upon a small black cobblestone near the entrance of Sala Borsa behind the fountain, you will see the illusion of mighty Neptune’s particularly large erection.

  2. Whispering Walls in Palazzo del Podestà:  A popular trend in architecture during the Middle Ages was the insertion of whispering galleries throughout cathedrals, under bridges, and through private corridors. A whispering gallery is simply constructed in the form of a curved wall or arcade that allows for whispered communication from any part of the structure. The archway in the middle of Bologna’s Palazzo Podestà is home to one such wonder. If you speak quietly into one of the four corners, a person standing at the opposing end facing the wall will be able to hear you clearly, even amidst the hustle and bustle of the city center.

  3. ArrowsArrows of Corte Isolani: The entrance of Corte Isolani on Strada Maggiore is known for a series of trendy shops and hipster bars. However, if you take a moment to stop and look upwards at the wooden portico, you will notice three arrows stuck between the beams. Legend has it one night three thieves were planning to shoot arrows at the Lord of Bologna, who lived on the third floor. Suddenly, the men were distracted by a beautiful, naked woman in another window and mistakenly shot their arrows up into the ceiling, sparing the Lord’s life. It is rumored that a fourth arrow is hiding in between a portico on Via Indipendenza as well.

  4. LIttle VeniceLittle Venice: Unknown to most newcomers, Bologna sits on top of a network of underground canals that were originally constructed similar to the ones in Venice during the 12th century. They were previously used for the import and export of goods to Bologna’s industrial sector. Today, while strolling through the city’s cobblestone streets, you can often spot one of these hidden waterways. The most prominent is seen on Via Piella through a small window that opens up to the Canale delle Moline, which branches off from Canale di Reno. Although many of the other canals have been closed, there are still many guides who help with tours of the remaining underground waterways.

  1. Ruins Under Sala BorsaBiblioteca Sala Borsa: This is the main public library in Bologna and was moved to the center of the city in 2001, flanking Piazza del Nettuno and Piazza Maggiore. Not only is this a great space to study and read, but also the library is a gateway into Bologna’s history with a huge glass floor overlooking an archeology dig underneath the building. The century-old ruins are remains from original Roman streets that go on for miles and can be toured for free throughout the day. You can also stop by the “Fall in Coffee” bar on the main floor to grab a quick bite, espresso, or classy glass of wine while people-watching. If you are lucky, you can catch some concerts hosted by Sala Borsa, mostly aimed at drawing in the young Bologna community.

  2. Medieval Bologna BY Toni Pecoraro 2012Towers of Bologna: The Towers of Bologna is a group of medieval structures scattered across the city since the 12th century. Competing historians continue to debate over the legend behind the towers; some say wealthy families used the height of their towers to demonstrate their power, others claimed they were used as prisons or strongholds, and some say they were for offensive or defensive purposes. The most famous are the Two Towers, the taller called Asinelli and the smaller Garisenda, which are located in the middle of the city center. However, outside of the city walls, you can go up various towers to catch an amazing view of the San Luca Basilica, have a delicious aperitivo, enjoy a glow-in-the-dark dance party, or have a romantic retreat. Check out the B&B and annual parties in the 900-year-old Torre Prendiparte for more adventure.

Amidst the chaos of school work and the temptation to travel outside of Bologna, SAIS students have expressed great interest in finding more hidden treasures around town, especially as spring brings better weather.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Additional photos have been added to this story at 18:56 GMT on 12 April 2016.

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