A stroll through Bologna and its 40 kilometres of porticos
Rainy or snowy, sunny or windy days: with its almost 40 kilometres of porticos Bologna is a unique city in the world.
These porticos make it easy to stroll around the city centre, go shopping or walk from one museum to another under a safe shelter away from both bad weather and the scorching sun.
Porticos have the same aim today as the one they had in the late Middle Ages when they were first built; the urban migration and the arrival of students and men of letters at the oldest University of the Western world caused an extraordinary growth of the city, and at that time Bologna had the same urban development as Paris.
The origin of porticos is the sporto, a protruding wooden structure which was usually built in order to extend the inner living space of the upper floors. These structures then grew bigger and heavier, so that it was necessary to prop them up with wooden beams which inevitably occupied the street.
Today it is still possible to see some examples of these first porticos in the historical centre: the wooden portico of Isolani House (19, Strada Maggiore), the one of Palazzo Grassi (12, via Marsala) and the portico of the Reggiani – Seracchioli Houses (Piazza della Mercanzia).
The streets were soon so crowded with porticos that the city council decided to lay down some official rules. While other cities had banned the portico, in Bologna it became compulsory as a public space. The 1288 Statutes established that all new houses should have a portico and set out the minimum measures, for example the height should be 7 feet (about 2.70 m) in order to allow the passage of a man riding his horse. This act left an imprint on the final appearance of the city.
Craftsmen contributed to the spreading of the portico throughout the city: they were an outdoor workroom, sheltered both from the summer sun and the winter rain and a well-lit space if compared with the dark workshops on the ground floor of their houses. In this sense, the portico became an extension of the house and the workshop.
Bologna has the longest portico in the world, too: 3,796 metres. It’s the portico starting just outside the city walls and leading to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca on the top of the Colle (hill) della Guardia.
This sheltered walkway was built between 1674 and 1739 for the procession which has taken place every year since 1433, when citizens carry the painting of the Madonna with Child around the city. The portico was partly built thanks to donations made by the citizens, which are mentioned in special plaques along the way, as the Sanctuary with its Sacred Icon has been a place of pilgrimage since its origin (12th century).
This long portico begins with the Bonaccorsi Arch at Porta Saragozza where you can visit the Museum of the Madonna di San Luca; then, passing along Villa Spada, Villa delle Rose and Celebrazioni Theatre, you come to the Meloncello Arch, built in the Baroque style by the architect Carlo Francesco Dotti, probably with the help of the stage designer Francesco Bibiena.
The uphill climb begins at Meloncello (55 m. above sea level). The 2 kilometre spectacular stairway winds up to the Sanctuary (270 m. above sea level) along the via di San Luca and it’s lined by 15 chapels representing the Mystery of the Rosary. The steepest climb begins at about halfway, soon after the sharp bend called delle Orfanelle. Here, where a former female orphanage was, the street passes under the portico.
A lot of traditions are still linked to the San Luca Hill today, for example walking up to the Sanctuary if a prayer has been granted (for life-saving events, such as recoveries, but also for happy ending love stories, passed university exams, gambling wins, etc.). In the past, it was common practice to climb the hill on one’s knees while praying.
Nowadays jogging or riding a bike to the top of the hill has become a traditional sports activity. International bicycle, foot and motorcycle races often take place on the street running along the San Luca walkway.