Monday, 20 November 2017

The tombs of the jurists:
unique mediaeval legacy
on the streets of Bologna

The ‘Tombe dei Glossatori’ are a unique 13th century set of monuments on the streets of Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

My guidebooks and my reading in advance of travelling to bologna did not prepare me for seeing the Tombe dei Glossatori (The Tombs of the Glossatori) in Piazza San Domenico and Piazza Malpighi. I came upon them accidentally last week while I was visiting the Basilica of San Domenico, to see the shrine of Saint Dominic, and the Synagogue on Via Mario Finzi.

The tombs are named after jurists or lawyers who became known for adding glosses or notes to academic and legal documents.

Although they seem to have been passed over by the writers of many English-language guidebooks on Bologna, these tombs, dating from the end of the 13th century, commemorate some of Bologna’s most famous scholars and as a group they form one of Bologna’s most unique and memorable monuments.

The University of Bologna was founded in 1088 by the legal scholars or glossators Irnerius and Pepo, making it the oldest university in the world. These tombs are tributes to some of the first and most important professors in the Middle Ages when the University of Bologna was renowned particularly for teaching law.

They added glosses and comments on Roman texts, providing marginal explanatory additions that made the content of the passages clearer. These leading academics became cornerstones of political and cultural life in Bologna.

The five tombs or mausoleums still standing today are in two squares in Bologna, Piazza Malpighi, beside Piazza San Francesco, and Piazza San Domenico. They are raised above the ground on slender marble columns, are covered in majolica tiles, with canopies of marble arches above and each is capped with a pyramidical roof.

Over the centuries, many similar mausoleums have been lost, and the ones that stand today have been rebuilt, damaged, restored and reconstructed. Today, are isolated from long-lost cemeteries that once surrounded them, and as a collection they form archaeological and cultural features that are unique to Bologna.

The five tombs form a unique collection of archaeological and cultural features in Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The earliest remaining tomb is that of Odofredo Denari at San Francesco, and was built around 1265. Odofredus is famous for the personal remarks with which he sprinkled his teaching, often introduced by Or signori, ‘Listen, gentlemen.’ His most famous saying is: ‘Everybody wants to know, but nobody wants to know the price of knowledge.’

His tomb was restored in 1497 and again in 1574 by his descendants, Lorenzo Odofredi and Girolamo del fu Lorenzo Odofredi.

When the Chapel of Malvezzi Lombardi was built in San Francesco in 1713, Odofredo’s remains were said to be still in the tomb. Fragments from other parts of the tomb were used in the restoration of the pyramid at the top in the 19th century.

The columns are of white marble from a Greek quarry, and the capitals of pyramid trunks adorned with palm leaves, similar to those in San Vitale in Ravenna, and with Byzantine influences. The interior was plastered and painted or lined with glazed bricks.

In this same grouping at San Francesco are the tombs of Rolandino de ’Romanzi, who died in 1284, and of Accursio, father and son.

The tomb of Rolandino de ’Romanzi was destroyed by the French Government in 1804, which claimed it served as a ‘hiding place for assassins,’ an ironic excuse for levelling the tomb of the author of De maleficiorum order, one of the first treatises on criminology. It was eventually restored in 1888.

The third tomb, chronologically, is that of Accursius, which dates from 1293. This was built not for Accursius, or Accursio di Bagnolo the father, who died in 1263, but for his son Franciscus or Francesco d’Accorso, who taught at one stage in Oxford and died in Bologna in 1293. Dante places the son Francesco in Hell among sodomites (Inferno XV, 110).

The father was first buried in the cemetery at San Domenico cemetery, but his body was later moved for political reasons. The materials used include Greek marble and the capitals display rich foliage with Romanesque-Byzantine style. When the tomb was being restored, it was discovered that it was originally divided into two cells, one upper and one lower. The inscription reads: Sepulchrum Accursii, glossatoris legum, et Francisci, ejus filii.

The monument was erected despite intense accusations of immorality against the Accursii. The Palace of Accursio (Palazzo d’Accursio) still stands today on the Piazza Maggiore, a testimony to the family’s lasting influence despite exile and approbation. Since 1200 it has been the seat of the City Council.

The tomb of Rolandino de ’Passeggeri, beside the Basilica of San Domenico (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The two tombs at the Basilica of San Domenico commemorate Rolandino de ’Passeggeri and Egidio Foscherari. The tomb of Rolandino de ’Passeggeri is the second oldest of the five monuments, dating from 1285, while the tomb of Egidio Foscherari was probably completed by 1291.

The beautiful and elegant tomb of Rolandino de ’Passaggeri was also used to bury the proconsul of the Collegium of Notaries from 1581 to 1658. Despite damage caused by a bomb in 1943 during World War II and the numerous preservation and restoration efforts, the tomb still looks essentially like the original mausoleum.

