We are History: Palazzo Pepoli – Museum of the History of Bologna

The heart of a palazzo – in the heart of Bologna – consisting in a steel and glass tower which no one would expect to find in such a setting as this. The architect and designer, Mario Bellini, with Italo Lupi, responsible for the graphic design, point to a new way of experiencing culture. The project rests on the idea that there should be respect for both the container and the content (and, to underscore the meaning and beauty of both, a separation is required between the two). The concept rests on the idea of creating original, innovative itineraries to illustrate the architecture, art, and social and institutional history and development of a glorious community.

Architects: Mario Bellini with Giorgio Origlia
Architectural design: Giovanni Cappelletti (installations design), Italo Lupi (graphic design)
Location: Via Castiglione 8, 40124 Bologna, Italy
Palazzo Pepoli Vecchio stands practically in the shadows of the Due torri (two towers), at the very start of the street, Via Castiglione. The name of the palazzo is that of the family of the first ‘lords’ of Bologna. The red brick building, which is the result of numerous layers and extensions added since the fourteenth century and until as recently as 1723, is the symbol of the family’s prestige. Externally, the palazzo resembles a fort, and it was indeed once protected by a moat and drawbridges. Hidden within, we find a noble residence which has been enriched over the centuries with a courtyard, a scenographically imposing stairway, halls, paintings and sculptures.

In 2003, the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Bologna purchased the palazzo with a view to turning it into the museum of the history of the city. With the museum’s opening, we have completion of the project known as Genus Bononiae, the unitary museum system involving many locations within one of the most interesting historic city centres in the world. As Prof. Fabio Roversi-Monaco, president of this institution, observes, “Thanks to the synergy with internationally renowned consultants, we have discovered a new way of experiencing culture through the process of creating original, innovative itineraries to illustrate the architecture, art, and social and institutional history and development of a glorious community”.
The museum’s ‘plot’ begins in the reception area with its 1:1 scale reproduction of the great Map of Bologna of 1575 (the original is in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City). This is the largest map of a city in the form of a fresco ever executed. The section dedicated to topography leads to the roofed courtyard hosting the steel and glass structure designed by Mario Bellini. As Bellini explains, “Inside, in the heart of the Palazzo, a tower-umbrella in steel and glass, enabling a thoroughgoing transformation of the courtyard, which thus regains its dignity, and its role. It resembles a magic lantern flooded with white sunlight which gradually descends and dematerializes into pure transparency. It is practically a moment of revelation which leads one to ponder on the passing of time”. The tower’s function is as a provider of the main connection between the various floors of the articulated building. The structure also houses any number of installations (this solution meant there was no invasion of the old walls of the courtyard).
Mario Bellini adds, “We wanted a museum of, and for, the city. The arrangement – as in all my mise-en-scène works – was to give expression to our respect for both the container and the content. In order to underscore the meaning and beauty of both, a separation is required between the two, so that both may, independently, make their own contribution. The arrangement has as its protagonists the large containers – it would be reductive to call them showcases or cabinets since they are vaguely metaphysical, reminding us, rather of the out-of-proportion objects that we find in De Chirico’s works. The positions in the rooms and halls are based on the containers’ own rhythms and geometrical aspects, which are at variance with the geometrical aspects of the rooms themselves and their order”.

The philosophy behind the project inspired the decision to sharply separate the container (Palazzo Pepoli) from the content (the history of Bologna), also in order not to have visitors blur the distinctions between the two narrations and thus lose the ‘plot’. To this end, Mario Bellini planned for inclusion of three types of narrator-cabinets, to turn our experience of a visit to a museum into a spectacular, emotionally charged event.
As Giovanni Cappelletti, of Mario Bellini Architects, tells us, “The attention span of the public at museums is generally not up to taking in texts which are too long. Narration must therefore be visual. The main ‘medium’ must be the images and objects which history has bequeathed to us, i.e. pictures, engravings, books, sculptures, objects from the traditions of the peasantry, and furniture and fabrics, clothing and embroidery, for the various historical periods, representing those periods, within a broader narrative texture. As far as we are concerned – over and above their merits as such – the works on display are really ‘no more’ than starting points for stories, or histories, which broaden out their content to embrace much more than the actual object. The object becomes a pretext – or support – for narratives to rest on. These narratives have a much broader reach than the object itself can possibly be expected to provide.” In this sense, the main task of museum design is achieving an equilibrium or balance – above all, visual – and a harmonic relationship between the works on display and the texts and images which accompany and supplements these works.

