B is for Bologna

I’d like to introduce you to the extraordinary and underappreciated city of Bologna… it’s pictured at the top of my page. It’s nicknamed La Rossa, the red. One can see why. It’s also called La Grossa, the fat, in homage to its fantastic food. Oh yeah. I’m so going there this summer, in homage to breaking my diet.

When I researched the Italian setting for my novel, Shadow of the Portico, I wanted to get away from the Big Three–Rome, Florence, and Venice. Originally, I was going to write about a young scholar, so I looked for a city with a university. Then I stumbled upon one that had a university that admitted women. Immediately piqued, I found that school, the University of Bologna, was also one of the oldest universities in Europe. Okay, Bologna it is!

Then Bologna went off and wrote my novel for me.

No, it wasn’t quite like that. It did inspire the title, though, with its miles of porticos, covered walkways where my character Niccolo tends to linger. The more I researched the city, the more its untold stories opened themselves up to me. Intriguing, interwoven, insightful stories.

One of the first things I learned about Bologna was that they suffered a plague in 1576 that took out a good chunk of its population. I was actually drawn to the rather familiar trope as a launching point for my story, and pretty soon I happily wiped out my character Emilia’s family.

Writers are a special kind of crazy, can I just say?

In the late sixteenth century, Bologna was part of the Papal States. Not quite independent, but not very good at being subservient to the Pope, either. Even when the Pope came from Bologna, as Gregory XIII did.

This is where we meet Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti, a legal expert who made a name for himself at the Council of Trent. As Archbishop of Bologna, he wanted to see his home city become the model for the reforms that came out of that council, particularly with regard to how a Bishop should serve his city. As in, actually serve the city, and not just draw a paycheck from it.

Oh, but those good intentions and their pavings.


Cattedrale di San Pietro, the seat of the Archbishop of Bologna. The facade was remodeled in the seventeenth century, long after Cardinal Paleotti was no longer around to appreciate it. (Photo courtesy of http://www.360-gradi.it)


Bologna, with its fierce independence, wanted no part of this Tridentine reform, even one that would be ultimately good for the city. Nope, it wanted instead to promote its monstrous civic church, San Petronio, and as a stick-it-to-ya to Rome, wanted to build it bigger than St. Peter’s. The church also competed with the Bishop’s cathedral, San Pietro, which annoyed Cardinal Paleotti something fierce. I used this little rivalry in the book as a source of conflict and as a way to allow my characters to cleverly manipulate the situation to their own ends.

Writing political intrigue is even more fun than the plague, it turns out.


The unfinished facade San Petronio Basilica, a massive church built independently by the city of Bologna and source of irritation to the city’s Bishop, Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti. (Photo courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org)

So, I didn’t even make it to the University of Bologna in my novel. I decided instead to focus on church politics as a backdrop. Not the way I started this whole writing adventure, but Bologna proved to be its own adventure, one I could hardly ignore.

Bologna has named my second novel, too. The city’s third nickname, La Dotta, the scholar, was given because of its university. I have no doubt that my scholar Sarah, La Dotta herself, will find her way to there at some point.


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