In the heart of Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore lies a vaulted archway that has been whispering secrets for centuries
La Dotta, La Grassa, La Rossa—Bologna’s motto (meaning “the educated, the fat, the red”) points to the city’s robust university tradition, decadent food scene, and gorgeous medieval architecture. But underneath those iconic red roofs lie seven of the city’s best-kept secrets, known as i sette segreti.
These secrets are tidbits of hidden history and local myth that locals delight in sharing with one another. The most delightful of them (in our opinion!) can be uncovered by heading to the buildings flanking Piazza Maggiore and the one right across from Basilica di San Petronio.
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Newman
There, you’ll meet Bologna’s whispering walls: a vaulted archway where a whisper can carry across the walkway from one corner to another. Two sets of connected corners lie diagonally crossed under Palazzo del Podestà, the 13th-century residence and office of Bologna’s chief magistrate. The peculiar acoustics in this small portico make it so that if a person whispers into one of the corners, someone facing the diagonal corner will hear them clearly, as though speaking right next to them! (If you’ve ever visited New York City, you may have witnessed the exact same phenomenon in one of Grand Central Station’s underground walkways.)
Legend has it that this place served a religious function during the Middle Ages. People sick with infectious diseases, like the plague or leprosy, would use the long-distance communication tool to give confession to priests without getting too close to them. More scandalously, it’s claimed that secret lovers would use the walls to communicate with each other without their partners finding out!
Today, the whispering walls of Bologna delight locals and tourists alike. So the next time you wander through Piazza Maggiore, enter this portico to experience the phenomenon for yourself. Stand in one corner facing the wall and have your friend face the wall in the corner diagonal from you. Whisper a secret and let the wall speak back to you, just as it has murmured to others for hundreds of years.
Watch how it's done below!