March 2017
More photos here

Friday 24th March
I’d spent some time in Bologna on a couple of guided art trips - one a full day and one a few hours before a flight, both a few years ago. So long enough visits to get fascinated by the works of likes of Francesco Francia, Lorenzo Costa and Francesco del Cossa, but not to do them justice, or fully lose the confusion about their so similar names. A day trip out to Ferrara is planned too, for Jane to see the frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia, and also plan a trip for her friends who are fans of Ali Smith’s novel How to be Both, which is about Cossa and these now-famous frescoes.

No problems getting to Heathrow, smoothly through self-service check-in and security. It being Red Nose Day meant a surfeit of people wearing red antennas and selling noses. Also an annoyingly loud display of dancing to Michael Jackson songs to accompany our lunch from Pret. In flight I decided I needed coffee and a flapjack and so sampled BA's new M&S catering, which was OK. Getting the Aerobus from Bologna airport was no problem. It didn't seem to go the route I'd found a map of online so we ended up walking from the railway station, down to the Piazza Maggiore, where our hotel, the Commercianti, was down the right side of San Petronio. After checking in and unpacking we were straight out in search of dinner, eventually finding it at a place called Clavature. My starter was an onion stew, made with tomato, which was thick and very nice, as was the spaghetti in a tomato sauce with capers and olives. A nutty semi-freddo with chocolate sauce was my dessert.

Saturday 25th March
The breakfast choices were large, especially considering the hotel is not. It's going to take me all week, for examples, to get through trying all the pastries and jams (with my croissant). Today I went with the classic apricot lattice tart and fragola e fragolino di bosco jam. Good juice and self-service Americano coffee completed the sunny picture. The WiFi here's pretty zippy too. Which all goes towards painting a pretty perfetto picture so far.

The big draw in
San Giacomo Maggiore is unarguably the Cappella Bentivoglio (see above) which is annoyingly always only visible through its iron fence, except, as I read when I was planning this trip, from 9.30 to 12. 30 on a Saturday morning, when it's thrown open, thanks to the Touring Club of Italy. Being in the chapel was indeed special, even if the 50 cent light meant that when one's 50 cent coins ran out one was relying on other visitors, who were a damn stingy bunch. This is generally a church of much fresco fascination, complete and in tantalising patches. The nave has no great altarpieces - the best stuff is in the ambulatory chapels, including a polyptych by Paolo Veneziano, the aforementioned Bentivoglio Chapel, and a couple of nice teacher tombs. Leaving the church and turning right takes you along a Renaissance portico, added in 1477 by Giovanni II Bentivoglio and now blighted with graffiti, to the former church of Santa Cecilia frescoed for Giovanni from 1504 to 1506 by Francesco Francia, Lorenzo Costa and their pupils, including Amico Aspertini, with ten scenes from the life of the virgin martyr Saint Cecilia. To the Duomo next, reportedly as uninteresting inside as duomos usually are. But we had a good visit, due to its calm after San Giacomo, the light streaming in, and the nice organ playing. And despite being all baroqued up it is tastefully putty coloured inside and quite light on the gilding. No great art, but our first fine terracotta tableau of the week, group of figures in the moment between the Deposition and Burial of Christ, the the work of Alfonso Lombardi.

We then made our indirect way back to the hotel, via San Francesco. We decided to do the hotel-room picnic thing, so bought rolls, cheese, ginger-flavour crisps, tomatoes and plums from a Carrefour. From a shelf filler we discovered they didn't sell cold mineral water and at the till we discovered we should have weighed and tagged the plums and the rolls - bread sold by weight! -  so I had to traipse all the way back through the shop's many corridors to do so. It was here also that Jane's prescription sunglasses were last seen. After our afternoon rest, suspecting she may have put them down in the supermarket, we got the chap on reception to phone them and ask, but no dice. And we went back there and asked too.

