Museum of the Risorgimento in Milan Diary

Museum of the Risorgimento in Milan Diary 

After visiting the Brera Art Gallery in Milan, I walked to the nearby Museo del Risorgimento, which featured 14 rooms of paintings, prints, sculptures and artifacts depicting Italian historical events from 1796 to 1870 as well as arms. It traces the periods from the call for Italian independence to Italian unification. I learned about Napoleon’s reign in Italy as well as the Austrian monarchy’s control. I noticed how prominent Milan’s role had been during the Five Days of Milan, the nickname of the 1848 uprising against the Austrians.

I saw paintings depicting Italian King Victor Emmanuel II, who took the throne in 1861 and reigned until his death in 1878. Two of the paintings were created by Gerolamo Induno. Nicknamed the Father of the Fatherland, Victor Emmanuel II had the distinction of being the first king of a unified Italy since the sixth century. He was born the eldest son of Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and made a name for himself in the First Italian War of Independence during 1848-49 before being crowned king.

I spent a lot of time staring at the photos of soldiers in the Album of the Thousands, the volunteers in the Expedition of the Thousand, a campaign that took place in 1860. The group of volunteers armed only with out-of-date muskets defeated the more powerful navy of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Portraits of the 1,089 soldiers in business card format made up this album. I saw the volunteers as individuals rather than as a group of soldiers who conquered Bourbon rule in south Italy. Looking at their portraits, I felt as if I could see the personalities of the men.

Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the most prominent generals in modern history, guided the volunteers in the Expedition of the Thousand. Their uniforms were made up of red shirts and grey pants. In the exposition I saw the actual poncho and red shirt donned by Garibaldi, who also had military successes in South Africa and elsewhere in Europe.

I loved the paintings and sculptures most of all. These collections were especially noteworthy. The collection of paintings depicting the Imperial period from 1804 to 1814 was perhaps the most poignant of all eras represented by this genre. Francesco Hayez, whose works I had seen in the Brera, had depicted Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria in a moving portrait. Also, powerful canvases of the Five Days of Milan had been rendered by Carlo Canelli, Carlo Bossoli and Pietro Bouvier, for example. Gerolamo Induno and Domenico Induno contributed to the paintings depicting the Second War of Independence. The original Italian flag that flew over the Duomo in Milan on March 20, 1848 was another highlight. The cloak and regal insignia from Napoleon’s coronation as King of Italy were also enthralling.

The 18th century Palazzo Moriggio that houses the museum had an intriguing history as well. The museum had been situated there since 1951. Under Napoleon’s reign the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then the Ministry of Defense had been located in the palace.

This museum really opened my eyes to many events in Italian history. I had known only very basic information about this museum before my visit. It wasn’t on my list of most important places to see. I learned so much about the time periods in which the Risorgimento took place. I had never been a big fan of battle scenes, but I was struck by the details and by the historical significance of these paintings. While the museum is relatively small, it allows visitors to develop much knowledge about poignant eras in Italian history. In this museum I could actually feel the history come to life. Each artifact tells a story.

Tracy Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague. 


Galleria d’Arte Moderna Milano Diary

Walking through the charming courtyard of the gallery, I noticed that the villa was in Neoclassical style as was the La Scala Theatre, which I had toured a few days earlier. On the other side of the main street was a vast park. In part of the courtyard was a posh, crowded restaurant. The edifice had two facades, one visible to visitors. Statues and reliefs with a mythological theme decorated the facades. The second façade looked out upon Milan’s first English landscape garden.

Founded in 1903, the modern art gallery was initially housed in Milan’s Castle. In 1921 it moved to its current location, the Villa Reale. Built by Leopold Pollack from 1790 to 1796, the building was originally named Villa Belgiojoso and was used as a private residence. Later, when Napoleon’s adopted son lived there, many famous people gathered at the villa, which was notable for its lavish ornamentation. On August 6, 1849, the Pace di Milano treaty was signed there, making Milan part of Austria.

Austrian Field Marshall Joseph Radetzky von Radez, a Czech noble and Chief of General Staff for the Habsburgs during the Napoleonic Wars, even called the villa home for one year in the 1850s. At one point Radetzky was even knighted for his bravery. Johann Straus composed the Radetzky March after him. His troops appreciated his valor and fairness. He died in Milan during 1858.

When the various states merged into the Kingdom of Italy, the building was no longer used. It was nationalized in 1920 and was refurbished so the Modern Art Gallery could open there the following year. Still, the gallery had to wait until 2006 before they could use the entire building for their exhibits. Before that the gallery had shared the building with other institutions.