Modern buildings now tower above the tomb of Egidio Foscherari (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Egidio Foscherari was a professor of canon law professor, and his tomb shows Byzantine and Venetian influences. The interior of the pyramid was once painted to illustrate ‘heaven sown with nimbate stars,’ an interesting influence from the Christian traditions Ravenna, rather than the depictions of Roman law used to illustrate the other tombs.

Egidio Foscherari’s tomb has survived for centuries, despite being virtually incorporated into later buildings erected at this street corner.

The Palazzo d’Accursio on Piazza Maggiore in Bologna … another testimony to a family’s will to survive (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Climbing one of Bologna’s
Two Towers for
breath-taking panoramas

Climbing the Asinelli Tower is rewarded with panoramic views across Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Climbing the Torre degli Asinelli or Asinelli Tower is an experience every visitor to Bologna seems to want. The tower has stood in the heart of the city for nine centuries, and with its neighbour, the Garisenda Tower, it is a symbol of Bologna. Together, they are known as le Due Torri, the Two Towers.

In the Middle Ages, it is said, Bologna had up to 180 towers. However, more recent estimates put the total number between 80 and 100, and not all towers existed at the same time. They were built both for both prestige and defensive protection. However, as the centuries passed, earthquakes, fires and lightning and town planners lacking vision brought down many of these towers.

The last demolitions of Bologna’s towers were carried out in the 20th century, when the Artenisi Tower and the Riccadonna Tower were demolished in 1917. Fewer than 20 towers can still be seen today.

The Asinelli Tower stands at the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana – the junction of the streets that lead to the five gates of the old city wall. It is 97.2 metres high and the tallest tower still standing in Bologna.

The Asinelli Tower is said to be named after the family that built it in 1109-1119. However, the name of the Asinelli family is documented for the first time only in 1185, at the time of an attempted arson attack, almost 70 years after the family was said to have built the tower.

The Asinelli Tower was originally only 70 metres tall, but it was later raised so it could be used to send luminous warning signals that could be seen in the far distance.

In the 14th century, the Asinelli Tower came into the ownership of the city, and it was used as a prison and a stronghold. During this period a wooden footbridge was built with scaffolding 30 metres above ground, linking the tower with the neighbouring Garisenda Tower.

The Garisenda Tower is leaning visibly, but the Asinelli Tower is a leaning tower too – it leans by 2.23 meters (1.3°).

Giovanni Visconti, Duke of Milan, wanted to use the towers to suppress possible revolts and to control the turbulent Mercato di Mezzo – today’s Via Rizzoli. The Visconti family had become the rulers of Bologna after the decline of the Signoria of the Pepoli family, but were unpopular in the city. The wooden bridge was destroyed in a fire in 1398.

Later, the Asinelli Tower was used by the scientists Giovanni Battista Riccioli in 1640 and Giovanni Battista Guglielmini in the 18th century for experiments to study the motion of heavy bodies and the rotation of the earth.

Severe damage was caused by lightning that often resulted in small fires and collapses. But the tower survived, and a lightning rod was installed eventually in 1824.

During World War II, the Asinelli Tower was used as a lookout in 1943-1945, with four volunteers on top of the tower directing rescue operations to fires during air raids.

In the 1960s, the architect Minoru Yamasaki was inspired by the Two Towers as he designed the World Trade Center in New York.

The Asinelli Tower and the Garisenda Tower stand side-by-side (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The neighbouring Garisenda Tower stands at 48 metres. Initially, it was about 60 metres high, but it had to be lowered in the 14th century because the ground below was subsiding and the tower was slanting and dangerous.

The Garisenda Tower is cited several times by Dante in the Divine Comedy and The Rime:

As when one sees the tower called Garisenda
from underneath its leaning side, and then a cloud
passes over and it seems to lean the more,
thus did Antaeus seem to my fixed gaze
as I watched him bend ...


— Dante, Divine Comedy, Inferno, XXXI, 136-140

Never can my eyes make amends to me – short
of going blind – for their great fault,
that they gazed at the Garisenda tower
with its fine view, and – confound them! –
missed her, the worthiest of those
who are talked about.


— Dante, Rime, VIII

The Asinelli Tower recently re-opened after a three-month restoration that focused on strengthening the internal wooden staircases leading to the top and at restyling the rooftop terrace.

To reach the top of the tower, I climbed the 498 steps of its steep wooden staircases one morning last week. For those who tire easily, there are platforms at regular intervals.

The reward at the top is a panoramic view of Bologna spreading out below, with the Piazza Maggiore and the city’s red roofs, towers, churches, domes, palaces, squares, parks, belfries and the univerfsity. To the south are green rolling hills that frame it to the south.

Climbing the 498 steps of the Asinelli Tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)