Arabian Nights in the Apennines
The brief history of a building full of Eastern promise and Russian aristocrats
Even though I've gone past it thousands of times, just as I approach Riola, there on the left, past the Reno, perched on its hill surrounded by trees, the sight of Rocchetta Mattei outlined against the horizon always takes me by surprise. There it is, with its lightly gilded onion domes which, even as a child, remind me of the palaces in the my story books of The Arabian Nights. The element of Eastern surprise remained as I grew older but, having picked up some notions of history at high school, I started wondering what this strange building was doing in the middle of the Bolognese Apennines, ten kilometres past Vergato, where the Reno and the Limentra meet.
And maybe the true story of Rocchetta Mattei is even more interesting than any you may imagine. As far as I know the Rocchetta was built in the latter half of the 19th Century by Count Cesare Mattei. The legend goes that the Count wasn't happy with the job his architect had done so he decided to redo part of the building himself. It would also seem that he kept a servant in one of the building's towers, who was paid to shout insults at the architect each time he walked past. Mattei, a wealthy nobleman, had travelled extensively in Spain, Eastern Europe and the Far East and had a passion for Moscow, Russia and the Alhambra, which is evident from the pastiche he created. Mattei was also interested in medicine and alchemy and some say that he was one of the inventors of placebos.Indeed the strangest thing about the Rocchetta was its use as a clinic for rich European nobles of a nervous disposition and Russian aristocrats who had had enough of life. It would appear that Mattei, as well as experimenting his own alchemic-electrical remedies (experts in medicine have never recognised his methods as valid), based his treatment on rest and sugar drops which he had delivered from Bologna.