BOLOGNA - Discovering history in Bertalia Sunil Deepak, 2002

This article provides some information about a little known residential area in the city of Bologna - the Bertalia area. If you like history, you would love visiting Italy. Every thing here has history, some times even the odd shaped stone on the road can have Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, image by S. Deepaka history of some hundred of years. Bologna is no exception.

For example, I had passed on Via Emilia Levante, a busy road near the centre of Bologna frequently and never really looked at a white stone, that seemed like a manhole cover. Then one day during a city tour, our guide stopped right in front of this stone to tell us the story of secchia rubata (stolen bucket) and how the bucket at a well at the medieval city gate was stolen by persons from neighbouring city of Modena and how it led to a war between the two cities. That bucket is still displayed proudly at the archaeological museum of Modena and Bologna remembers that episode by the stone on the road. Small and big cities in Italy are not only full of such fascinating stories, they also have antique parchment rolls, documents, etc. in the museums related to these stories.

The central square of Bologna, Piazza Maggiore, is one the most beautiful squares in Italy and probably in the world. I really love it at sundown, when the red stones seem to take on a special glow from the evening sky. If you are ever there, don't forget to take a look at inside the library building of Sala Borsa in front of the Neptune fountain in the square. With its transparent floor, it has a wonderful view of old roman ruins. Of course, don't forget to look up at the roof while you are there. Close by are two of the better known places of Bologna, the twin towers and the Santo Stefano square with the almost two millennium years old, Santo Stefano church.

However, this article is not about well-known places of Bologna, but more about hidden corners and obscure places. One such obscure Old port, Bologna, image by S. Deepakbut wonderful place is the banks of Navile canal on the side of Via Gagarin, close to the Industrial museum on Via della Beverara, with the 17th century port ruins and old system of canals used for bringing ships to Bologna, to carry away the silk produced here.

The river Reno originating in the Apennine mountains to the south of Bologna, makes a loop on the western edge of Bologna, on its way towards the northern plains of Padania. During 13-17th centuries, this river played an important part in the history of the city, as the main channel of transport of persons and things. It played a key role in production and distribution of silk, which made Bologna a rich city in the 14th -18th centuries. During that period, canals were made, taking water from the river and bringing it to the heart of Bologna city, which had its own city port. Most of these canals made hundreds of years ago are still working, even if most of the canals in the city centre are covered by the roads. It is possible to take guided tours in Bologna to visit the vast network of subterranean canals. The main canal is called Navile, but there were many other smaller canals like Ghiseliera, Ravone, etc.


Bertalia, the area where I live, literally means marshes or area prone to floods. This is because river Reno passes through the area and different canals (Navile, Ravone and Ghisiliera) criss-cross it. The first written documents about Bertalia are more than 1000 years old, where the first mention of the Bertalia church is made. The area was divided in to three main neighbouring communes – Bertalia, Roveretelo and Beverara. The main source for information about this period of local history are documents from Bertalia church. In XV century, the Roveretolo church was burnt down and the diocese was put together under Bertalia.  The Ghisiliera canal built by the Pope Ghisello in 15th century crosses the Bertalia area, to take water to Argelato and Castel D'Argile, where Pope's family had some land.

San Martino chruch, Bologna, image by S. DeepakAfter more than 1000 years, the Bertalia Saint Martino church still stands there – still with some parts of the ancient buildings. Many old houses were built on the edge of the canal, to use the water energy for the silk production activities, still stand testimony to its usefulness. The canal water is still used for agricultural purposes, as the canal goes towards Argelato, where once it was used for tobacco industry but now it ends in marshy land and a natural bird sanctuary.

Near by is the Via Del Chiu, well-known for the bird "Chiu" belonging to to owl family and for its characteristic chiu call that you can hear in the late evenings of summer. For so many years it was thought that the bird had been extinct but now you can hear its call in many parts of Bertalia.

There is another historical road here, Via Del Lazzeretto, that hosted the medieval leprosarium. The leprosarium building is gone, its place taken by a technical training institute, while all the antique documents of the leprosarium have been shifted to the medieval museum of Bologna.

If you were to pass through Bertalia in a car, you would hardly give it a second look. It looks like a simple residential neighbourhood but as you can guess from the brief information provided here, it can be of historical interest.

Poppy flowers in Bertalia, Bologna, image by S. DeepakBertalia is full of parks. The park on Via Agucchi is full of tree lined avenues with Horse Chestnuts, Cherries, Maple, Plane and Pine trees. One angle of the park is dedicated to kitchen gardens maintained by old persons of the area.

Changing face of Bertalia: The XIX century saw the laying down of railway tracks from the nearby central railway station of Bologna, criss-crossing Bertalia area with lines going towards Milan, Venice and Verona. Around 1960 – 1985, new apartment blocks came up in the area but still, it remains as one of the less populated areas of Bologna, with beautiful parks, tree-lined roads, some old farm houses and some old and famous restaurants like Mulino Bruciato, Vaporetto and Antica Trattoria da Franco.

On the Via Zanardi road (earlier called Via delle Lame, now only a part of old road inside the city walls still carries the old name), there is the house called La Torretta (in the picture on left). In the basement of this house, during the second world war, they had hidden the famous statue of nude Neptune made by Gianbologne, to save it from the allied bombings. The statue can be now admired in the main central square of Bologna.

Neptune square, Bologna, image by S. DeepakThe statue of Neptune testifies to the liberal spirit of Bologna. City fathers felt that the statue of nude Neptune may corrupt young innocent minds and proposed that parts of the statue be covered or it be placed in some far away place. There was a public referendum and majority of Bologna citizens voted to have it nude as the sculptor made it, right in the city centre.

So if you ever come to Bologna, do not limit yourself to the usual tourist places but travel to the ordinary looking residential areas in the city, and try to discover the history hidden there. You may be surprised by what you may find!