Water, Silk & a Ghost A Forgotten Story Ghisiliera canal of Bologna by Sunil Deepak, 3 September 2011

There was a time, when the network of canals crisscrossing Bologna were vital to the life of the city. Most of those canals are now forgotten by majority of the people living in the city, even to the persons who live close to them. This article is about canals of Bologna, focusing mainly on one such canal called Ghisiliera (in Italian Ghisigliera) in the northern part of the city, in an area called Lame-Bertalia.

Ghisiliera canal of BolognaMy interest in Ghisliera canal started when I participated in a "nature walk" organised by the municipal office about 10 years ago. The nature walk was in the park behind our house, known as Parco del Gazebo. I had been to this park so many times ever since we had shifted to this house in 1998. So I was very surprised when I had heard that we were going to visit that park. I had wondered, what interesting things could be hidden there in that park?

Apart from learning about different kinds of trees in the park, that visit had informed me about the Ghisiliera canal and the local Bertalia church from 1163 AD. Then over a number of years, slowly I have learned more about the history of different events that shaped this part of the city. This article is for sharing that information.

Canals of Bologna: They are two main rivers close to Bologna - Reno (Rhine) on the south and Savena on the east. Compared to the big rivers like Ganga (Ganges) and Yamuna in India, these two rivers are very small, but during the rainy season and during spring, when the snow in the mountains melts, both the rivers had the potential to create major damages in the city.

In addition, Bologna also has torrents that have water only during rainy season and spring, and are dry at other times, such as Aposa, Ravone, etc. Compared to the two rivers that pass the outer edges of the city, the torrents pass through the city, like Aposa that runs in the city centre.

Attempts to rein in the rivers' and torrents' waters must have started with Etruscans who had first settled in Felsina. The legend says that Felsina was an Etruscan princess who had drowned in Aposa torrent. With the arrival of Romans, Etruscans disappeared and Felsina canals of Bolognabecame Bononia and then Bologna. The first canal called Reno brought the water from Reno river to the city centre, came up around 1250 AD. After that for the next six hundred years, more canals were built, bring water from Savena river and then connecting the different canals to each other and to the torrents. The map on the right shows the main canals of Bologna.

Most canals of Bologna were covered and then roads, parking places and buildings were made over them between 1950 to 1960, when areas damaged during second world war were rebuilt. There are still a few short stretches inside the medieval city walls where you can see the canals but you need to know where to look for them. Most of the canals inside the city are hidden underground and can be accessed only through specific guided tours. Many names of the streets such as "Via Riva del Reno" (Banks of Reno road) can give you an idea of the routes of the canals.

Uses of canals: The canals are useful to regulate the flow of water, and when the volume of water increases, they spread it in different directions and thus avoid floods. For example, Bertalia, the area where we live, literally means "area that gets flooded". Being close to the river, it was a marshy uninhabited place for a long time.

During medieval period, canals brought water energy to the city, to power different kind of mills and factors. There is an altitude difference of about 40 meters between south and north of Bologna, and a difference of 15 meters between northern edge of Bologna and the suburban town of Castel Maggiore. This meant that water taken from Reno river at the south of the city had enough gradient to travel to north and to provide moderate force to move wheels to run flour mills and silk yarn wrapping machines, etc. The humidity of the canals helped in growing silk worm. This helped in industrial growth of the city and Bologna became the foremost Italian centre for production of silk.

The canals also provided a way of transport from the city to Reno river, and to Castel Maggiore, Galliera in the north and from there to the Po river, and to Ferrara and Venice. As road transport was more difficult, the canals became the preferred way for both people and goods.

The Ghisliliera canal

Ghisiliera canal of BolognaThis canal was built in 1568 AD, starting from the larger and older Reno canal near Porta San Felice, where it entered under the medieval walls. Passing from Via della Ghisigliera, where the Ghisiglieri villa was placed, it took its name. The noble family of Ghisiglieri fought with the power Bologna family of Bentivoglio and were forced to leave Bologna and shift to Ferrara around 1450 AD. In 1566, a descendent of this family, Antonio Ghisiglieri became the Pope and took the name of Pope Pio V (in English, Pope Pious V). He had played an important role in inquisition and under his guidance as the chief inquisitor, a large number of protestant christians called Valdesi were tortured and killed.

At that time, Bologna was ruled by the Vatican and perhaps that was the reason why the canal took the name of the Pope's family. During the initial part, the canal runs next to the Ravone torrent, till the ancient farms of Prati di Caprara. There it turns north passing through Bertalia and Trebbo di Reno. While Ghisliera canal joined Reno river, two smaller canals take origin from it, called Castagnolino and Venenta canals, that were used to fill the ponds for making pulp out of hemp in areas around Argelato and Funo. This pulp was used for making ropes, while on the banks of the artificial ponds grew weeping willows, whose long slender twigs were useful for making baskets. Pope Pio V's family had lands in Argelato where the hemp pulp was made. Thus some persons in Bologna complained that Pope had used public funds for giving water supply to his family lands.

What ever the reasons for its construction, it did serve the mills and farm houses along its way, and along with other interventions on river Reno, it helped in draining the marshes of Bertalia.

The Ghisiliera canal today

The canal still functions. The water flow is regulated by a series of "chiusa" (closing off) that can block the entry of water, depending upon the level of water in the river and in Reno canal. Thus when river water is less, canal does not have much water, while when river is full, excess water can be drained through the canal. The old ponds where hemp pulp was made are an important part of the ecology of the region, helping maintain groundwater level and marshes for the particular groups of animal and plant life.

