Today marks the twenty-first installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.

Our twenty-first Center of Progress is Bologna, home to the first university (as commonly recognized) and the oldest continuously operating university in the world today. The University of Bologna, traditionally said to be founded in the year 1088, was the earliest institution to award degrees and promote higher learning in the manner of a modern college or university.

Today Bologna is the seventh-most populous city in Italy and home to over a million people. The city’s symbol is le Due Torri (the Two Towers), stone structures which may date to 1109 and 1119, respectively. (A scarcity of documentation from that time period means that the exact construction dates remain a bit of a mystery.) Despite sustaining damage from a bombing in 1944, Bologna’s historic city center has remained largely intact and, at 350 acres, is Europe’s second largest stretch of medieval architecture. The major historic squares are dominated not by statues of generals or political figures, but by tombs and memorials to medieval professors. While less popular with tourists than Florence, Venice, or Rome, Bologna has a burgeoning tourist industry. Other prominent local industries include energy, machinery, the refinement and packaging of local agricultural products, fashion, and automotives. The city is the headquarters of both Ducati, a motorcycle company, and Lamborghini, which produces luxury sports cars.

The city has three nicknames. La Rossa (the red) for its stunning medieval architecture, defined by red rooftops and lengthy UNESCO-protected red terracotta porticoes that make it possible to traverse much of the city while remaining in the shade. (Bologna also has a reputation for left-leaning politics, giving that nickname a double meaning.) La Dotta (the learned) for its long tradition of devotion to knowledge and for its many university students, as well as its status as the city that produced the first university. And La Grassa (the fat) as an acknowledgment of the city’s culinary innovations and reputation as one of Italy’s gastronomic capitals.

Bologna’s contributions to global food culture are significant. The city lends its name to Bolognese sauce, a meat-based pasta sauce popular in Italian cuisine that dates to at least the 18th century. Its variations are served in Italian restaurants around the world. But the city is perhaps most famous in the English-speaking world as the origin of the processed lunch meat known as Bologna sausage—with Bologna corrupted into the pronunciation baloney rather than ba-loan-ya—or simply called baloney. (Either spelling is acceptable for the food).

Baloney is a variation of Bologna’s mortadella sausage, which may have originated as long ago as the 14th century. Both mortadella and baloney are made of ground-up heat-cured pork. Italian immigrants to the United States popularized baloney in the early 20th century. An inexpensive product made from scraps of leftover pork, baloney has also come to mean “nonsense.” That is ironic given that, far from encouraging nonsense, the city of Bologna spearheaded humanity’s search for truth through higher education.

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