The permanent collection started on the first floor. The first six spaces covered Neoclassical art. The works of Antonio Canova were represented there. Two rooms were dedicated to portraiture, including the renditions of Francesco Hayez. His Portrait of Matilde Juva Brunea from 1851 was one of the gallery’s masterpieces. A luxurious ballroom and the Parnaso Room with its astounding 1811 fresco had come into being during Napoleon’s era. After gazing at these two luxurious spaces, I continued to peruse artwork from the Romantic, Divisionist and Symbolist periods. There was also a temporary exhibition of Italian designer Joe Columbo’s 20th century furnishings on that floor.

From the Joe Columbo exhibition
From the Joe Columbo exhibition

The second floor housed the Grassi Collection and Vismara Collection. The Grassi Collection covered both Italian and foreign works ranging from the 14th to 20th centuries. Eduard Manet, Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh were all represented. Oriental art was on display, too. The Vismara Collection showcased 40 works of art from the 20th century. The paintings and sculptures included creations by  Picasso, Matisse and Renoir.

Some significant paintings on display included Paul Gauguin’s Donne di Tahiti from 1891; Vincent Van Gogh’s Breton Women and Children from 1888; Giuseppe De Nittis’ Breakfast in Posillipo from 1878; Eduard Manet’s Portrait of M. Arnaud from 1875 and Umberto Boccioni’s The Mother from 1907. The sculpture was just as impressive as the paintings. A bust of a madwoman caught my attention. It showed not only unique facial features but also delved into the psychological being of the woman. Via the sculpture, it was possible to see into the woman’s soul.  Other busts were just as revealing. A small statue by Rodin was exquisite, too. A bust of Beethoven was very expressive and innovative.

One bust that captured my attention.

I was thrilled to see so many amazing paintings and sculptures and looked forward to my next stop at another nearby villa, which was devoted to modern art of the 1930s.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.

A bust of Beethoven

Ploskovice Chateau Diary


I first discovered Ploskovice Chateau in 2005, and I wrote about it in an article about chateaus of north Bohemia for The Washington Post. My second visit was long overdue – not until 2019. I remembered being very impressed by Josef Navrátil’s delicate ceiling and wall painting that exhibited painstaking detail.


The name Ploskovice was first mentioned in writing during the 12th century. A fortress used to be in the settlement, but the defensive structure was replaced by a Renaissance chateau in the 17th century, and that building was given a Baroque makeover in the 17th century. The current chateau hails from the 18th century, when grottoes, a decorative garden and statuary were all added to make it the superb architectural work that it is today. The architect was most likely the renowned Kilián Ignatius Dientzenhofer.


Ploskovice became the summer residence of Ferdinand I after he had abdicated from the throne in 1848. This was the era when the brilliant Navrátil did his magic. After the founding of Czechoslovakia, the chateau was nationalized. It was made into a private summer residence for the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, Edvard Beneš, who had promoted independence while living in exile during the First World War. He made frequent visits during the 1930s.


However, after the Munich Agreement ceded the land of the Sudeten region to the Third Reich, German soldiers took over the chateau. A school for young Nazis was on the premises. During 1945, after the end of World War II, the chateau became state property again. In 1952 renovation began, and Navrátil’s frescoes were restored to their original beauty. During the 1960s, the chateau was opened to the public.


The tour started in the hallway that boasted beautiful arcades. The entrance hall was stunning with frescoes, stuccowork and statues of the four elements and four seasons. We then saw 11 rooms.


The Engraving Salon featured a large collection of engravings and mid-18th century Rococo decorations with white-and-gold furnishings. Meissen porcelain enhanced the beauty of the room. I loved the vedutas of Paris, French chateaus and French parks. In the Rococo Ladies’ Bedroom, the small crucifix that can be opened and closed was made from ivory. An early Baroque jewel chest dated from the 17th century, hailing from Cheb. The small opening in the jewel chest held an altar. A gilded Rococo mirror also added to the elegance of the room. Paintings from late Baroque and Rococo periods also hung in the space.


The Dining Room boasted Czech porcelain service from the days of Ferdinand I. The four seasons were personified on a ceiling that included superb medallions. The Emperor’s Salon boasted second Rococo furnishings and appeared as it had when Ferdinand I had used the chateau as a summer residence. Navrátil’s delicate floral designs on the ceiling were other delights. A second Rococo chandelier adorned the space. I saw portraits of Empress Marie Theresa and her son Joseph II. They looked like they were made of stucco but were really paintings. A superbly decorated white tiled stove also impressed me.


The Dancing Hall was the highlight of the chateau. Large figures representing the four continents dominated the ceiling, painted in Navrátil’s cheerful colors. A Turk with a camel represented Asia while a crocodile stood for America. The room even had a delightful balcony. An antique vase was painted on one wall. The colors were dynamic, the painting in the room powerful and bold.


The Emperor’s Bedroom featured furnishings of the second Rococo style, dating from around 1850. The ceiling was colorful, adorned with bouquets of flowers. In the corner, medallions showed allegories of the times of day. A rooster represented morning, a relaxing hunting dog portrayed noon while a drinking deer stood for evening and an owl personified night. I loved the dark blue cups for coffee or hot chocolate. They came from Karlovy Vary. Two paintings of a Madonna and Child also adorned the space.