Two or three times a year, municipality persons come to mow down the grass and wild plants growing along its banks. Once a year, the bed is dried and sledged. People who live along the canal have become much more aware about environment protection so no body throws garbage in it and there are no industries discharging their waste or chemicals into it. In spring and autumn, migratory birds stop to take rest here. Some times in the evenings, going for a walk with my dog, we startle groups of wild geese who fly away cackling with surprise.

Slowly the old farm houses near our home have been abandoned and converted into houses and schools and family restaurants. The old fruit trees and vineyards are left unattended with smell of ripe fruit filling the air in summer. A huge number of wild plants and flowers grow along its banks, and going for a walk along the canal is a big pleasure. There is a proposal to make a cycle track on one of the raised bumps of land along the canal. When that happens, it will be wonderful.

Ghisiliera canal of Bologna

Ghisiliera canal of Bologna

Ghisiliera canal of Bologna

Ghisiliera canal of Bologna

The changing life

The pace of change around the canal has suddenly increased over the past 3 decades. It is not that changes were not there before, but their impact on the life around the canal was limited. As industrialization developed, the traditional production activities centered around the water canals were unable to compete. Thus silk production, metal workshops, furnaces for making tiles, etc. closed one by one. The transport shifted from the water ways to the roads. The old family restaurants called Trattoria along the canal lost clients and closed. Only fields and occasional farm house were left and slowly people forgot about the canals.

Along the Ghisiliera canal, where we live, till the nineteen sixties there were just fields and little else. Low cost public housing came up only in late nineteen seventies that saw new apartment blocks along the canal. An old man who grew up here told me, "Even in nineteen sixties, there were only fields. Our house used to be there", he pointed to an apartment block, "and here after sunset there was no light. My grandmother lived on the other side of the road and in the dark I was afraid to walk to her house."

Washing house, Ghisiliera canal of BolognaThere is a bridge over the canal on Via Zanardi. In old times, this road was called Via Lame. The word "Lame" means still water, a reminder of the river water that flooded this part of the city regularly in the past. There was a time, when there was a port here, called Pescarola port, for people to take a boat to Galliera, for going towards Ferrara and Venice.

Near the bridge was the ancient washing house. Women from the farm houses and from the houses along the road, used to come here to wash their clothes, to dry them and to talk. It was working till 1960s, then slowly abandoned. Now it has been converted into a family counseling centre. During the second world war, the Neptune statue placed in the centre of the city, was kept in this washing house to safeguard from the bombs. Later the same statue was hidden in the basement of an old house along the road.

Across the road, along the canal was an old mill that was burned down in 19th century. The old trattoria restaurant near the mill is still called "Mulino Bruciato" (Burned mill restaurant) and is one of the old city restaurants. At the old mill, now converted into a house, the canal takes a sharp turn and changes its name to "Borgognino canal" from the Borgognino mill in the old village of Trebbo (now a suburb of Bologna) along the canal.

Ghisiliera becomes Borgognino canal of Bologna

In 1859, when the railway station of Bologna was built, the city was still very small. The station was placed in a north to south axis, which meant that all trains coming from or going to north (Milan, Turin, Venice, rest of Europe) passed through tracks that crisscrossed Bertalia-Lame area. Due to these rail tracks and level crossings, new constructions in this area were limited and thus no one bothered to cover Ghisiliera canal. It is only recently around 2003-2010 that new construction activities have started in this area, but no one is planning to cover the canal, as today it's important environmental value is recognized.

Around the Canal

The Bertalia church had come up in 1163 but it has been rebuilt so many times that probably little of the antique church is left for persons to see today. In any case it was the small country church so it never had paintings or sculptures of great artistic value. Next to the church is an old villa called Villa Salina, that is now divided into apartments, though it continues to be a beautiful building with some huge old plane trees. Records say that initially, part of river Reno passed on what is now Via Agucchi and very close to the church. At that time, around 1200 AD, Villa Salina along with the church were perhaps used for storing goods sent or received by boats.

Parts of Ghisliera canal are lined with old oak trees that are very unusual in a city context.

Ghisiliera canal of Bologna

Ghisiliera canal of Bologna

Parallel to Ghisiliera, a short distance to the east is Navile canal, that was the main canal in medieval period for transport of people and goods from Bologna to the north. There are many medieval ruins along Nevile canal including the old port of Maccagnano, the Salara or the salt house and the Battiferro (Smithery).

Ghisiliera canal of Bologna

Ghisiliera canal of Bologna

After about 2 km from Bertalia, the area of Noce forms the city limits of Bologna. A short way after Noce, along the road that goes towards Trebbo and next to Ghisliera canal is an important historical building - Malvasia Villa, also known as Villa Clara. Built around 1550s, around the time when Ghisliera canal was built, Villa Malvasia was the country home of count Carlo Cesare Malvasia. With frescoes of Caracci, a famous painter of Bologna, its salons were famous for their beauty.

During the second world war, Villa Malvasia became the head quarters of the Nazi high command in Bologna. After the seocnd world war, for a period emigrants from the countryside people who had lost their houses in the war, came to live in here. However, Villa Malvasia is famous for something else - a ghost.

The story goes that in early 1900s, a family of father, mother and a girl child called Clara lived here. Clara thought that she could foretell events and disasters that were going to occur. Her father was not happy with Clara's predictions and felt that it would bring blames of witch-craft on their family. However, Clara refused to listen to her father. One day in a fit of rage, the father buried Clara alive in one the walls. Since then at seems that some times passers by can hear a child crying around that house, that is also known as Villa Clara.

Ghisiliera canal of Bologna


Bertalia and Lame areas are ordinary residential areas of northern part of Bologna. If you pass from here in a bus, you would never guess about the rich history of this place. The narrow Ghisiliera canal looks very unassuming and very easy to miss. The signs of old port of Pescarola are lost. Yet, if you have the patience to scratch below the surface, you can find a world full of history.