Updated: Jul 27
Dr. Orton lived in the ancient Italian city of Bologna as a visiting research student for half of her doctoral degree. Here, she explores the famous ‘Seven Secrets of Bologna’ and uncovers a few secrets of her own.
Although I initially moved to Bologna to work on epistemological problems in Ancient Greek philosophy, my time in Italy’s ‘red’ city was one of experimentation and self-discovery. I pushed myself to engage with the life of the city, but, as a natural introvert, it was important to me to find places of sanctuary there, too.
The City that Trades in Secrets
I was recently asked in a radio interview to name a song that reminded me of something from the past and my choice was ‘Fireflies’ by Owl City, which reminds me of a secret place I used to visit in Bologna, high above the city. As far as I know, few people have ever discovered it.
Bologna’s official ‘Seven Secrets’ are not really so secret: it is easy to find lists of them online and a popular tourist activity is to hunt for them. The ‘secret’ element is that they are subversions, hidden in plain sight. Stand in the right place, look from a different angle, and you will see that things in these historic spots are not what they seem.
My secluded spot, though, really did seem to be a secret. It was a magical experience to hike alone to the abandoned church at dusk, where for two weeks of the year, thousands of fireflies drift through the trees at night.
I’ve never been good at sharing secrets about places. When I worked briefly as a travel writer in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, I would keep my favourite discoveries out of the book, to protect them from tourists (predictably, I did not pursue a career as a travel writer). Here, though, I want to share with you the real Seven Secrets of Bologna.
Subversion, Secrecy and Lies
Bologna’s first ‘secret’ is found in a little piazza just off Piazza Maggiore, the lively hub of the city. In Piazza del Nettuno, you will see the Fountain of Neptune, built in 1the 1560s by the Flemish sculptor Jean de Boulogne (Giambologna). Neptune stands surrounded by four nereids, clutching their breasts as water gushes out of their nipples into the fountain.
To discover the ‘secret,’ stand on the darker tile on the ground near the staircase of the Salaborsa, the Stone of Shame. Giambologna created the sculpture of Neptune to include an optical effect that is visible from here. Look carefully at the thumb on Neptune’s left hand from this angle: the story goes that Giambologna, outraged that the Church had set limits on the size of Neptune’s genitals, created the illusion of an erection to take his revenge.
Visit the fountain and you will see plenty of people seeking out the right stone to see the illusion. A lesser-sought mystery, though, is what else Giambologna might have left in the city. Look out for the small cast iron statue of a devil at Via d’Azeglio 41. It looks like the devil at Palazzo Vechietto in Florence by Giambologna – was this his work too?
Bologna’s second ‘secret’ is also to be found just off Piazza Maggiore, in the four corners of the Torre dell’Arengo under the Voltone del Podestà. The original beams, which you can still see, were once used for hangings here, but today you can share your own secrets without even looking your confidant in the face. Thanks to the unusual cross vault architectural structure of the Palazzo del Podestà, it is possible to converse through the walls with a person facing away from you in the opposite corner. Priests would use this to hear confessions from those suffering with plague and leprosy, but today people share all manner of secrets by the same apparatus.
The third ‘secret’ is a lie. At the entrance of Corte Isolani in Strada Maggiore, three arrows are stuck in the ceiling of the portico. According to legend, the location was set upon by would-be murderers, who were distracted by a naked woman at the window, and missed their shot. Now, it is commonly accepted that the arrows were placed there as a joke during the restoration of the house.
If this is disappointing, go to the sanctuary at Santo Stefano, a complex of seven churches built on the ruins of a pagan temple and an incredibly peaceful place in the heart of the city. In the adjoining Piazza di Santo Stefano, there are busts over the archways, one of which is known as the Santo Stefano Satyr. The mystery is his identity. Some say he’s the devil; others a satyr.
A few minutes’ walk north brings you to Via Zamboni. You are now in the university quarter, home to what some say is the oldest university in the world and the fourth ‘secret’ of Bologna. At Palazzo Poggi in Via Zamboni 33, one of the desks bears the inscription panum resis.
Knowledge, as they say, is at the heart of everything. Bolognese folklore would not have you rely on this, however, so if you’re a student at the university, circumnavigate fountain of Neptune anti-clockwise for good luck before an exam. Do not ascend the two towers or cross Piazza Maggiore diagonally before finishing your degree; legend has it that both of these can condemn you to failure.
