Via Pelagio Palagi is one of those ‘Vie’ in Bologna that everybody has heard of it and yet nobody can just quite tell you exactly where it is, straight off the top of their heads, that is.
After scrummaging through thoughts or google maps – finally there it is – ‘Via Pelagio Palagi’, you know – the one just off the main street from Ospedale Sant’Orsola.
This ‘vuoto di memoria’ as the Italian would call it – knowing but not quite remembering – is also characteristic of the man Pelagio Palagi. And yet, thanks to Pelagio Palagi, the city of Bologna has some of the most important collections of artefacts and art not only on offer to tourists but to scholars and the Bolognese locals. It has enriched the Bolognese coffers so as to attract many other masters to the city including Alfred Hitchcock who made a special trip to the Archaeological Museum to visit one of Palagi’s mummies.
But who was Pelagio Palagi?
Born in 1775 in Bologna (although inexplicably in his autobiography he claims to have been born in 1777), Palagi was an Italian painter, sculptor and interior decorator. He was trained at the ‘Accademia Clementina of Bologna’, and Carlo Filippo Aldrovandi was his patron. He had reached some notoriety in Bologna as he was commissioned to decorate the interiors of some of the most prestigious home abodes of Bolognese Aristocrats – Cospi, Aldini and Gozzadini families in 1805.
In 1806 he moved to Rome and in 1813 he became an inspector of the Accademia Italiana. It was here that he worked with another great Italian artist Antonio Canova who, at that time, was the President of the Accademia. His soggiorno in Rome ignited and deepened his interest in archaeology and collecting which he had started as a youth in Bologna.
He had a stint in Milan, where he met and worked with Francesco Hayez who was the leading artist of romanticism in Lombardia. King Carlo Alberto of Savoy invited Palagi to Torino and appointed him the head of the pictorial and decorative restoration project of the Castello di Pollenzo and a project which saw the modernization of the Royal Palace of Torino.
Palagi died in 1860 in Torino. At the time of his death, Palagi’s had amassed numerous treasures from the Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan and Roman world. In addition, he had a vast collection of medieval and modern artworks, medals and a collection of drawings of his own and those of other artists, a collection of library books and personal archives.
But as it so happens just before his death, Palagi had changed his will and bequeathed his entire collection to the Comune of Bologna. The Archiginnasio of Bologna has a special collection of his personal correspondence, various other documents, and many other draft documents and sketches.
I was particularly pleased to find homage paid to Palagi when I visited the exhibition at Palazzo Fava ‘Da Cimabue a Morandi: Felsina Pittrice’. So next time you are visiting the Archaeological Museum, the Medieval Museum, the Biblioteca Comunale dell’Archiginnassio, the Museo Comunale and the cemetery of Certosa, do thank the generosity of a great son of Bologna, Pelagio Palagi. Remembering not forgetting.