In another space there were sofas on which the people would be seated back-to-back. The ceiling boasted scenes from the Italian countryside. It brought back fond memories of my day trips from Florence to Tuscan towns and many other places in Italy, a country I loved dearly.


The Emperor’s Morning Salon was also worth mentioning. The wooden chandelier was stunning as were the small wooden cups and kettle. They looked so delicate and quaint. In another space an artificial marble table featured a design with shepherds. An 18th century Biedermeier clock also adorned the room. The chandelier was made of alabaster.


I loved the paintings on the wall of the Emperor’s Study, showing scenes from a Roman market. It also included French bronze clocks. Because Ferdinand I had been a passionate collector of clocks, there were many clocks of various styles in the chateau. A portrait of Napoleon’s handsome son hung on one wall. He had died of tuberculosis when he was 20 years old. I thought of my family friends who had lost a child when she was 20. I sometimes wondered what her life would have been like if she had lived, what she would have done for a living, whom she would have married, how many kids she would have had. I always thought of her donning that contagious grin, which could light up every room.


Another space showed off Late Empire style furniture with a stunning circular table made of artificial marble. Paintings of Apollo and the muses also astounded. I was especially interested in the two colored lithographs of a banquet in Vladislav Hall of Prague Castle in honor of the coronation of Ferdinand I becoming Czech king in 1836. I was very passionate about Czech and Slovak history, having studied this field in graduate school, when I got my master’s in Czech literature. Vladislav Hall was seeping with history. I felt it whenever I meandered around the Castle and visited the architectural masterpiece.


The second floor of the chateau consisted of masterful 19th century Czech paintings, such as those by Jaroslav Preiss, Navrátil, the Mánes brothers and Chitussi. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted. I loved the small landscape scenes best.


Six ground floor spaces had been made into grottoes – artificial water caves – in second Rococo style. Baroque fountains in the grottoes boasted figural decoration. One fountain was adorned with motifs of Hercules’ deeds. Allegorical figures of the four seasons also stood out. The coats-of-arms of all the past owners of the chateau adorned one wall. The ceiling decoration was also breathtaking.

The chateau park consisted of eight hectares with a four-tiered terrace punctuated by marble fountains. It dates from the 19th century era that promoted the second Rococo style. One of the features I liked best about this chateau was the presence of peacocks. Peacocks flaunted their colorful plumage throughout the grounds.


I was also very pleased that the local restaurant offered my favorite meal: chicken with peaches and cheese. It used to be on the menus in many restaurants during the 1990s but then for some reason disappeared from the lists of entrees. The meal was delicious, and my trip had been a great success.


Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.


Isola Bella Diary


View from one of the grottoes in the palace

While visiting the Borromean Islands on Lake Maggiore, our tour guide saved the best for last. Named after Carlo III Borromeo’s wife Isabella d’Adda, the luxurious island had its name shortened to Isola Bella. I had heard there were ten terraces of gardens built in the shape of a truncated pyramid and that the island was shaped like a boat. Before experiencing the magic of the lush gardens, I entered the magnificent palace, which featured painting and other decoration that left me in awe.


The Medal Room astounded me with its stucco and gilded adornment, alabaster statues and Murano chandelier. Ten medallions showed scenes from the life of Saint Charles. Two cabinets featured columns and richly decorated black stone.


The large Throne Room showed off Lombard Baroque art, a ribbed vault ceiling and stucco with shell and plant decoration. Of course, the highlight was the throne, a gilded, wooden structure from the 18th century. It had an embroidered silk canopy. I also admired the red marble pilasters that added to the regal atmosphere. Two large cabinets from the 18th century had been made with tortoiseshell and included designs of landscapes. I admired the intrinsic detail of the craftsmanship.


The biggest space in the palace, the Reception Room was lighter in atmosphere than the other rooms. The monumental pillars were decorated with putti and emblems, including a camel with a crown and a unicorn. A model of the palace and garden in the center of the room reminded me of visiting my Dad’s office on weekends as I gazed at all the architectural models and wondered if and when they would be built or if they had already been built. Statues and busts added to the adornment in the space. The circular pattern and dome added to the elegance of the space. There was plenty of white stucco décor. I saw the coat-of-arms symbols of the Borromeo clan on the walls. The brave unicorn that did not seem to shun a snake caught my attention.


The Music Room has historical significance as the Stresa Conference was held there from April 11 to April 14, 1935. Representatives from Italy, Great Britain and France were concerned with Hitler’s violation of a section of the Treaty of Versailles. Little did they know that the following year the Italo-Abyssinian War would put a halt to their April negotiations calling for peace.