Play the game right, though, and Bologna is a city in which you can flourish. The fifth ‘secret’ is found on the inscriptions under the porticos of Via Indipendenza: panis vita; canabis protectio; vinum laetitia (bread is life; cannabis is protection; wine is joy). Bologna once had a flourishing hemp trade, so protection should be understood in the economic sense. Perhaps you will find your fortune here, too.
Remember, though, that economic success is not everything. In Enrico Brizzi’s Bolognese coming-of-age novel set in the city, Jack Frusciante è Uscito dal Gruppo, teenage anti-hero Alex races around Bologna on his pushbike, musing about such matters as love, life, God, music, drugs, social class, politics, death and adulthood. At one point, Alex points out the futility of getting good grades in order to get a good job:
“If one afternoon I can go out and jam a little or go out with a girl I like, why the hell should I stay home and transcribe my Latin homework straight from the translation, or pretend to read some Philosophy? The reality is that I find myself obliged to sacrifice this happy seventeen-year-old me of this afternoon for an eventual bald, overweight, content fifty-year-old…”
Being a research student, I was fortunate enough to have the freedom to make the most of what Alex calls those spontaneous ‘moments of serenity’ that he had to sacrifice in order to secure a traditional adulthood. I did a lot of creative writing, worked as an artist’s model and tried my hand at painting. I fell in love with the Ducati Streetfighter I saw at the city’s famous motorcycle museum and gave my first ever academic presentation in a foreign language.
There have been times when I’ve missed the security that would have come with a more conventional career path, but I certainly experienced those moments of spontaneous serenity Alex is talking about (read more about this here). Freedom often comes at the cost of security; perhaps the real secret is knowing how to balance the two.
The ‘Two Towers’ at the intersection of Via Rizzoli, crossing Via Zamboni and Strada Maggiore, are symbols of the city. These are the Asinelli tower and the shorter, more crooked Garisenda tower built during the Middle Ages. It is possible to ascend the Asinelli Tower and the sixth ‘secret’ is that there is supposedly a broken vase on top which nobody has ever seen.
Numerous explanations for the vase have been produced, with some speculating that it represents the qualities of the citizens of Bologna in resolving conflicts peacefully. Other explanations hold that it represents the visitor’s relationship with the city. The time will come when you must leave, but you will leave a piece of your heart there like a piece of the vase on the Asinelli Tower.
Bologna’s seventh ‘secret’ is known as Little Venice. It’s a small window in Via Piella, through which you can see the Moline canal, a relic from Bologna’s history of merchant shipping and one of the few stretches of Bologna’s once flourishing canal system still visible today.
Of course, you may want to go beyond Bologna and visit the Veneto to see the real Venice or simply explore the rest of Emilia-Romagna. Find the best pizza in Italy (in my opinion that's in Modena) and the little-known, painted village of Dozza. Venture into Tuscany to try the best gelato in the country (supposedly in San Gimignano, but the ice cream in Siena is my favourite).
Explore Bologna like Alex did and explore your own mind. Get to know the official seven secrets and find a few of your own. Find your own balance between freedom and security.
Some of my experiments in living from my time in Bologna have stuck; some have faded away. I no longer model; music has replaced painting and my work in the Himalayas has flourished alongside my research into the Classics. Perhaps there is a piece of my heart at the top of the Asinelli Tower after all.
As for the location of my own secret place, where I would go to watch the fireflies? That’s one secret I’ll never tell.
Find Out More
To learn more about Dr. Orton’s PhD research, visit Our Research Page to listen to her lectures on Ancient Greek Mathematics and Plato’s Epistemology, or read her blog post, Plato and the Terrifying Beauty of Mathematics. Dr. Orton also explores the secrets of another European city, Berlin, in her blog post How to Get Into Berghain. If you’d like to learn more about Historical Mysteries, we have suggestions for a customisable course on this on our History page. Alternatively, if you’re interested in the rare, the niche and the esoteric aspects of the world’s most fascinating cities, take a look at our Interdisciplinary course, The Secret History of Cities.
These courses are templates of possible routes of study and can be combined, adapted, or designed from scratch to suit your interests and goals. Dr. Orton will work with you to design a course of private tutorials tailored to your needs, ability and schedule – whether you are undertaking your own research for an independent project, writing a book or simply have a personal interest. Find out what it’s like to work with her here.
Contact us to find out more!