Our evening walk taking in an empty dilapidated church (San Barbaziano) and a sparkly one (San Paolo) with a service beginning. In a hall next door to the latter a jumble sale was going on, at which I found one of those books of 19th century city photographs (of Bologna) so beloved of church website creators looking for fragrant old photos to scan for added  'colour'. We refound the Ristorante Pizzeria Inrocio Montegrappa, passed earlier and looking likely. The pizzas were good, the lemoncello and biscuits complimentary and the gelato afterwards was coconut and mandarin, from Gianni by the towers.

Sunday 26th March
Today 's plan was for Jane to go and catch the last day of a Frida Kahlo exhibition while I visited San Petronio and the Santo Stefano complex. But I'd barely written about two chapels before she' d joined me in San Petronio, the Frida exhibition having had a enormous queue. San Petronio is orientated north/south so the light streams in through the side windows (see above right). I covered as much ground as I could with a service being on and the curse of red rope barriers. We didn't get into the big draw chapel because, after a period of serviceless ease another was about to start, so we decided to come back in the week, and made for Santo Stefano, where the service was in the main church, so the pretty old smaller ones could still be visited, as could the cloisters, the shop, and the somewhat ramshackle museum beyond the shop, which has some admirable panels and bits of fresco on display, as well as the usual - yawn - ecclesiastical silver. The Sunday crowds here eventually got oppressive, though, so we decided to return during the week. Panini under a colonnade outside a bar were followed by some special ginger and cinnamon gelato from, Il Gelato di San Crispio, also by the towers, and an afternoon rest back at the hotel. Here would be a good time to note that the only things wrong with the hotel is my room's detachable door handle, my sink plug not working and the fact that every time I get into the lift Another Day in Paradise by Phil Collins is playing.

The evening walk took in some smaller churches, a couple of which were pretty big, like the truly huge San Salvatore, where a service was in progress and being attended by about 10 people. We ended up at San Martino, which has some big name art and will have to be returned to. We then made for food, via the (guidebook recommended) remaining view of Bologna's once numerous canals, through a small window off a street (see photo right). The Venice comparisons are maybe a little ambitious. We ate at the Pino Pizzeria, but had pasta, mine was spinach and ricotta tortelloni in a saffron sauce, with tiramisu after.

Monday 27th March
Today we went to San Domenico first, where the Saint himself is buried, within a tomb by Jacopo della Quercia with figures by Michelangelo. Amongst the other highlights are a Filippino Lippi altarpiece, some impressive intarsia in the choir and elsewhere, and a sweet cloister. We then went back to linger in Santo Stefano, which was a sparsely visited joy after yesterday's crowds. We then came up trumps for lunch, finding Il Banco del Pane near the towers, which supplied spinach pastries and a potato-topped slice. Also some cinnamon, orange and almond biscuits, for taking back to the hotel for tea.

Some more slightly obscure
churches on the evening walk, including the dark and almost L-shaped Santi Vitale e Agricola, which has an atmospheric rough-brick crypt where you put €1 in the slot for the lights before tripping downstairs. This church is supposed to have been built over the remains of the Roman amphitheatre where the martyrdom of the two saints (Vitalis and Agricola) took place in the 4th century and there are bits of old buried wall down there too. The crypt itself contains their remaining remains, after Saint Ambrose spread their cult by giving out some bits of them to Rouen and Florence. We dined tonight back at the Inrocio Montegrappa from our second night.

Tuesday 28th March
Having initially impressed with their blood-orange juice the hotel blew it this morning with a fake-orange coloured fake-tasting liquid. Shame. We took the train to Ferrara today, which continues on to Venice. The train journey takes about half an hour, then the walk across town to the Palazzo Schifanoia takes about the same time, we discovered. The first bit from the station into the centre is a trifle tedious, but then east beyond the centre takes you down fragrant cobbled streets past many handsome buildings. I'd been to the Palazzo Schifanoia on a previous art history trip, but for Jane it was a jaw-dropping first sight of the frescoes in the flesh. I'd forgotten how drastically in better condition the highlight Francesco del Cossa end wall is to the other panels. A school group came and went while we were there, leaving us alone in the big hall for a while. The garden and its cafe out back which were threatened by development the last time I was here seemed to be thriving and in a much better state, with even its own big entrance now from the street. The owner had asked us back then if we knew Ali Smith, she having written How to be Both featuring the life of Francesco del Cossa and the frescoes here. Now he has the novel propped up on the counter inside the cafe with a photo of himself and the author in front. We had lunch in the garden, in a window of peace before another school party turned up. I had pumpkin tortelloni in butter and sage, and it was perfetto.