What I liked best about this room were the 80 some paintings by Flemish artist Pieter Muller the Younger, who had acquired the nickname of The Tempest because he often created stormy landscapes. There were also two portraits in the room, the only portraits that The Tempest had ever created. The Tempest had lived an intriguing life. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for murdering his first wife in 1679, but the Borromeo clan used their influence to get him released. Other items of interest in the room included a Florentine safe that was masterfully carved. A harpsichord in golden cypress wood stood out in the center of the room. The Murano chandelier added to the décor that I found almost overwhelming.


The Napoleon Room got its name because Napoleon and his wife slept in the bed on display after his army defeated Italy. The canopy included damask and silk with silk braid. However, this was not Napoleon’s only stay at Isola Bella. He and his wife first spent the night here in 1797. I noticed that much of the furniture was in Empire Style and was reminded of the plethora of furnishings in that style at the Bohemian chateau Kačina. I admired the beautiful stuccoes as well. A Murano chandelier from the 18th century captured my attention as well.


The Luca Giordano Room featured three large canvases by that author. One, the Rape of Europa, showed Jupiter as a bull. Another pictorially described the Judgment of Paris. But the room was not only awe-inspiring due to painted decoration. There were Japanese vases and even an ivory saddle from the 15th century that also astounded.


The Zuccarelli Room was dominated by landscape paintings that Francesco Zuccarelli had created. His paintings emitted a sense of joy. I was already happy, but I felt even happier looking at them. Peasants, shepherds and mythological figures punctuated his works. I particularly liked the rendition showing the property and castles owned by the Borromean clan. I loved tapestries, and this room showed off three 16th century tapestries made in England. The velvet upholstery on the divans was another delight.


In the Conversation Room, one piece of furnishing caught my attention the most. The top of a round table was made of colored marbles depicting a vase of flowers. It took 18 years just to gather marbles in the right colors! That’s how detailed and intricate the work was. It had been a gift to the Borromeos from Pope Leo XII in the 19th century.


The rectangular Ballroom combined neoclassical features with Empire style décor. The divans were in Empire style while the marble sculptural grouping depicting the Rape of Persephone was made in neoclassical form. The stuccowork and imitation marble decoration had me in awe. I admired the flowers, fruit and garlands in circular frames that punctuated the room. The big mirrors had trompe d’oeil frames.


I also saw six grottoes in the palace. This is where the Borromeos came when it was unbearably hot in the summer because the grottoes were cool. Black and white pebbles, tufa, stucco and stones were used for impressive decoration. Out of the stones were created figures of dolphins, seashells, bees and flowers. The last grotto included a fountain with a dolphin figure in the middle. It dated from the 18th century. The grottoes seemed depressing and dark to me, but their decoration was intricate and admirable. Still, I much preferred the light Reception Room that radiated joy due to its lighting.


Next came a corridor of mirrors set at angles. They multiplied images in such a way that I was able to see many strange perspectives. That is one of the main reasons I travel, I mused – to gain new perspectives on life and the world.


The room that perhaps was dearest to my heart was the Tapestry Gallery with six Flemish tapestries on display. A lioness, tiger and unicorn fought a tough battle while starving ostriches roamed in the wilderness, ravenously hungry. An otter was savoring a fish. In one tapestry a monkey, pheasant, elephant and two giraffes did battle with a rhinoceros.


The Italian Baroque gardens were next on my list. The truncated pyramid had ten terraces, fountains and sculptural decoration. I stared at this gem for a long time, astounded at its beauty. White peacocks strolled by, acting nonchalant. The Camphor Garden showed off rare and exotic plants. The Theatre of Amphitheatre Garden’s architecture was intricate, taking the shape of a shell. Pillars, statues and obelisks stood out, especially the statue of a unicorn – the main symbol of the Borromeo clan – and the statues representing the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. The statue of fire was notable for the anvil in the back of the figure. Statues of the four seasons also made appearances. Winter donned a hat made of metal feathers.


The Upper Terrace offered magnificent views of the lake and mountains beyond as well as the other islands. Egyptian papyrus, a banana grove and azaleas made up a beautiful Flower Garden. I loved the pool dotted with water lilies – it triggered thought of my favorite painter, Monet – in the Garden of Love. The many statues and spectacular views added to its splendor. There was a stunning greenhouse, too.


I wound up sitting at the outdoor café, taking in the amazing view and drinking some much-needed water on this unbearably hot day. Then I followed the path out of the garden and eventually came to some shops and an intimate chapel. On the embankment were many stands with souvenirs, clothes and other items.


Soon it was time to get the boat back to Stresa, located in the center of the Gulf of Borromeo. I admired the grandeur of the large hotels there. The Hotel des Iles Borromees had hosted kings, princes and politicians. Ernest Hemingway had written about the place in his novel Farewell to Arms. I didn’t see any of the churches or the park with zoo. I also didn’t have time to go the top of Matterone at 4,892 feet. Instead, I walked leisurely through the center, admiring the small cafes and shops selling magazines, shoes, purses and handmade greeting cards. Then I had dinner at an outdoor café and later met a friend at a café. Then it was time to go to the bus and make our way back to Prague.


