Forlì, pronounced For-LEE, may not be a name that you’re immediately familiar with, but if you’re visiting central Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region its one to add to your list, especially if you’re an art or architecture lover. Known in Italy for its prestigious art galleries and for its modern architecture within Italian circles, this prosperous but discrete city is not so well known further afield. So what does Forlì, founded by the ancient Romans, have to offer visitors? Let’s dive in and find out!
People have been living in the area since the days of the ancient Etruscans, possibly for hundreds of years even before the ancient Romans founded Forum Livii, meaning Livii’s meeting place, in 188 BC, naming it after the founder Consul Marcus Livius Salinator.
The city was built along one of the Romans’ ancient motorways, the Via Emilia, running from Rimini to Piacenza and grew to be an agricultural and later industrial hub for silk and clothing.
Much later Forlì became known by the dialect nickname zitadon or big city as it was the largest city in the region. Sadly today the roman walls no longer exist, having been pulled down in 1905 to allow expansion of the city, but there are plenty of other reasons to visit.
Forlì’s main square – Piazza Aurelio Saffi
Forlì’s main square is the third largest in Italy, after Sassari in Sardinia and Trieste in the north, at a massive 128 metres long and 87 metres wide ( that’s 420 ft by 285 ft in old money) and is surrounded by some of the city’s most prestigious buildings.
On the northern side the Palazzo Comunale, or City Hall, dates back to 1000 AD whereas the southern edge is home to the Basilica Abbey of San Mercuriale, Forlì’s main church. There has been a chapel or church on this site since the 4th century AD although fire destroyed the original building in 1173 so the present brick frontage is a mere 836 years old. Its also well known for all 273 steps of its bell tower, one of the tallest in Italy, and its interior including a 16th century wooden choir, a beautiful rose window and paintings by Manfredi, Palmeszzano and Tempesta.
Piazza Aurelio Saffi , or Piazza Saffi for short, hosts a general market twice weekly on Mondays and Fridays for all your food, clothes and household needs. Oh and don’t forget to check out the statue in the centre of the square too. Marco Aurelio Saffi was born in Forlì, trained as an attorney and became an important figure in the 19th century unification of Italy alongside Giuseppe Mazzini. He’s the darling of the city and his square is a lovely place to sit, quaffing an espresso and watching the world go by.
Forlì and Mussolini
Forlì is the official birthplace of the Fascist dictator of Italy Benito Mussolini, but in actual fact its all a fib! The truth is that the charming Mr Mussolini, aka Il Duce or the Duke, was born a few miles away in a little town called Dovia di Predappio but being the modest soul that he was he decided that the town was too small to represent such a grand leader as himself and so shifted his official birthplace up the road to Forlì, a city he felt was more appropriate! Predappio would go on to be dubbed the “Duce’s town” whilst Forlì took the nickname of “Duce’s city.” Clearly Mussolini wasn’t troubled by self-doubt!
Forlì and modern architecture
At first glance Forlì may seem like an ordinary modern Italian city, but look a little closer and you’ll begin to spot Mussolini’s fascist trademark all over the architecture from simple apartment blocks to the Post Office in Piazza Saffi.
Fascist architects believed strongly in using local materials, as fuel for transport was scarce, and in building in just 2 colours – fascist red and fascist green. So keep your eyes peeled for the gentle grey-green “Rationalist style” houses, schools and aeronautical college built for the workers, to stop emigration from Italy and to train young men for Mussolini’s budding airforce.
Note : Forli’s Rationalist architecture is such an important feature of Forlì’s culture and history that it deserves a separate blog post with plenty of photos here!
Forlì loves art
Forlì is well-known in the art world for hosting high calibre, prestigious art exhibitions and has excellent gallery spaces such as the Museo di San Domenico and Palazzo Romagnoli in which to display them.
Last year they hosted a fabulous photography exhibition by the American National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry – famous for his portrait of a green-eyed Afghan girl – and drew in hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Museo San Domenico.
This year’s art attractions include a retrospective of Piero della Francesco, a much-overlooked but nevertheless talented Renaissance painter, nicknamed the “king of painting” who was a contemporary of Michelangelo and Da Vinci. His paintings are allegorical and symbolic, offering many messages if you know how to read them.
The exhibition opened on 13th February this month and runs to 26 June 2016. For more information check out the official exhibition website here
Forlì and food
As with most towns and cities in Italy, the Forlivesi people enjoy their food and wine with a number of restaurants and bars offering quality cuisine.
If you’re staying locally and fancy a modern twist on Italian dining, why not pop into the little Osteria Enoteca Salumè, just 5 minutes walk from Piazza Saffi, for a dinner of local, seasonal produce accompanied by a fabulously wine list of over 400 labels. The owners are very welcoming and you won’t go wrong in their hands, either for good food, good wine or good service, trust me!
Alternatively, book yourselves a table for lunch at Eataly in the main square for traditional Italian food made with local products from local producers. Founded in Turin, Eataly promotes zero food miles, encouraging each restaurant to take inspiration from their own region for their menu. So if, for example, you stop in Forlì as we did, you can expect chef Giuliana Saragoni, former owner of the celebrated Locanda al Gambero Rosso, to incorporate traditional Romagnolo flavours including the wonderfully matured Fossa cheese into her creamy canneloni. Mmmmm, this is definitely a great place to savour a long Italian lunch. Oh and don’t forget to check out the numerous additional tasty temptations in the Eataly shop on the way out!!
So, if you’re looking for a peaceful spot, off the beaten track, to enjoy some of the best Italian art exhibitions, modern architecture and tasty locally inspired food without hordes of tourists, why not check out Forlì. Its just an hour by train from Rome for a day trip, or makes a great addition to an authentic Emilia-Romagna vacation, a region that has so much to offer! More posts on the region will follow later this year, so keep your eyes peeled and pop back soon! In the meantime, if you have any recommendations for more hidden gems in Emilia-Romagna, leave me a comment. Buon viaggio!
If you’re planning a visit to Forlì or anywhere in Romagna in fact, make sure to get yourselves a Romagna Visit Card. Valid for a year and costing only €14 (2016 price) it enables free entry to over 48 historic buildings, museums and galleries including Musei San Domenico and Palazzo Romagnoli, this is a must-have purchase to open the doors to the region! More info, in English, via the website.