Three types of communication elements
The three-dimensional cage has been constructed with coated steel square-section (25 x 25 mm) tubes. Inside the cage, we find the works of the museum’s collection, which are thus showcased in structures which isolate the work and underscore its position within the narrative fabric of the museum and of the museum’s itinerary. The square-section of the tubes houses the (strip and spot) lighting system. A dimmer – in the cabinet’s support – allows us to adjust the quantities of warm and cool light emitted by the LED strips. This option means the right light mix can be found for all pictures, on the basis of the prevailing colours of the works. The LED spotlights isolate and pick out significant details.
The backlit panel is made up of a plexiglas sheet (approx. 200 cm x 270 cm (h), of a thickness of approx. 15 mm), supported by a steel frame, the vertical elements of which house LED strips that light up the thickness of the plexiglas panel. The plexiglas sheet has been engraved with parallel horizontal strips. The light emitted from the LEDs strikes the engraved strips and transforms the sheet into a source of homogenous light. The plexiglas sheet is clad with an opal polycarbonate panel with printed texts and images, and the panel, in turn, functions as an efficient diffuser of the emitted light. The images and texts – now luminous, as described – are thus capable of fulfilling the task of bodying forth the exhibits as part of a single, strikingly efficacious communication ‘event’.
The technology used for the double-sided backlit panels was also used for the third type of narrator, known as the Teatrino (or small theatre). Inclusion of this type of installation was dictated by the need, characterising the final part of the museum, to compress an enormous length of time into a very small space. Here, about 150 years are covered in seven rooms. Since summarisation was absolutely essential, it was thought that the works (whether paintings or satirical drawings, arms, embroidered fabrics or Marconi’s experimental equipment) should be ‘staged’ or, in other words, presented like actors on a ‘stage’. At times, the interior of the Teatrino is dominated by a scene element which also borders off and separates the stage space from the real space of the room.
An innovative flooring solution was provided for all of the rooms in which the restoration work was more invasive. The flooring features a dark resin based on grey and black marble gravel mixed with brass and aluminium metal shavings. Thanks to this polished but not entirely smoothed surface, with its metallic glint, a contemporary flooring solution can be adopted within the continuum of the older shell, formed by the palazzo itself. Thus, surface and walls do not ‘compete for attention’, and, indeed, the flooring responds in a markedly sensitive manner to the variety of lighting conditions each environment presents.

Here too, throughout the museum – just as we find in cinemas – all the surfaces of the palazzo-container are, as it were, ‘set back’. Suddenly, when the visit is over, as if by magic, the container then commands our attention once more. It is then, as we emerge once more and find ourselves back in the old city street, Via Castiglione, that we experience the shock of realisation that we are History.
Project data

: Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio in Bologna and Museo della Città Srl
: international competition, by invitation, 2003
Design period
: 2004-2007
Construction in progress
: 2007-2012
Termination of works
: 2012
: 27 January 2012
Museum design and construction
: Massimo Negri
Structural design
: Prof. Massimo Majowiecki
Installations design
: Sandro Salvigni, Sante Mazzacane
Site management
: Alessio Zanichelli (2007/2009), Marco Bruni (2009/2012)
Assistant to Site manager
: Claudio Gandolfi
17,000,000 Euros (restoration of building); 4,200,000 Euros (installations)
Overall surface area
: 6,180 m²
Overall exhibitions surface area
: 3,100 m²
Services surface area
: 3,080 m²
Total length of visitor itinerary
: 870 m
Visitors (year 1)
: 120,000

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