We thought we'd then go see some art in the Ferrara Pinacoteca, but we got there just before 2.00 to discover that it closed at 2.00, so we strolled back to the castle for the toilets, and stayed for reviving beverages and some fruity almond tart. The walks to and from the stations in Ferrara and Bologna were a tad tedious, but we caught the 3.11 train, which had come from Venice, and we were back at our hotel for a late rest around 4.30. The late rest made for a late start to the evening, so we headed straight for Clavature, from our first night, and I had the same starter and main, but afterwards went to Il Gelato di San Crispino, our new fave gelateria, for a classic pistachio and lemon.

Wednesday 29th March
This morning saw the return of the very acceptable blood-orange juice, thank goodness. For the final two days of our trip we'll be working around the cranky opening times of the Pinacoteca and MAMbo, the modern art museum. So this morning's church choices were made on the basis of them being on the way to MAMbo, which opens today at 12.00. San Salvatore and San Francesco have little in common except being huge. San Salvatore has been baroqued up but is bright and grey inside and has some surprise strangely impressive art in the right transept arm. San Francesco is dark inside, lacks good art, and is mostly full of tombs, including  the polychrome one for Pope Alexander V. The left aisle, the site of said tomb, was all closed off and has been, I read later, since the earthquake of 2014 did some damage. Some other small and closed churches were photographed on the way. Heading back to the centre I found Santa Maria di Galliera, opposite the medieval museum, open and interesting. Mostly 17th and 18th century art but altarpieces by Marc'Antonio Franceschini and the ubiquitous Guercino make a visit worthwhile.

Finding myself up by the
Giardino della Montagnola and outside one of those odd Italian chip shops that do cardboard cones of chunky chips, with just a selection of sauces to go with, I plumped for a medium portion with the tomato curry sauce and went to sit in the park. Being an Italian park is was dusty and worn out, of course, but it had benches. On my way back to the hotel I had a gelato from a place called Galliera 49. One fine flavour was crema di mediterranea, which was almond, pistachio and pine nut, and the other was fior di panna, which was very vanilla. I also passed a place near the hotel offering Arabic nibbles, including a cinnamon and apple tart, just right for taking back to one's hotel for tea.

Heading south to find and photograph a few more churches, and San Paolo, Corpus Domini and SS Annunziata were even open. Back to the Inrocio Montegrappa for pizzas tonight. My gelato, eaten under the two towers, from Il Gelato di San Crispino, was stracciatella and red grapefruit, the latter an authentically bitter taste sensation.

Thursday 30th March
The hotel's breakfast pastries are numerous, as I've said, with something new daily, and today's slice of spice cake was a treat. Jane was off to look at anatomical models this morning, so I was for some churches. To San Petronio first, to check off the chapels to the right of the Sanctuary that had been roped off due to the service on Sunday. One is weirdly chock-full of reliquaries, even having shelves full of them in place of an altarpiece. Then on to San Giovanni in Monte with its notably projecting porch, and an interior in what is seeming the Bologna style, of hexagonal brick pillars separating the nave from the aisles with brick arches and vaulting above and white walls. Works by Guercino and Lorenzo Costa are highlights here, especially the latter's lovely Madonna and Child, with four Saints below and two angel musicians with its golden highlights. Santa Maria dei Servi next, where I had to wait for a funeral to finish. The church is again in the Bologna style inside, but with an ambulatory, of brick of course, where the most interesting art is. Foremost is the Maesta panel by Cimabue - the world says Studio of... and the church says it's by the man himself. It's not possible to get close enough to form an opinion but although not in the best condition it has a certain something. Its history is also very vague, but works by him being so rare might tempt you to give it the benefit of the doubt. Also in the ambulatory, on the wall to the right, is a gold-ground polyptych by Lippo di Dalmasio and a sweet high relief terracotta of the Virgin Enthroned with Saints Lawrence and Eustace by Vincenzo Onofri. On the way back to the hotel I picked up some interesting, but a bit bland it turned out, veggie sandwiches from a supermarket, for an earlyish hotel picnic lunch to facilitate an earlyish evening trip to the Pinacoteca after our rest.