Church on Isola Bella


My last day at the Italian lakes had been delightful with impressive and awe-inspiring sights, full of memories that would last a lifetime. Each island had its own unique character. My favorite was Isola Bella with its luxurious palace and lush gardens. Isola Bella was an incredible place, that was for sure. Then again, all the Borromean Islands had been incredible.


Views from garden


View from palace


Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Bologna, Italy Diary

A street in Bologna

A street in Bologna

Note: No photos were allowed to be taken in the Basilica of Saint Petronio and in the Oratory of St. Cecilia.

Before traveling to Bologna, I studied the town’s history and was amazed that so many cultures had made such significant imprints on the city. The Romans, the Etruscans, the Byzantines, the Goths, the Gauls, the Celts, the Franks, the Lombards– they all played major roles in the town’s early history. It fascinated me that Bologna’s history dated all the way back to the Bronze Age of 1200 BC. During 9 BC, as a village called Felsina, it made a name for itself in ceramics and bronze objects. The town was under Etruscan rule during the 6th century BC, then the Gauls took over, followed by the Celts. The Romans defeated the Celts in 202 BC. Under Roman leadership the town was transformed into a wealthy and important Roman colony called Bononia.
After dark days of Barbarian raids, the Byzantines took charge in 553 BC and spread Christianity throughout their realm. The Goths and Longobards also made appearances in later centuries. Charlemagne conquered the town, and the Franks became a major influence. When Charlemagne gave the town to the Church, conflict broke out among the residents who wanted the Church to be in charge and those who wanted the town to be part of the Italian Kingdom. The conflict tied to Church versus State under Charlemagne foreshadowed the many centuries of warfare between the pro-Church Guelphs and pro-Emperor Weilblingen and deeply divided cities and territories. Bologna did, in fact, become part of the Italian Kingdom in 898 AD.

The Asinelli tower is the highest in the city at 98 meters.

The Asinelli tower is the highest in the city at 98 meters.

During the 11th century the first university in Europe was established in Bologna. After some civil unrest, the Church took over in the 13th century, and Bologna became very wealthy. By the end of that century, Bologna had the fifth largest population in Europe. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the most prosperous citizens competed by building towers as lookouts and defense structures in case war broke out. Except for the 1795 to 1815 rule of Napoleon, Bologna was part of the Papal State from 1506 to 1860.
The 19th century was fraught with battles, though. Bologna belonged to the Kingdom of Sardinia and then became part of the Kingdom of Italy. At the end of World War I, the town found itself in dire straits with many unemployed and homeless people. The situation during World War II was no better, and the Nazis took over in 1943, the year that bombs fell on the town twice. In April of 1945, Bologna was liberated by the sole partisan unit in Italy that was officially suited and supplied with arms by the Allies. Now nicknamed La Saggia (the Wise One), La Grassa (the Fat One) and La Rossa (the Red One), Bologna is the capital of the Emilia Romagna region with 410, 000 residents.

The statue of Neptune is a symbol of the city.

The statue of Neptune is a symbol of the city.

I knew the city was most famous for its food, its university and its towers as well as its red brickwork. Still, I did not have great expectations of Bologna. I thought it would be an intriguing town, but I was most excited about the trip to Ravenna on the itinerary with this five-day tour operated by the Prague-based arsviva travel agency.
I was amazed by the romantic porticos – they spread 59 kilometers and gave the town a unique flavor. And then there were the towers. I stretched my neck and gazed in awe at the imposing structures. The most famous towers in Bologna, the Asinelli (98 meters tall) and the Garisenda (48 meters tall, formerly 61 meters) had been constructed in 1109 and 1119 respectively as two noble families competed to see who could build the highest tower. Garisenda is the “leaning tower” of Bologna with a slant of 3.25 meters. While more than 100 towers were built in Bologna during the 12th and 13th centuries, less than 20 have survived.
But while Bologna represents food, towers and porticos to some, to me the highlights of the city were the magnificent churches. To be sure, Bologna ranks as one of the most romantic and unique cities I have ever visited. Bologna was mystical and mysterious. Bologna was magical.

