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A flourishing centre for the arts, Bologna was renowned for its colourful festivals and gastronomic excellence. But underlying this 'prosperity' there was widespread poverty and public unrest.
During the last three decades of the 16th century, when the Carracci were at the height of their activity, the busy and populous city of Bologna was one of the most important cultural and economic centres in Europe. In 1587, the city's population numbered 72,000, a level which was not reached again until 1791; industry and commerce were slowly expanding and the ancient university continued to prosper, attracting such influential scholars as Ulisse Aldrovandi. In 1582, the city's importance as a centre of religious life was formally acknowledged when Pope Gregory XIII created Bologna an archbishopric.
Most important of all, the late 16th century saw an unprecedented flowering of activity in the arts. The Carracci's Accademia degli Incamminati, which established Bologna as a leading centre of painting in Europe was just one among a host of cultural and scientific societies which sprang up in the city. Bologna's church of San Petronio, one of the largest in the world, was renowned as a centre of musical activity. Its unusual size and superb acoustics encouraged the employment of massive groups of musicians, whose activities were to play an important part in the development of the Baroque concerto form. At the same time, the cappella musicale, or music academy, saw the emergence of a stream of talented composers.
The city's prosperity was largely the result of a long period of internal peace. In 1512, Pope Julius II had finally expelled from the city the ruling family of Bentivoglio, and reclaimed Bologna as part of the Papal States. From that time onwards, the city was governed jointly by an elected Senate of 40 men, drawn from the local nobility, and a resident papal legate, or Legato. This unusual form of government had its drawbacks, but it ensured a state of relative tranquillity, and contributed to the distinctive character of the city's public life.
In reality, the power of the Senate was considerably restricted by the presence and authority of the Legato. Outwardly however, the senators attempted to create the impression that they were successfully protecting the autonomy of the Bolognese republic from the tyranny of Papalrule. The Carracci's frescoes of the story of Romulus and Remus in the Palazzo Magnani, painted at the time when the Magnani family were readmitted to the Senate after their exclusion by Pope Leo X, can be seen as one expression of this republican spirit.
In public, the senators surrounded themselves with all the trappings of status and power, living lives of ostentatious luxuiy. Despite the passing of numerous sumptuary laws, they dressed in the finest clothes and held endless banquets. To reinforce their image, they organized festivals, tournaments and jousts. The two-monthly election of the Gonfaloitiere di Giustizia (standard-bearer of justice) was marked by an elaborate ceremony, accompanied by regular processions and feasts. These sumptuous festivities, surpassed in extravagance by few cities in Europe, combined with other religious celebrations to give Bologna an unusually active and colourful public life.
The love of luxury and good living, and particularly of good food, was not confined to the nobility. According to contemporary historians, the common people were also given to bouts of over-indulgence, and feasted extensively at the end of the week 'consuming in one day alone what they had earned with the sweat of six'.
Bologna has long been renowned as a centre of fine cuisine, and even today is known as the gastronomic centre of Italy. Located in one of the most fertile regions of the country, Bologna produces a cuisine which is rich in dairy products and high quality meats. Best known for the invention of rapt, the rich meat sauce which forms the basis of spaghetti bolognaise, the city can also claim to have invented a number of other pasta dishes, such as lasagne and tortellini.
The prosperity of Bologna was perhaps most dearly reflected in the extensive building boom which began around the second decade of the century, and which transformed the city into one of the most beautiful and richly varied in Italy. The bustling medieval streets, with their distinctive covered arcades, became punctuated by elegant new churches and palaces, based largely on contemporary Roman models. 1562 saw the beginning of the Archiginnasio, an imposing new building designed to bring together the scattered faculties of the University. Two years later, the medieval Piazza Maggiore, the heart of city life, was embellished by the construction of the adjacent Piazza del Nettuno, with its spectacular bronze fountain by the sculptor Giambologna. Senators vied with each other in constructing magnificent palaces with elaborate facades, as concrete symbols of their power. And new areas of the city were built up within the 13th-century walls, to accommodate the growing population.
During the years of the Carracci, Bologna was an important centre of religious reform. Under the enlightened direction of its bishop, Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti, the proposals of the Council of Trent for the reinvigoration of the Catholic Church were given new impetus. Paleotti founded a seminary for the training of priests, insisting on the importance of the clergy in setting an example in moral and religious behaviour. He also founded a number of charitable institutions, including the Magistrato della Concordia, a committee of lay and religious people designed to give free legal advice and assistance to citizens of limited means.
Despite the surface festivity however, city life in Bologna had strong undercurrents of violence and unrest. While the senators prospered, life for the common folk was unremittingly harsh. The stagnating economy of the country as a whole, exorbitant taxation and a series of poor harvests brought widespread poverty and outbreaks of crime. 1588 saw the beginning of a series of food shortages which left innumerable people dying of hunger in the city's streets. The same year, a rise in the price of bread lead to riots in the city, culminating in the arrest of over 100 bakers, butchers and rebels. Between 1587 and 1595 the population fell by 13,000.
Public order was also a serious problem. Although organized protest against conditions was rare, theft and murder were common in the city, and contemporary chronicles record each day's events as a bizzare combination of high festivities, ghastly murders and public executions. The problem was most severe in the surrounding countryside, where unemployed soldiers formed groups of bandits who looted, raped and murdered. Often these bandits were sheltered by the nobility, who used them to protect their own family and territorial interests. In 1585, the Pope ordered the murder of the count and senator Giovanni Pepoli, who refused to hand over a notorious bandit found on his territory; in deference to his aristocratic status, the count was strangled with a silk noose. Among other things, the count's execution was intended to serve as a warning to the nobility, who tried to exert their authority in defiance of Rome.
By the time Annibale Carracci died, the golden years of Bologna were over. The 17th century witnessed the city's gradual decline, exacerbated by the calamitous outbreak of plague in 1630, which left one quarter of the population dead. But for Annibale, the city must have provided a sympathetic and stimulating environment, with rich and varied patronage, active intellectual debate, and a feast of luxurious spectacle.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish