Bologna, Italy

Piazza Maggiore, Bologna

Piazza Maggiore, Bologna by B a m s h a d. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Bologna itself is an impressive city, with broad arcaded streets, many closed to private cars. It is the site of the first real university in Europe, which, politics and pestilence notwithstanding, has flourished more or less uninterruptedly to the present day. The university began as a community of professors and scholars without a permanent home (despite the presence of as many as 10,000 students), but a regular building was eventually constructed in 1563. The university remained there until 1803, when the move to its present site outside the city center was made.

The old university is in the Palazzo Archiginnasio, located on the Piazza Galvani behind the Basilica San Petronio. Escutcheons of former rectors and professors densely cover the courtyard, surrounding vestibules and staircases. Most of the building is now occupied by a modern library, but the historical parts have been restored to their original state and are open to the public. The most interesting part is the anatomical theatre, originally built in 1637, leading off a gallery overlooking the courtyard. It is a spacious rectangular room, built entirely of wood, with only three tiers of seats. Statues of Hippocrates, Galen, and other doctors/anatomists of antiquity line the wall, and there are busts of prominent local physicians. A centerpiece of the room is the lecture podium with an impressive canopy supported by statues of skinless human bodies in which the musculature is clearly exposed to view. The visitor should apply to the Porter’s lodge for admission.

Luigi Galvani and Guglielmo Marconi are well-remembered Bolognesi. There is a statue of Galvani in the piazza named after him.

Como, Italy

Lake Como, Italy

Lake Como, Italy by Andrew in Durham. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Como is beautifully situated at the foot of Lake Como, with high mountains behind. In Roman times it was important as the southern terminus for transalpine passes, which, of course, it remains today (except that, for most traffic, the St. Gotthard pass has been replaced by a 10-mile (16 km) tunnel). In the time of Alessandro Volta, Como was under irksome Austrian domination. No other city in the world pays as splendid a tribute to a scientist as Como does to Alessandro Volta. The most spectacular memorial is the Tempio Voltiano, a neoclassical rotunda-like a temple to an old Roman god-which juts out into the lake, the centrepiece of Como’s lakefront. The building contains an excellent museum, one of the best in Europe devoted to a single individual and his work. We see Volts’s “piles” in all stages of development, the original “tower” of disks, a later “corona” of beakers connected by wires, and a “pile of troughs” that looks not unlike a modern auto-mobile battery. There are paintings of Volta demonstrating electric currents to an eager-to-learn Napoleon Bonaparte. An upstairs gallery has an impressive collection of books that Volta used either in his own training or as a professor at the University of Pavia. Many of them, including, for example, Joseph Priestley’s famous History of Electricity (1767), are in English. Most of the electrical apparatus in the Tempio actually consists of faithful reproductions. The city of Como mounted an exhibit of every genuine Volta pile it could find on the occasion of the 1899 centenary of the first discovery-unfortunately, a disastrous fire destroyed the lot.

Como also has a piazza named after Volta with a prominent statue of him, and a street, the Viale Alessandro Volta, which contains (at number 62) the grand townhouse where he was born. The high school where he first taught physics (the Liceo A. Volta) and the church where he was married are other places on the official Volta itinerary, as is the Torre di Porta Nuovo at the corner of Viale Verese and Viale C. Cattaneo. This tower is part of the surviving segment of the ancient city walls, and from 1783 to 1806 it was used as a physics laboratory by Volta’s friend Canon Gattoni. It is here that Volta actually carried out all of his experiments. Today (somewhat ironically) it houses an electric power relay station, and nothing of the old interior remains. Finally, at Camnago Volta, three kilometres from Como, we can see Volta’s former summer house and the mausoleum where he was buried.

The city of Como also remembers Pliny the Elder and his nephew and chronicler, Pliny the Younger. Interestingly, it does not do so in the form of some nineteenth- or twentieth-century move to give belated recognition, but by means of monuments dating back to about 1480. The two famous native sons grace the left and right of the main doorway of the Como Cathedral, a splendid edifice built entirely of marble. (A few kilometres northeast, near Tomo, is the much visited Villa Pliniana, occupying the site of a former country mansion of the younger Pliny.)

Museum at Azienda Agricola PoggioantinorA, Gaiole in Chianti, Siena

Open daily, Summer (Mon-Thu: 9am-6pm, Fri: 9am-5pm, Sat-Sun & Holidays: 10am-1pm) or Winter (Mon-Fri: Same, Sat-Sun & Holidays: By Reservation Only).  Tours can be arranged by appointment.  Phone +39 (0)577739440.

The Museum at Poggio Antinora is an interesting window into 19th and early 20th century rural Italian life.  It was created by the wife of the farm’s current owner, Laura, who is an art historian and museologist.  Focusing on the (extremely*) local community and the machines used to produce wine and olive oil, the small museum provides a great window into a part of the Italian past that has been forgotten.  While the museum only covers a couple of rooms, it is an interesting diversion from the real reason that one would visit here.

Poggio Antinora perches on the very top of a lovely hillside in the heart of the Chianti district near Gaiole-in-Chianti not far from Sienna.  The farm comprises 49 hectares (20 to vineyards, 4 to olives, 8 to seed, and the remainder to woodland) with the farmhouse majestically situated on the top of the hill at over 500 m. above sea level.  The house dates to 1234 and the current owner and wine maker, Luca Brandini, represents the 30th generation of the Brandini family to occupy the house and the 29th generation to make wine and oil!

* The social aspects of the museum focus on the tiny village that you drive through on the way to the farmhouse.  The focus on the tiny community helps to reinforce the isolated life that many in Italy lived during the 19th and early 20th century.