The exterior of the Basilica of Saint Petronio

The exterior of the Basilica of Saint Petronio

One of the most significant landmarks in the town and one of the most impressive sights for me was the Basilica of Saint Petronio. Built to honor a 5th century bishop of Bologna, the Basilica of Saint Petronio is the largest church in Bologna and the 15th largest in the world at 132 meters long and 66 meters wide. Often depicted holding a model of this very church, Saint Petronio was important in part because he built the Church of Santo Stefano, inspired by his travels to religious sites in Jerusalem.
To stand inside the solemn structure is awe-inspiring and overwhelming. To think that the foundation stone was laid way back in 1390 (though the structure was not completed until 1670) was mind-boggling. Entering the church, I felt as if I had been transported back centuries. It consisted of 22 chapels, 11 on each side. Four carved crosses were supposedly built by Saint Petronio at the four cardinal points of the city. The three-aisled Gothic interior was supported by 10 pillars. The basilica was shaped as a huge cross. The largest sundial in the world, measuring 66.8 meters and hailing from 1655, was inlaid on the floor.

Postcard of Chapel of the Magi, showing the Journeys of the Magi, fresco by Giovanni de Modena, 1410

Postcard of Chapel of the Magi, showing the Journeys of the Magi, fresco by Giovanni da Modena, 1410

What captivated me the most was the fourth chapel on the left, The Chapel of the Magi. I stared at the Gothic altarpiece with the 27 exquisitely carved, wooden, painted figures, and I was awestruck. Just think of how much work it took to so meticulously carve and paint those figures! I could not peel my eyes away from it. When I finally did, I saw something else magnificent. On the left-hand side wall near the top Heaven was depicted, with the crowned Virgin Mary surrounded by saints.
Underneath that idyllic rendition was Hell – right out of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Lucifer, resembling a gigantic monster, was devouring one of the three traitors – though I could not tell if it was Brutus, Cassius or Judas, as described in the 34th canto. The image was much more than grotesque. It was terrifying. For me it represented all the evil in the world. It brought to mind criminal acts, betrayal, hatred. The travels of the Magi were also pictured along with scenes from Saint Petronio’s life. The stained glass in the chapel hailed from the 15th century.

Postcard of the Chapel of the Magi with Lucifer as the central figure in Hell

Postcard of the Chapel of the Magi with Lucifer as the central figure in Hell

The basilica held other delights, too. The frescoes of the Chapel of Saint Abbondio dated from the 15th century. I tried to imagine the festive atmosphere when Charles V was crowned Emperor in this chapel by Pope Clement VII during 1530. What had the invitees worn? What had they talked about while waiting for the coronation to begin? Where had they gone after the historic event?
The second chapel on the left was dedicated to Saint Petronio, and his skull was kept in a silver shrine. The head of this patron saint of Bologna had only been in this basilica since 2000; before that it had been housed in the Basilica of Santo Stefano. Marbles, bronzes, statues and frescoes also decorated the holy space.

Postcard of the Chapel of the Magi, Journeys of the Magi, fresco by Giovanni da Modena, 1410

Postcard of the Chapel of the Magi, Journeys of the Magi, fresco by Giovanni da Modena, 1410

The Chapel of Saint Ivo featured two intriguing clocks. The clock on the left-hand side showed the real time in Bologna. The one on the right, though, depicted the time as seen on Italian clocks from 1857 to 1893, when time started to be counted in the evening. The huge image of Saint Christopher was imposing, too.
The seventh chapel on the left, the Chapel of Saint James, featured a 15th century altarpiece but was perhaps best known for containing the remains of Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Bonaparte, who died in 1845, and those of her husband, a member of the Corsican nobility named Prince Felix Baciocchi, who attained military and political prominence. Elisa served as Princess of Lucca and Piombino, Grand Duchess of Tuscany and Countess of Compignano. She was a patron of the arts who set up academic institutions, had a new hospital built in Piombino, worked with charities and organized free medical help for the poor.

Postcard of Chapel of the Magi, The Inferno, frescoes by Giovanni da Modena, 1410

Postcard of Chapel of the Magi, The Inferno, frescoes by Giovanni da Modena, 1410

The 15th chapel near the left wall was where Pope Clement VIII conducted mass in 1598 before he walked barefoot to greet his followers in the main square, the Piazza Maggiore. The Our Lady of Peace Chapel was connected with an intriguing story. An irate soldier who lost much money while gambling had struck the Madonna in this chapel with his sword, and the sculpture came closing to falling on his head. He was sentenced to death but later pardoned because he had prayed so fervently. There was a 15th century figure of the soldier near the left wall.

All this stunning art work left me dizzy with wonder as I gaped at the interior, not wanting to leave, feeling compelled to stay there forever just gazing at the various chapels, noticing more and more astounding details.

Basilica of Santo Stefano

Basilica of Santo Stefano

I was also fascinated by the Basilica di Santo Stefano, also called “The Seven Churches,” though now there are only four. It intrigued me so much because so many cultures had played a role in its development over the centuries – Roman, ancient Christian, Byzantine, Lombard, Frank, Ottonian – people of all these cultures had once gathered at the complex that goes back at least 2,000 years.
Founded in the early years of 5 AD by Petronio, the bishop of Bologna who would be buried there and would become canonized. It was built on the site of a first century AD pagan temple dedicated to Isis which was built over a spring. Petronio’s visit to Jerusalem even inspired him to create the only copy in the world of the Holy Sepulchre of Christ. In fact, this complex used to be called “Jerusalem.” Now the Oliveitani Order lives there. Before that Benedictine monks and Lombards had been among the owners of Santo Stefano.

