The history

The Convento delle Acque former friary is located outside the Porta San Mamolo city gate, in the Bolognese foothills.

It owes its name to the aqua vitae that was stored in barrels in its spacious cellars for centuries. This spirit was distilled by the friars of Jesus (the Jesuates), as it was believed to cure the plague.

Pure water from the nearby Roman aqueduct and healthy air meant the friary never became a lazaret or leper colony, and in fact around it stood the sumptuous residences of the nobility. During the 1630 epidemic, local convents and monasteries became lazarets, while Convento delle Acque housed doctors and administration staff. It was a prestigious edifice, rich in works of art, which were safeguarded there. The last expansion was carried out in 1612, apparently to a design by the illustrious Roman architect Girolamo Rainaldi. Many rooms were frescoed in a display of colours and swirls which almost make the central figures of the saints go unnoticed. This decoration was introduced by Giovanni Baglione’s pupils, who added refinement to the most opulent noble houses. The nobility’s desire to make their homes ever lovelier has ensured that creations from many eras have come down to us today.

Founded in 1378, the friary incorporated the Sant'Elisabetta convent, the Santi Filippo e Giacomo monastery and the Sant'Eustachio hospital, whose benefactors had close ties with the Pope. They commissioned the architect Antonio di Vincenzo to design the Portico dei Servi, Palazzo della Mercanzia and Collegio di Spagna in nearby Bologna, and perhaps also their friary. Towards the end of the century, the estate accommodated Giovanni Moglio, man of letters and tutor to the Medici house (the future rulers of Florence), as well as other famous artists, members of aristocracy and diplomats, such as the future beatified Giovanni da Tossignano. After gaining Pope Martin V’s trust during the council for his papal election, Giovanni da Tossignano could, in 1421, embark on extending the church and renovating the adjacent cloister – now the centre of the complex. The octagonal columns and foliated capitals are typical in architecture by Fioravanti Fioravante, who designed Bologna’s town-hall courtyard and the cloister at its San Francesco convent, among others. For the church, he invited Michele di Matteo to fresco the Crucifixion, who ably accentuated faith within the holy complex, also drawing on the services of a fellow artist practising in the manner of Lorenzo Veneziano. The Pope and Nicolò Albergati had seats here in 1426. The end wall shows a Virgin with Child on the throne. Although slightly disfigured, the perfect oval of the Madonna’s face is still noteworthy. A surviving parchment states that Giovanni d'Alemagna, the man possibly written about by Federico Zeri, also stayed here. He had been a partner to Antonio Vivarini in Venice, and their works can suitably be compared with ours. In 1511, during the battle resulting in Pope Julius II triumphantly entering Bologna, the friary was set alight. The brothers saw this as an opportunity to extend it: they managed to add the floor above the arcade and the second courtyard before their friary was requisitioned in defence of the city.

Its friars came from Siena and many had been part of Giovanni Colombini’s government there, and he was also their spiritual leader. His life was narrated on the walls of the cloisters, with the images repainted each time they became too worn by time. The rough, sharp yet rich poignancy of the famous Bolognese artist Amico Aspertini guides us in following events. We see the faces of those Sienese citizens as they turn to look at us. The sweetness they express as they watch the soul of the blessed fly in the sky is however of such another tone that it leads us to think that the figures may have been retouched by a young Guido Reni while painting Sant'Eustachio, guardian of the friary. Many of the stories were redone in 1540, by Benedetto da Marone (from the Brescia village of that name). Descending from a family of artists, and a poet at the Roman court, the friars called in Lattanzio Gambara to assist him. Together in Brescia they frescoed what the town’s inhabitants requested be as beautiful as the Sistine Chapel. Still today the Convento delle Acque cloister arcade reveals their works featuring Giovanni Colombini as he lifts a sick person, his conversion, and so forth. The Order of the Jesuates and its friaries were abolished in 1678, since the Pope needed their wealth to defeat the Turks. During the 18th century the complex was a destination for travellers seeking out remains of the past and artworks; one of these mentions a stone tablet where the friary is described as ‘the city’s garden’.



Relazione storica a cura della dott.ssa Manuela Rubbini