Bologna is a vibrant northeastern Italian city of grand ochre and orange palaces, UNESCO-designated arcades and belt-busting local foods.
It is also full of quirks, legends and secrets to reward the curious tourist.
Embarking on the trail to find all of Bologna’s seven secrets makes for an exciting cultural treasure hunt as well as a way to see some of the city’s most famous sights.
From a baffling physics experiment to a hidden window, these curiosities are also a perfect itinerary for families.
The seven secrets of Bologna
First, a caveat. Some of Bologna‘s “sette segreti” are by now well-known. But there are two secrets that, even from personal investigations, remain elusive.
Information on these two curiosities is included in this article, but there are also an additional two that are a little easier to seek out.
Wander the Whispering Walls
Piazza Maggiore is generally the first stop for tourists to Bologna. On one side of the square, you can find the first of Bologna’s many secrets.
Beneath the Palazzo della Podestà there is an arched vault with frescoes on the ceiling.
By a mystery of engineering, this vault manages to transmit sounds from one side to another as clearly as a telephone.
Stand in one corner of the vault facing the wall and have a friend stand diagonally opposite, and you will find their voice emanating mysteriously from the wall.
Wonder at well-endowed Neptune
If you’re out with the kids, this is one secret to skip.
In the square just before Piazza Maggiore you can find Flemish sculptor Giambologna’s statue of Neptune. It is an icon of Bologna and a key stopping point on the ‘adults’ tour of the city.
You will find a darker paving stone a couple of meters behind the statue.
If you stand here, to the back right of the figure, Neptune’s thumb lines up so that the sea god appears to be remarkably… perky.
Ponder over Canabis Protectio
Walking down Bologna’s famous arcaded Via Indipendenza you’ll find the next secret.
Find the bar Canton de’ Fiori and look at the inscription that is paid on the vaults of the portico above and in the mosaics of the pavement.
The pretty writing reads “panis vita, canabis protectio, vinum laetitia.”
It translates as “bread is life, cannabis is protection, wine is joy.”
This may refer either to cannabis as protection from pain or allude to the historical wealth of Bologna deriving from the commerce of cannabis.
Discover Little Venice
Head to Via Piella, where you will find a small bridge with one side open onto a stretch of water and the other walled off.
In this wall, there is a small wooden window. Open the hatch to reveal a hidden little canal flanked by characteristic red and terracotta houses and vaulted by Bologna’s own slightly less ornate Bridge of Sighs.
Bologna has quite an extensive network of canals, constructed in the 12th century, some of which can still be seen at various points throughout the city.
Spot the Three Arrows
Follow Strada Maggiore until you reach number 26. At the entrance to Corte Isolani, look up at the wooden ceiling.
As legend would have it, three assassins were hired to kill a Bolognese nobleman living here.
As the three archers neared his house, they saw a young girl standing naked by the window and, completely distracted, shot their arrows in various directions.
All three arrows landed in the wooden beamed roof of the portico.
Looking from different angles, at least two of the arrows are still visible extending far out of the wood.
Two secrets to skip
The final two secrets on this official list have proved almost impossible to find, if they exist at all.
The first claims that somewhere in the historical seat of Bologna’s university in Palazzo Poggi, the phrase ‘panum resis’ is inscribed into a desk.
The exact location remains a mystery, however.
The second attests to a broken vase at the top of the Torre degli Asinelli tower.
It is purported to represent Bologna’s historical prowess in resolving conflicts but remains elusive.
Seek out the Church of Seven Churches
To substitute the final two secrets, here are a couple of curiosities well worth seeking out.
Fittingly, as part of the seven secrets, Bologna is home to a religious complex with no less than seven different churches from various historic periods merged together.
The church in question is the Basilica di Santo Stefano.
Wandering around this labyrinth of churches and chapels you’ll find a 5th-century round church with holy water, an 8th-century crypt, and the relic of the bandage worn around the head of the Virgin Mary in the Chapel of the Bandage.
Some areas are still used for religious services; others are damp and mysterious with crooked columns and an undulating stone floor.
Discover Mohammed in the Duomo
Upon visiting Bologna’s cathedral, you may notice armed police or even the army stationed outside.
This is because a fresco inside the Duomo contains a rare image of the Prophet Mohammed in Hell.
As you enter, you’ll find the Cappella Bolognini chapel on the left, which is cordoned off with charged entry.
If you have good eyesight, you can also peer in from outside and see, on the left-hand wall, the naked Prophet Mohammed (Maometto) sprawled on a rock.
His hands are tied behind his back, and a demon is grasping his head. The writing beneath reads ‘Maohmet’.
The fresco was painted by Giovanni da Modena and depicts the Inferno.