Church of the Crucifix

Church of the Crucifix

I entered the Church of the Crucifix and admired its austere Romanesque style. Once a Lombard church, this holy place has no aisles. A striking papier-mâché Pietà scene stood out on the right side. Stairs led to the presbytery. A yellow marble altar and a fresco of the Crucifixion decorated the church, too.

More stunning decoration at the Basilica of Santo Stefano

More stunning decoration at the Basilica of Santo Stefano

What I loved about the crypt were the various styles of the columns’ capitals that divided the nave and aisles. I saw cubic, Frank and Tuscan styles of capitals. A column with no capitals was connected to an intriguing story. Supposedly, it was forged from two stones that Petronio had taken from Jerusalem. The remains of Saints Vitalis and Agricola, Bologna’s first martyrs from 304 AD, were kept in the crypt, too. Christian Agricola had convinced his slave Vitalis also to take up the Christian faith.

Copy of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre

Copy of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre

Next came the outstanding Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. This was the part that began as a pagan temple, constructed on the site of a spring. I tried to imagine all the people who had entered this place since 1 AD. What had they been thinking about? How had they lived? What had their daily life been like? What were the different kinds of services held here? The model of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem astounded me. Just think: I was looking at the only copy of this holy structure in the world. It was breathtaking. Dimly lit, the space looked mystical and mysterious as if it held many secrets that would never be revealed. Saint Petronio’s remains were under a grill in the center of the model sepulchre, but, as I mentioned earlier, his head was housed in the Chapel of San Petronio.

The ceiling at the Basilica of Santo Stefano

The ceiling at the Basilica of Santo Stefano

The Basilica of Saint Vitalis and Saint Agricola was simple and austere in its Romanesque Lombard appearance with one nave and two aisles. I saw remnants of mosaics and frescoes. I noticed figures of lions and deer decorating Saint Agricola’s sarcophagus. Legend says that the cross in this church was the same one on which Saint Agricola was crucified. Again, the various styles of capitals captivated me. I saw Ionic, Byzantine and Frank capitals. I could not stop thinking that so many cultures had worshipped in this one space.

Marble Lombard basin in Pilate's Courtyard

Marble Lombard basin in Pilate’s Courtyard

Referring to Pilate’s washing his hands of Christ’s blood as he declared Christ innocent, Pilate’s Courtyard included Romanesque Lombard style arcades and a marble Lombard basin dating from 730 to 740 AD on a 16th century pedestal in the center. While the arcaded space showed off chapels and tombstones, there was a unique object there as well – a 14th century stone rooster that symbolized Saint Peter’s three-time denial of Christ’s existence during the night of his arrest and interrogation. (People at the bonfire recognized Saint Peter as one of the apostles, but he pretended he did not know Christ.)

The Adoration of the Magi in the Martyrium Church

The Adoration of the Magi in the Martyrium Church

The Martyrium Church, named after the areas where martyrs were buried, had been restored in the Frank style of the 17th century. It consisted of a nave and double aisles with columns. There were 14th and 15th century frescoes in the apses. I particularly liked the sculptural grouping of the Adoration of the Magi, with its enchanting, bright colors, such as deep red. And it always amazed me to see remnants of Romanesque architecture. I was not disappointed.

The Basilica of Santo Stefano boasts breathtaking artworks.

The Basilica of Santo Stefano boasts breathtaking artworks.

There was a cloister adjacent to the basilica. Supposedly, Dante had been inspired by the animal heads of human faces with scornful, ridiculing expressions. The cloister consisted of two basic sections, the upper part, built at the end of the 17th century and the lower part, constructed around 1000. It was fascinating to see these two greatly different styles side-by-side. I felt as if the human faces with animal characteristics were trying to insult me, as if they were laughing at me. They certainly gave me an uncomfortable feeling.
I was dizzy with delight as I left the basilica. Each church was unique, each church told its own story. I could not believe that I had walked on the same ground that dated back to 1 AD in a structure hailing from 5 AD. I could have spent hours walking through these spaces, taking in the atmosphere, soaking up the ancient history.

The ceiling of St. Dominic's Basilica

The ceiling of St. Dominic’s Basilica

The three-aisled St. Dominic’s Basilica ranked as another highlight of my time in Bologna. Founded in the 13th century, this holy place housed the marble Ark of Saint Dominic, who founded the Dominican Order and died in 1221 in Bologna, when the basilica had been a church. I could hardly believe that I was looking at the 1264 work of master artist Nicola Pisano. I had admired Pisano’s craftsmanship of the pulpit at the baptistery in Pisa and the pulpit at Siena’s cathedral.

