Historians trace human occupation of the territory of Bologna back three thousand years to the Bronze Age. During this people, a population of unknown origin settled in the Apennine region, on the banks of the Apose and Ravone Rivers. By the Iron Age, as early as the ninth century BCE, this population had developed into an authentic civilisation, known as Villanovian. The Villanovians had their own unique culture, with villages inhabited by skilled blacksmiths and potters. They maintained relationships and traded with other civilisations such as the Etruscans, the Greeks, and the Phoenicians.
Sometime later, around the sixth century BCE, the Etruscans under King Felsino gradually surrounded the settlement of villages. They then transformed the area into a city named Felsina by draining the marshes and constructing buildings to substitute for the simple huts of the existing population. The Etruscans extended the trade links already established by the Villanovians to develop the city into the commercial centre of Etruria and one of the most powerful in the region. Today, numerous archaeological remnants of this early civilisation remain.
This prosperous period would end, however, when the Galli Boii invaded around 350 BCE. These Celtic people from the north destroyed the city and the occupied the area for the next two hundred years. The name Bologna is believed to be derived from the Celt word bona for ‘city’.
The Celt domination finally ended in 196 BCE, when they were defeated by Roman troops, and the city became a Roman colony. From 187 BCE, it held a strategic position on the Roman road network, situated on the Via Emilia that connected Placentia to Rimini. It thus held a certain prestige as one of the most important cities on the Italian peninsula, flourishing with many imposing buildings, temples, theatres, public baths, and as many as 20,000 inhabitants.
As the Western Roman Empire went into decline from the beginning of the 5th century CE, so did Bologna. By the time empire fell in 476, like other cities on the Via Emelia, Bologna had been repeatedly sacked and almost completely destroyed by invading barbarian armies. It is then that, according to the chronicles, the legendary Christian bishop, Petronius, rebuilt the centre of the town and founded the basilica of Santo Stefano, which still exists today.
The city then became subject to the Byzantine exarchate of Ravenna as a frontier outpost in the 6th century, before being occupied by various other groups over the next centuries, including the Visigoths, Huns, Goths, and the Lombards. After fifty years of Lombard occupation, it was freed in 774 by Frankish troops under Charlemagne on behalf of the papacy. From here on it regained its former political and economic stability, prospering as a frontier territory of the Carolingian Empire.
By the 11th century, Bologna sought to escape feudal rule by becoming a free commune. The emperor recognised it as such in the early 12th century. From around this time until the 14th century, Bologna’s prosperity peaked as one of the most prominent medieval cities. During this period, it introduced social reforms, becoming the first European city to abolish serfdom; it grew to be one of the ten most populated centres in Europe; and it expanded significantly towards the territories of neighbouring cities.
Consequently, over 100 towers and tower-houses spread throughout the region, the city walls were widened, and grant buildings sprang up all over the cities. Still standing are the Metropolitana di San Pietro, as well as the the University of Bologna – the oldest university in Europe and today still one of the most important in the world. As are the Due Torri, or Two Towers, strategically places at the entry to Bologna, as well as King Enzo’s Palace (the residence of King Enzo of Sardinia).
This was not a period without political conflict, however. External powers, especially the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy, and powerful members of the nobility continually sought influence over the autonomous city. Bologna was able to resist the attempts at external subjugation, however it was severely weakened by the decades of infighting amongst prominent families for control of the town during the late 1200s. This allowed the Pope to impose the rule of his envoy Cardinal Bertrand du Pouget in 1327.
Over the next two hundred plus years that followed, the city was alternately dominated the Visconti lords of Milan, the papacy, republican governments, and then several powerful local families as the city experienced years of bloody civil war. Eventually, in the fifteenth century, the Bentivoglio emerged victorious among the noble families of Bologna to govern the city. They brought a period of stability and economic and cultural growth, serving as great patrons of the arts, and restoring the Palazzo Pubblico, the Palazzo del Podestà and Porta Ravegnana.
The Bentivoglio dynasty ended in 1506, when Pope Julius II invaded the city and reinstated papal rule. Thereafter, for the next three centuries, Bologna served as the northern outpost of the Papal States. It was governed by a cardinal legate of the pope and the Senate of the city.
Bologna became the Papal States’ second most important city after Rome, as it enjoyed a period of lasting peace and prosperity. This saw the building of many magnificent palaces, including the Palazzo dei Banchi in 1565, Piazza Galvani in 1563 and the Ospedale della Morte (today housing the Civic Archaeological Museum) which was also built in 1565. During this time, the city also became an academic centre in Europe for studying neo-Aristotelian literary views.
This period of peace was interrupted in 1796, when Napoleon arrived in Bologna, ousting the government of the Church and giving complete power back to the Senate. During the Napoleonic period, the city at first became the capital of the short-lived client republic known as the Cispadana Republic, and then the second city after Milan of the Cisalpine Republic. But with the Congress of Vienna in 1815, it was restored to the papacy.
Papal rule finally ended definitively in 1860, when Bologna voted to join the new unified Kingdom of Italy. The character of some area of the city was drastically changed following unification, as the new ruling class sought to usher in modernity. New large avenues were carved out and several medieval towers were demolished.
During World War II, the city was repeatedly bombed due to its strategic position. Parts of the historic old city centre near the strategic railway station were especially targeted and badly damaged.
Nevertheless, Bologna was able to recover quickly in the post-war period into the rich and important industrial and commercial centre that it remains today. Home to just under 400,000 people, the city is home to the most important motorway and railway junction in the country. It also remains a centre of culture and learning, with its widely respected artistic heritage and prestigious University famous around the world.
Tour of Bologna
Odyssey traveller visits Bologna as part of our ‘Four Italians: Genoa, Mantua, Onvieto and Bologna Tour’. This escorted, small group tour for senior couples and mature solo travellers, takes you away from some of the better known tourist cities such as Rome, Venice, Milan, Naples, and Florence for example, and allows you to explore some extraordinary places that are not on the usual tourist route. With our Italy travel guide, we concentrate on four cities that have history, art, architecture and beauty to compare with any of their better known, more visited, rivals.
This 21 day tour is particularly for the senior traveller who may have visited Italy before, but now wants to experience something a little different. We take an in-depth look at just four cities, each with an amazing past, and each with something different to reveal. This tour will appeal equally to the solo traveller, or those travelling with a companion, as we search out some lesser known treasures from Italy’s long and often turbulent past. On this tour you can expect to see phenomenal artworks, visit architectural masterpieces from across the ages, taste some fabulous culinary delights, and discover a number of the greatest underrated cities in Italy.
Bologna is a beautiful city, with many medieval and Renaissance buildings to admire as we wander the maze of old streets, many covered with UNESCO protected porticos. We’ll visit the early theatres, galleries, and museums, but we’ll also have time for food tasting, wine drinking, and to just soak up the atmosphere. We’ll also partake on a day trip to nearby attractions in the reggio emilia region, such as the fascinating Roman remains of Rimini.
Remember that Italian cities are often best explored by foot, so don’t forget your walking shoes for a walking tour!
Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.
Articles about Italy published by Odyssey Traveller
The following list of articles published by Odyssey Traveller for mature aged and senior travellers to maximise their knowledge and enjoyment of Italy when visiting;
You can also browse all the articles published on Italy by Odyssey Traveller.
External articles to assist you on your visit to Italy