Thursday, 25 July 2013

Water, silk and a ghost

There was a time, when the network of canals crisscrossing Bologna (Italy) 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 in Italy, focusing mainly on one such canal called Ghisiliera (in Italian Ghisigliera) in the northern part of the city, in an area called Lame-Bertalia.

A more extended version of this article is also available on - click here to read it.

Ghilisiliera canal of Bologna, Italy - S. Deepak, 2011

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 became 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 below shows the main canals of Bologna.

Map - canals of Bologna, Italy - S. Deepak, 2011

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: This 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.

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

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.

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.

Villa Malvasia, Bologna, Italy - S. Deepak, 2011

Conclusions: 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.

In spring and autumn, migratory birds stop to take rest in Ghisiliera canal. 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.

Here are a few images from Ghisiliera canal and its surroundings:

Ghisiliera canal, Bologna, Italy - S. Deepak, 2011
Ghisigliera canal, Bologna, Italy - S. Deepak, 2011
Ghisiliera canal, Bologna, Italy - S. Deepak, 2011
Ghisiliera canal, Bologna, Italy - S. Deepak, 2011
Ghisiliera canal, Bologna, Italy - S. Deepak, 2011

Note: A more extended version of this article is also available on - click here to read it.

This post was originally written in 2011

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