Bologna after dark has always frightened me. Alongside the deepening shade of afternoon, the shadow side of the city emerges. Once the sun sets and the vapor lamps are lit, the darkness reaches the city's core. A sinister element emerges. I've never felt in danger, like one might feel in an American city with its hidden guns. I've never been at risk. No, the Bologna version of darkness gives me nothing more than a good case of the chills.
The transformation is remarkable and rather odd, for Bologna itself is a gentle city with kind people. It is a city in possession of a vast appetite which loves to feed itself and its guests. It is a place that radiates warmth on even the coldest and dankest of days. Yet, once the sun sets—something shifts.
In the center of the city's great piazza is Giambologna's Fountain of Neptune. I know it well and have photographed it perhaps a thousand times. Other artists have been attracted to it as well. John Singer Sargent painted it several times, his watercolor of Neptune's base being one of my favorites. The statue has greeted me at the start of each and every trip. It's my private, little ceremony. I always visit it. I always visit it, that is, in daylight. After dark the damned thing scares the hell out of me and I won't go near it. It's the bogey man and the night demons all wrapped up into one, colossal and muscular guy holding a nasty pitchfork.
On this particular visit, we arrived in Bologna by train, just in time for lunch. This was timed and carefully planned. One must always schedule Italian events around lunch, arriving in a city in time for lunch. Besides, the only cure for the melancholy of leaving Venice is a Bolognese midday meal. True to our intentions, we had tagliatelle at a favorite trattoria. Once our stomachs were full it was time for the Fountain of Neptune with a nod, on the way, to the city's two towers.
I looked up at the towers while crossing the street, and then looked out towards Neptune as we approached him. At the base of the fountain was his phalanx of mermaids. They were still there, still dutifully squirting water out of their perfectly-formed breasts. You can always tell the tourists from the locals by their reaction to these mermaids. The tourists always point and giggle at the fountain's waterworks, the locals pretty much ignore the entire spectacle.
Forcing my eyes away from the voluptuous mermaids, I looked straight up at Neptune and then saw the deepening hue of the sky. It was almost dusk. It was almost time for Bologna's flirtation with the dark side. I involuntarily shivered. I looked around the piazza. Mimes, painted like statues and frozen in position, were posted in strategic locations throughout the great space. A few street musicians were playing off-key music that echoed off the piazza's buildings. Several groups of rowdies were congregating and making noise. It was Neptune's sunset all over again. The transformation was in poised like the set of the last act of a Shakespearean tragedy.
And then something happened. The set designers had a surprise. The holiday lights of Bologna turned on, one-by-one, group-by-group. Myriad shapes and colors began appearing everywhere. Most were hovering about twenty feet above street-level but then the Assinelli Tower (Torre degli Asinelli) lit up in tiny white lights. The sinister forces were beaten back. The lights shimmered and reflected off of Neptune's bronze, making the statue's silhouette vibrate against the darkening sky. Even the mimes were starting to look festive. Bologna was transforming itself into a winter wonderland.
The holidays. In Italy they last through Christmas, New Year's Day and on the Epiphany. While Americans were pulling down their dead Christmas trees, Bologna's holidays were still in full glory. The Befana was still on her way with gifts and candy. The darkness of Bologna had been beaten back. I looked outward at the glorious sight. I took a deep breath of the brisk air. I looked back up at Neptune. And in that very moment my perception of Neptune's sunset had changed forever.