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Medieval Museum - Windows On The Past
There can be few cities in the world with a more medieval character than Bologna. This is a place that belongs to the Middle Ages in the same way that Rome belongs to the Classical era, Bath to the Georgian age, or New York to the turbulent 20th century.
But the historic face of the city is derived mostly from the architecture: the surviving towers, the porticoes, the churches. All of the less durable aspects of old Bologna – the shop signs, the domestic bric-a-brac, and of course the people – are long gone.
Yet it is possible, even now, to get an insight into the Bologna of five hundred years ago.
The Museo Civico Medievale, housed in the Palazzo Ghisilardi, is filled with ancient Bolognese artefacts that say something about what it meant to be a citizen of this city in its first heyday.
Inside the Medieval Museum, the monumental and the miniature, the public and the personal, are exhibited side by side. There is in one room an assembly of street furniture consisting of columns topped with stone crosses, each one featuring a chiselled, naïvely-wrought Jesus. These wayside crucifixes must once have been as common in Bologna as traffic lights on Oxford Street.
The space next door to these large objects, meanwhile, displays tiny clasps and brooches, among them lovingly-rendered ivory ducks, carved bone cows, and pilgrims’ badges bearing the chrismon – the first two letters of the word ‘Christ’. Then there are medallions bearing tableaux impossible for a modern mind to unpick or interpret. On one, a man in armour lies horizontal before a row of onlookers; it might depict a theatrical performance, or else a group visit to some holy shrine, or perhaps a loving family at the deathbed of an aged Crusader…
Death was of course a far more present and frequent fact of life in medieval times, and one of the glories of the Medieval Museum is its collection of funerary stone slabs.
On all of these tomb-lids and grave-covers, the deceased is depicted as actual size, in lifelike terms, and in low relief. They are all rather moving. One piece, a memorial to a man called Graziolo Accarisi, shows him lying on his back, a pillow beneath his head, his hand resting on an open book as if he had fallen asleep while reading.
In the courtyard of the palazzo stand some Jewish gravestones, salvaged from a cemetery that was liquidated in the 16th century. The quadrangular Hebrew script – hei like a wide door jamb, shin like a stack of smoking chimneys – bring to mind the crowded houses on some tight little street in the ghetto of old Bologna.
But life, not death or suffering, is the real theme of this rather joyous museum.
Everywhere you encounter the medieval obsession with the living human form, and the many portrayals of people are as true and honest as any painting by Lucien Freud.
In the sculptures and the statues, you get to see the pot bellies, the baggy eyes, the bad haircuts; you find yourself looking at faces that are frozen in the act of sneezing or chewing.
It is fascinating to be able to inspect the Chaucerian costumes: the buttoned-up sleeves, the hijab-like headgear worn by the men, the clumpy, uncomfortable shoes.
At first glance these medieval Bolognesi are a strange and exotic tribe. But take the time to look, and what you see is something extraordinarily familiar: people exactly like you and me.
Article by Jonathan Bastable
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