There are 38 kilometres of porticoes within the historic centre of Bologna

Bologna is the capital and main hub of the region of Emilia-Romagna, a part of Italy known world-wide for its tasty food produce, some exceptionally good wines and fast cars. Situated within short distance along the same Via Emilia trunk road axis are the towns of Parma, Modena, Reggio-Emilia, and on the Adriatic side, Rimini and Ravenna. The slightly more famous renaissance city of Florence just south of Bologna is in fact only a 30-minute train ride away, Milan about an hour to the north.

Header photo: Under the porticoes in Via San Vitale

What Bologna may lack compared to some of the more illustrious Italian art-cities and dare we say, overcrowded tourist hot-spots, she more than makes up for simply by being herself; inviting and vibrant, always buzzing, with her very own atmosphere. Where else do you find such an array of red, orange and rusty brown colours, lush and warm against deep, shadowy rhythms of massive portico columns and seemingly endless flights of arches.

The variety of form and styles makes it all the more interesting to explore the town, street by street, under the porticoes. There are tall and elegant columns, some topped by ornate capitals, and there are the plain and practical kind, painted in a palette of classic Bologna tints and shades. Combined, there are around 38 kilometres of them – just within the relatively small historic centre – built between the 11th and 20th century.

Under the porticoes in Via Saragozza
Under the porticoes in Via Saragozza

Porticoes were a common feature of many medieval towns. They became popular especially in times of economic development and expansion since they filled the need for more public space on the street level as well as for private housing and shops in already congested, urban areas. Being a University town since the 13th century, students coming here from all over Europe needed inexpensive dwellings. These were typically built on the upper floors while the porticoes on the ground floor were utilized by shops and artisans. Porticoes also provide shelter from the heat of the summer sun or the rain or snow in winter.

Walking or running, the porticoes are popular among locals and visitors alike

Contrary to urban development elsewhere in Europe however, the porticoes in Bologna were defined by law (1288) to be compulsory for all major streets, both private and public, where they were considered useful. This law is apparently still in force today. Wooden pillars were banned in 1363 and they were slowly replaced by brick or stone in the following centuries. Examples of pillars made of wood can still be seen.

In the course of time a number of famous architects have contributed to the variety of portico styles in Bologna. In the 14th century, Antonio di Vincenzo built the portico in the Mercanzia Lodges. On the magnificent Piazza Maggiore, facing the beautiful facade of the San Petronio Cathedral, stands Palazzo del Podestà with porticos from the mid-15th century, designed by Aristotile Fioravanti. A century later, Antonio Morandi created the beautiful porticoes with sandstone pillars in the Archiginnasio, seat of the oldest university in the world.

Portico walk to Madonna di San Luca

You could even do this walk while the rain pours down, without getting wet!

Perched atop the La Guardia Hill just south-west of Bologna is the Sanctuary of Saint Luke’s Madonna – Madonna di San Luca. You can easily reach the top by car or bus from downtown but the joy of walking all the way up are simply too rewarding to be missed. In other words, a visit to Bologna is not complete unless you do this walk – under the world’s longest stretch of porticoes.

Starting at Piazza Maggiore you head up to Via Saragozza. Walk straight on, a kilometre or so, just past Porta Saragozza. Here you will find arch number 1 of the 666 numbered arches – a total length of almost 4 km – leading you safely up to the orange basilica on top of the hill. The actual ascent to Madonna di San Luca begins at the Meloncello gate at the far end of Via Saragozza, about halfway.

The view from the top of the hill, seen through the basilica archway and staircase.
The view from the top of the hill, seen through the basilica archway and staircase.

The porticoes change direction at certain intervals of a few hundred metres, basically following the road up the hillside. Turning left, the open side of the porticoes and the view will also on that side. The San Luca porticoes were built by private donations in the years between 1674-1793 to protect the Madonna icon in the annual procession, which starts at the Cathedral of San Pietro on Via dell’Indipendenza near Piazza Maggiore. The procession follows the same portico route up to the Sanctuary on the Guardia Hill. In the 12th century, a pilgrim from the Byzantine empire is said to have brought the icon of the Madonna from the temple of Saint Sofia in Constantinople. The icon was placed in a small hermitage chapel on the hilltop and looked after by two holy women.

Sanctuary of Madonna di San Luca, Bologna
Sanctuary of Madonna di San Luca

The warm orange colour of the curved facade of the Sanctuary of Madonna di San Luca is especially radiant in the late afternoon sun.

Walking or running, the porticoes are popular among locals and visitors alike
Walking or running, the porticoes are popular among locals and visitors alike

All photos by Asgeir Pedersen, Spots France
This is a revised version of the article, first published in 2016.