The Bologna Pinacoteca has, unsurprisingly, lots of stuff by the usual Bolognese and Ferrarese suspects, mentioned above. The earlier stuff is more my passion at the moment, and here the good new name who stood out was the crazily named Pseudo Jacopino with some fine polyptychs. The Giotto in Room 3 is very Studio of... but there's a large Madonna and Child with Four Angels by Lorenzo Monaco in here too. A little later there were two rooms of 14th century frescoes and their sinopie, detached in the 1960s from the church of Sant’Apollonia di Mezzaratta just outside Bologna, which were highlights for me, as here being able to press your nose up against the painting was even more of a thrill than in the other rooms. The 16th century Room 15 had some good stuff, but also a bit too much Francia. At the end it has a loveable Raphael though, the famous Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia, commissioned for San Giovanni in Monte, where I was this morning and where a copy now replaces the original, after its being looted by Napoleon and then returned to the Pinacoteca. Opposite it hangs a Madonna and Saints by Perugino also painted for San Giovanni in Monte. Later rooms had too much (for me) Caracci, and contain quite a few works from Sir Denis Mahon’s collection, he being the art historian who did most to raise the profile of the late 16th century Bolognese school and who curated the first exhibition devoted to the Caracci here in 1956. After some mannerism, and Guido Reni, things then swiftly shut down with the 18th century. A gallery worth visiting, in short, but with no shop, cards or catalogues.

We tried a pasta place near our hotel which was all trendy and wooden and tableclothless, but my pasta with green beans and potato cubes in a pesto sauce was most yummy. The last gelato just had to include the week's fave flavour, the ginger and cinnamon, which I teamed with a plain crema and Jane had on its own. We ate them under the towers as tradition demanded.

Friday 31st March
Our flight was at 12.20 so we had enough time for a leisurely breakfast before heading out in a cab, we decided, due to the bus-stop confusion of our arrival, and the airport not being far out of town. So that's what we did. And were sitting and reading and waiting by our gate in next to no time. The flight, on which we shared a row of three seats with no one, landed 10 minutes early, we scoffed two M&S wraps to fortify us for the journey, and soon the tube had us home to our cat.

So, Bologna - a place which quietly manages to be architecturally admirable and handsome wherever one walks. Lots of brick and terracotta, not so much stone. The local artists mentioned above repaid attention, but possibly won't become obsession-encouraging  faves. The churches were varied and contained some surprising and unusual art, encouraging the need to explore more. Restaurants tended to be not so imaginative for vegetarians, but what we ate was always edible, and occasionally special. The hotel had the best breakfast ever in any Italian hotel - so much pastry choice! I even had to pass up trying some fancy croissants, the muffins and several slicey tarts! We will return.


Trip reading

Michael Dibdin
Back to Bologna
We begin with Zen off sick indefinitely after his previous adventure, with his mood grim and his relationship rocky. But following the murder of a football club manager, whose business misdeeds were about to lead to arrests, he is sent to Bologna to keep an eye on things. A dim private detective prone to slapstick gaffs, an annoyingly entitled student, his celebrity professor who talks intellectual tosh, and a loathsome singing TV chef are also introduced in the opening chapters, their connections not immediately obvious. But things become clearer, remain bitter and cynical, and the action moves firmly to Bologna. The humour is broad, coincidences keep the plot moving, everyone is annoyingly self-centred, and no-one is loveable, but it gives good Bologna, mentioning streets and churches I'd visited this week. Every narrator is entertainingly unreliable but utterly unloveable, and the writing just about carries you along contentedly. Just about.

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