Black shiny stone courtyard floor, white walls with neutral colour doors and black framed windows along the ground and first floor levels, steel and glass towers are positioned in the middle of the courtyard with an opaque covering which blurs the contents inside the towers, girder and windowed roof letting light into the space below
Mario Bellini's steel and glass tower transforms the one-time courtyard of the 14th century Palazzo Pepoli into the heart of the new history museum
(Image credit: TBC)

In a gorgeous, medieval Italian city like Bologna the historic treasures come in abundance, yet you'd be hard-pressed to find fine examples of contemporary architecture. Palazzo Pepoli, the new city history museum that opened its doors last weekend, is one such example. Marrying old and new, architect Mario Bellini and graphic designer Italo Lupi took a rundown 14th-century monument and opened it up with all the steel-and-glass tricks of the modern trade.

'Our main idea was to create a museum that tells the city's history, addressing it from different sides - financial, social, urban and artistic,' says Fabio Roversi-Monaco, president of the Carisbo Foundation, which acquired the palace from the local authority a decade ago. Nine years ago, Roversi-Monaco launched a competition for its renovation and transformation.

'It is part of the city's historic itinerary,' he muses of Palazzo Pepoli, the last of eight Bologna buildings to open to the public under the foundation's management (the others are San Giorgio library in Poggiale, Palazzo Fava, Casa Saraceni and San Colombano, plus churches Santa Maria della Vita, San Michele in Bosco and Chiesa di Santa Cristina). They all proudly focus on Bologna's wealth of history, under the umbrella of the foundation's main programme, Genus Bononiae.

The renovation was a long time coming. At the time of the competition, the structure was in need of extra support and the frescoes and reliefs required retouching. But the major addition was the steel and glass tower in the one-time courtyard. 'When we started, the courtyard was open and totally destroyed,' says Bellini, who fought off competition from the likes of Mario Botta and Renzo Piano for the commission. 'The only way to connect the upper and ground floors in a continuous walk was to cover it and create this tower, which is made of four smaller towers that make it appear more slender,' he adds. 'By doing so we made the courtyard the real heart of the museum, surrounded by the entrances to the displays, the café and the shop.'

Bellini, who will launch another grand museum project later this year at the Louvre Islamic Art Galleries (on which he worked with French architect Rudy Riccioti), was keen to tackle the challenge of placing the ancient and modern in parallel. 'The building in itself was something we wanted the visitor to see and experience,' he explains, 'so the new building doesn't touch the old one and we didn't want to imitate the historical language with the new additions. I think it works.'

The 34 rooms are organised in 14 themes - from urbanism and art to theatre and music - over more than 6,000 sq m. The permanent collection counts an impressive 15,000 works of art and 115,000 books. Educational spaces, a cinema, shop and café have all been allocated space. 'We tried to make this a lovely journey - a museum for people with different interests and different paces,' says Bellini. 'People can come many times and every time discover something new.'

Black glossed floor, white walled room, with a gold frame detail to the the ceiling, white neon sign on the far left wall, floor standing exhibition piece in the centre of the room about Feste Di Popolo and artwork in a glass frame, door way looking out to a doll exhibition

Graphic designer Italo Lupi helped marry the old structure with new elements like neon art and striking vitrines

(Image credit: TBC)

Exhibition neutral room with black gloss floor, Italian futurism display, colourful framed canopy above framed artwork, information display, doorway with gold detail above the opening, view of the gallery beyond

An exhibit of Italian Futurism

(Image credit: TBC)

Central courtyard display stands on a black gloss stone floor, against a neutral stone wall with a black framed window on the right hand side wall

Displays in the central court...

(Image credit: TBC)

Top of the neutral tone courtyard, sky light framed windows, glass gallery barrier with silver hand rail, looking down onto the windowed walls and centre display piece

... which climb up to the new skylights covering the medieval courtyard

(Image credit: TBC)

Day time front exterior view of the 14th-century palazzo, brick walled building, windows with red blinds and arched doorways, blue sky

The exterior of the 14th-century palazzo

(Image credit: TBC)

View of the Sala Forma Urbis, ancient stone floor, wooden framed pillars, exhibition pieces on either side, monument and wall lighting at the end of the pathway

The Sala Forma Urbis, with its excavated ancient stone floor

(Image credit: TBC)

New Museum foyer, neutral walls, spotlights on a metal frame shining on the large colourful tapestry style artwork on the wall behind the black gloss desk with white signage lit up, white sculpture on the right hand side of the counter top, black framed window on the right wall letting in daylight

The museum's new foyer

(Image credit: TBC)

Virtual theatre, white floor, seating area, images of city landscape projected onto the walls, black ceiling, cinema reel design on walls and centre of the ceiling, entrance doorway

... and its virtual theatre

(Image credit: TBC)


Via Castiglione 8, Bologna, Italy


Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture Editor at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018) and Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020).