The angel carved by Michelangelo on St. Dominic's sarcophagus

The angel carved by Michelangelo on St. Dominic’s sarcophagus

Additions were made from 1469 to 1473, and Michelangelo contributed to the decoration. I was fascinated by the curly-haired angel designed by Michelangelo, who also created the statues of Saint Petronius and Saint Proloco. That angel seemed so lively, as if he could step off the sarcophagus and dance through the aisles. I also admired the gold and silver enameled panels on the reliquary that contained St. Dominic’s head. The statues in niches flanking the reliquary were impressive, too. The ornate spire that crowned the Ark was another delight. Two putti and four dolphins held the candelabrum. The four Evangelists also made appearances.

Saint Dominic's sarcophagus

Saint Dominic’s sarcophagus

The Oratory of St. Cecilia also caught my undivided attention. The St. Cecilia Church was first mentioned in writing during 1267, and it was moved to its present location in 1359 by Augustinian hermits. Connected to the Church of St. James Major, a 15th century stunning Renaissance structure, the Oratory of St. Cecilia featured paintings from 1505-1506. They told the story of Saint Cecilia’s life.

Oratory of St. Cecilia, St. Cecilia's Trial

Postcard of the Oratory of St. Cecilia, St. Cecilia’s Trial, 1505-1506

The story of Saint Cecilia was intriguing. On her wedding night St. Cecilia told her pagan husband Valerian that an angel would protect her if he tried to take away her virginity. She convinced him to become a Christian and before long he was baptized by Pope St. Urbano. His brother Tiburzio also converted, and together they spread Christianity throughout the land. They were beheaded for their beliefs. Even when St. Cecilia was tortured, she was not injured. She managed to give all her belongings to the poor before she was killed in 230 AD. Interestingly, although St. Cecilia is considered to be the patron of music, there were no references to that art in these renditions.

Postcard of the Oratory of St. Cecilia, St. Cecilia's Charity from 1505-1506

Postcard of the Oratory of St. Cecilia, St. Cecilia’s Charity from 1505-1506

I noticed the classicized angel clad in a fluttering blue drapery in the fourth scene, “Angel bearing the Crowns of Martyrdom” and the gruesome beheading in the “Martyrdom of St. Valerian and St. Tiberius.” I felt the sense of desperation of the naked woman with an emaciated child waiting for alms from St. Cecilia as St. Cecilia gave money to a grateful, kneeling man. I noticed how in “St. Cecilia’s Burial” the bright red garment she was clad in contrasted with the white sheet that held her corpse.

Fascinating medieval art at Bologna's National Gallery

Fascinating medieval art at Bologna’s National Gallery

A museum addict, I also enjoyed my time at the Museo Civico Archeologico, perusing its prehistoric, Etruscan, Roman and Egyptian collections. My favorite museum, though, was the National Picture Gallery and its plethora of art from the Middle Ages. The museum certainly held an impressive collection of 14th century works. When the Church was losing power in Bologna, many of these masterpieces were moved from the churches to the picture gallery. When Napoleon’s reign ended, the museum acquired even more artworks. Its 29 halls were filled with fascinating works by Nicola Pisano, Tintoretto, Titian, the Carraccis and Il Perugino, to name a few. Then there was Raphael with his Ecstasy of St. Cecilia. In addition to medieval art, other periods were covered, such as Mannerism and Baroque.

The National Picture Gallery was full of medieval delights.

The National Picture Gallery was full of medieval delights.

Bologna definitely meant towers, porticos and food. Bologna was the delicious Pizza Margherita – the best I had ever had – at a bar I frequented in the center of town. I loved the bars frequented by locals who came in for cappuccinos or shots of espresso, downing them as they stood at the counter and chatted with the bartender.
Yet most of all, Bologna to me will always be churches and the many cultures that they represented. Bologna was romantic and picturesque, but it was first and foremost mystical and mysterious. The churches seemed to contain so many secrets.

National Picture Gallery, Bologna

National Picture Gallery, Bologna

I had stood in what had been a first century temple to Isis and a church dating back to the 5 AD. I had seen a copy of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. I had marveled at the exquisite carving of the figures on the Gothic altarpiece in the Chapel of the Magi and at the paintings of Heaven and Hell that adorned it. I had been captivated by St. Dominic’s Ark in the basilica, by the exquisite carving of the statuary and other decorations on the sarcophagus. The story of St. Cecilia fascinated me. The medieval art at the National Picture Gallery left me in awe.
However, most of all, for me Bologna was hope and faith. The city reminded me of the importance of having faith in the world, of having faith in myself. When it was time to say goodbye to Bologna, I left this city with a new and more positive perspective on life.

More stunning medieval art at Bologna's National Picture Gallery

More stunning medieval art at Bologna’s National Picture Gallery

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.