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Bologna’s Map The Bononia Docet Mater Studorium

Bologna, Medieval city of terracotta, has a hidden secret, tucked inside a private room at the Vatican…

Bononia Docet Mater StudiorumBologna Italy, a medieval city with Europe’s oldest university, a place that hums with artistry, scientific and philosophical thinking and architecture cloaked in its signature mantle of terracotta hues but away from the city in another part of Italy, in the Vatican is another bewitching view of Bologna.

Pope Gregory VIII was a native of Bologna and on his Jubilee in 1575 a room was decorated with a frescoe of a map of his home city. The room is alas, one of the private rooms in the Vatican and therefore the original fresco is not on public view. The room itself is large with a vaulted ceiling and at one end, taking up 2/3rd of the 9m length of wall, is a beautifully drawn map of Medieval Bologna, showing the city as it was in the C13th, captured inside its Medieval walls.

A piece of artwork but much more besides

The map is a piece of artwork, portraying an idealistic view of the city, the well ordered streets are drawn much wider than they would in reality have been, allowing the artist to show the most amazing detail of the blocks of buildings, the porticis and the windows. One can also see the courtyard gardens and open spaces.

The question has to be whether this is a true representation of the city to show off its majestic architecture, wide roads and lovely gardens, drawn to flatter the Pope and place his home at the centre of all things Italian, cut off from the surrounding area by the city wall, very much isolating the city from the rest of the country as though proclaiming its separateness from the rest of Italy.

It is a map drawn to scale with a distorted perspective and if you look into it, you can get a sense of moving through the streets. The detail is brilliant and the use of gold for the church roofs and for the home of the Pope, shows us quite clearly who the map was intended for.

An intriguing fact is that the map was drawn from a 3D paper model of the city, this allowed the cartographer to get the perspective right, this fact gleaned from documents about its drawing.

Who was the artist?

Unfortunately no one knows for sure, suggestions are that it could be the work of a Bologna artist  Lorenzo Sabbatini, who had undertaken other commissions for the Vatican at this time. Whatever the answer it took a fine eye for surveying, cartography and artistry to draw it and because it was kept locked away from public gaze it was never used to produce other cartographic images of Bologna.

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