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The Lost Map of Bologna Comes Home - Palazzo Pepoli

Bologna City | Attractions | History

At some point during the jubilee year of 1575, when Rome was filled with tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over Christendom, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned a new dining room for himself. A space was set aside within his apartments, and a team of artists led by Lorenzo Sabatini was hired to decorate it with a cycle of frescoes.

The finished dining room was a perfect expression of Pope Gregory’s exalted status, his worldly interests – and also his northern roots. For Pope Gregory was Bolognese, born and bred. And the centrepiece of the room was a large and scrupulously-accurate map of his home town. The gigantic perspectival map of Bologna, on the southern wall of the dining room, shows not just the configuration of the streets (all of which are named in neat black capital letters) but also portrays each individual building. In the mural, the roofs of all the churches are picked out in gold, as is the roof of the house where Pope Gregory was born. This is a depiction of Bologna as seen from a bird’s flight, or as it might appear if viewed from the vault of heaven. Because apart from Pope Gregory at dinner, the only person able to see the city from this distance and this angle would be God himself.

So the mural map in the Sala Bologna is in fact not only an evocative, detailed streetplan, but also a lifelike portrait of a living urban entity. ‘In the Middle Ages depictions such as these were actually referred to as portraits,’ says Francesco Ceccarelli, professor of architectural history at the University of Bologna. ‘The period in which such things were created was short. Maps were really only produced as murals during the second half of the sixteenth century; after that, maps were made to be portable. But all the cartographical frescoes that have come down to us are extremely beautiful.’ Maps on paper, made to be handled, are naturally prone to wear and fade and crumble. The Sala Bologna, on the other hand, has survived partly because it was made purely to be admired, because it is the decorative symbol of one man’s rise to a position of power. ‘What we have is a snapshot of the city as it was in 1575,’ says Ceccarelli. ‘Bologna then was one of the most significant cities in Europe. Only London, Paris and Milan were bigger. Certainly Bologna was much larger than Rome – and when the eleventh Pope Gregory came back from exile in Avignon in 1377, he seriously considered installing himself not in Rome, but here in Bologna.’

Professor Ceccarelli is looking at the map as he speaks: not the original, but a copy – the clone, he calls it – which now hangs in the foyer of the Museo della Storia di Bologna, at the Palazzo Pepoli Vecchio. Ceccarelli coordinated the project to create this full-scale facsimile of the Sala Bologna original. ‘It had never been studied,’ he says. ‘This monument of the geography of the city, and of its history, was an enigma. And the fact that it adorned the dining room in the pope’s private apartments meant that no scholar had ever looked closely at it. Nobody even knew the exact dimensions of the map. The first time we saw it – five years ago – we realised that it was the biggest iconographic map of the Renaissance.’ 

Professor Ceccarelli had a series of meetings with the Prefettura dello Stato Vaticano, the department that looks after all Vatican property, and also with Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums. Ceccarelli’s first instinct was to put together a book about the Sala Bologna, an exhaustive monograph of this hidden treasure. That book was published in due course, but in the meantime Ceccarelli had an idea that was bigger and better. ‘I was in Venice with Nadja Aksamija, who is a professor of art history at the Wesleyan University in Connecticut. There we saw an amazing artefact, a modern, digitally-produced facsimile of Veronese’s Wedding at Cana, the largest painting in the Louvre. This copy of a work on canvas was about the same dimensions as the Sala Bologna map, and it had been produced by an Englishman named Adam Lowe and his company.’ 

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Lowe’s company is called Factum Arte, and is well known in the art world. It works with many of the most respected names in modern art – Louise Bourgeois, Anish Kapoor, Marc Quinn – to engineer and facilitate their ideas. It also functions as a kind of re-creator and conservator of ancient artefacts, making museum copies of objects that are too precious or too fragile to be exhibited in the original.

‘I contacted Adam,’ says Ceccarelli. ‘I didn’t know him then, but I asked him if he would be interested in doing something for us along the lines of the Veronese project, if he would help us transpose the Sala Bologna to the city of Bologna. He said: when’s the next plane?’ Ceccarelli approached the Vatican authorities with this new and far more ambitious proposal: to capture the Sala Bologna with cutting-edge 3D scanners, electronic eyes that are able to perceive not just the image on the wall but the texture of the wall itself: every bump and curve in the wall, every feathered brushstroke left by the artists, and every crack and fissure that has appeared in the plaster over the subsequent 500 years.

All of this would become part of the ‘hard copy’ that was the intended end product of the project. ‘The Vatican was intrigued, because they themselves knew very little about the Sala Bologna,’ says Ceccarelli. ‘This was an opportunity for them to understand their own patrimony and to export it, so to speak. Nevertheless, it was hard to set up the scanning process. The present Pope lives very close by, so a time had to be arranged when our work would not disturb him. In the end we were granted a window of three days. For the Wedding at Cana project, Adam was given sixteen nights in the Louvre – and the Sala Bologna was his first attempt to reproduce a mural rather than a painting on canvas.’

In the allotted three days the team captured the entire room: not just the Bologna map on the south wall, but also the broader map of the Emilia-Romagna region on the west wall, the allegorical figures on the east and north walls, the cosmographic star-map on the ceiling. The team’s first intention was to reconstruct the whole room somewhere in Bologna, but that would have been too expensive, and a large, purpose-built space would have been required. (All of the digital data exists, so that grand plan could still be realised at some future time.) So for now Ceccarelli and his collaborators chose to concentrate on the south wall of the room, and the marvellous ‘geo-iconographic’ image that filled its expanse. ‘My aim was in part to make the map available to the people of this city, of course,’ says Ceccarelli. ‘But there was also the academic motive: I wanted to be able to study the painting and the room in a new way – not through drawings or photography or even 3D scanning, but through reproducing the object in such a manner that we could touch and explore every inch of it. Short of a physical and chemical analysis of the materials used, our facsimile is in every respect identical to the original.’

One small but essential element of the map is man-made rather than machine-wrought: the gilded roofs. These details were applied to the cloned map by hand – after many tests and experiments aimed at getting the shade of gold exactly right.

That final touch creates a margin for error to creep in, or at least for the copy to diverge from the original. But it could be argued that this last-minute human intervention makes the clone more authentic, not less so. Like the original, it has come into contact with a brush held in the hand of a genuine artist. And paradoxically perhaps, this adds a bright smidgen of realism to the finished object, while also heightening the romance of the whole undertaking.

Professor Ceccarelli further suggests that there is an art-historical precedent for the highly-technical achievement that the map clone represents. ‘Adam Lowe is in the long tradition of the copyist,’ he says. ‘The works he produces are not fakes, but accurate representations arrived at with contemporary technology. They are not intended to deceive, and are not for commercial use; they exist as a means of exploring and comprehending the legacy that has come down to us.’ So is the facsimile hanging in the Palazzo Pepoli a triumph of cold modern technology or of warm human creativity? ‘We have gone beyond mere appearance and come back to the physical and the tactile,’ says Ceccarelli. ‘The original Sala Bologna portrait is a beautiful late-medieval Google-map; while our clone is a post-virtual, post-digital, post-modern work of art.’

 
Article by Jonathan Bastable
Photos courtesy of Musei Vaticani

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