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Bologna City | Attractions | Itineraries

A trip to the Church of San Luca should be top of everyone’s Bologna itinerary. The five miles there and back make for a long walk that is also one of the world’s great mini-pilgrimages. It’s an uplifting way to spend a morning or an afternoon. And don’t worry about the sun or the rain: you will be under cover every step of the way.

The Church of the Madonna of San Luca stands on a high hilltop just southwest of Bologna. This crowned mountain, La Monte della Guardia, rises out of the flatness of the Po Valley and can be seen from many parts of the city: cooks and housewives say that you know you have rolled your pasta thinly enough when you hold it up to the window and can see San Luca through it.

But the sanctuary of San Luca is more than a distant suburban church. It is a cherished and integral part of the city – not least because it is physically joined to the old town by a portico that, at nearly 20 miles (4km) long, is the longest unbroken colonnade in the world.

The church houses an icon of the Madonna and Child, said to have been painted by Saint Luke himself. According to Bolognese legend, a Greek traveller brought it here from Byzantium and donated it to the little nunnery that then occupied the mountaintop. The icon remained in the convent church until 1433, when a summer of storms threatened to ruin the harvest. To avert disaster, and hoping for a miracle, the citizens of Bologna brought the Madonna down from the protective hill, and carried her in procession to San Petronio in the heart of the city. The rains stopped – and it was later said that the trees had bowed as the Madonna passed, forming a canopy over her head. This arboreal act of homage inspired the people to construct a permanent portico.

The present structure took almost a lifetime to build – from 1674 to 1732 – and it exists primarily to safeguard the icon on its annual descent into Bologna. It also serves to shelter anyone who makes the walk up to San Luca.

The start of the journey is flat, and so run-of-the-mill that you would be forgiven for thinking you were on the wrong track. You leave the old city centre by the Saragozza Gate, pass through a tiny urban park and cross the busy road that follows the line of the disappeared city walls. Ahead of you is the Arco Bonaccorsi, a strange edifice in rather unattractive style that might be described as workaday baroque. It is tacked onto a nondescript yellow apartment block. Pass through the arch, and you find yourself in a covered arcade that is, at first, like many others in Bologna. To the right of you is the usual miscellany of cafés and flower shops, pharmacies and bakeries. To the left, outside the colonnade, a steady flow of traffic on the via Saragozza.

Maybe all pilgrimages start this way – no fanfare or excitement, just an awareness of the road ahead. If you make the walk in the morning, then the sun is to the left of you. Each arch leaves a horizontal finger of light on the pavement, like the white keys of a piano. The thinner shadows of the columns form the sharps and flats. As you begin to enjoy the rhythm of the sunlight and shade, and the regular sound of your own footfalls, you notice that the shops have become fewer and farther between. The hubbub of city life dies away, and even the traffic to the left quietens down. You might now see that all of the arches are discreetly numbered – and you have passed the hundred mark. Here in the lower reaches of the portico you are unlikely to be entirely alone. Some other soul may be ambling along beside or ahead of you. And you are bound to see the occasional weary jogger, back from the peak and glad to be counting down to the double-figured arches.

Via di San Luca, 36
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At the 170th arch there is a wayside shrine. It takes the form of a marble statue, set in a niche, and is known as ‘La Madonna Grassa’. She has the haughty face of an aristocratic Roman matron and, beneath her heavy carved drapery, the knees of a 200-pound quarterback. On one of those knees sits a tubby Christ-child. He looks like an infant but is the size of a six-yearold. He holds up his right hand in blessing, and in his left he clutches a toy cross. Vases containing faded lavender and wilted roses stand on the tall plinth at the fat Madonna’s feet.

A short way on is the Arco del Meloncello. It is another strange edifice – part bridge, part rotunda. The unbroken run of columns loops round it like a rope tied neatly to a capstan. This architectural manoeuvre carries the path over the via Saragozza. The covered way has been entirely flat until this point, but now the ascent of La Guardia begins. I stopped for a rest and a sip of water at the Meloncello (that name, so suggestive of a splendidly fruity aperitif, had made me realise that I was thirsty). The portico rose ahead of me, leading up the sacred hill like a settecento escalator. To the left it was enclosed, while to the right the procession of arches marched ever onwards.

There is a bus that stops at the Meloncello Arch, so you can begin your journey from here if you wish. Some mark it in the traditional way: with a few words of graffiti. One of the oldest was carved in stacked serifed capitals:






I didn’t know if this was the signature of someone who had passed this way, or a memorial to one who had passed on. On the arch opposite someone had written in felt-tip pen ‘Dante + Beatrice 1300’. The joke reminded me that the portico is not only a pilgrims’ road and a joggers’ track, but a lovers’ lane too. You see many couples hand in hand here – laughing, chatting or wordlessly enjoying the fact that they share a single path.

But the portico is something else besides: an aid to meditation. Spaced along its length, from the Arco del Meloncello to the church, are fifteen shrines representing the fifteen traditional mysteries of the rosary. The first is the Annunciation; the second sculpture in bas-relief depicts the pregnant Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who was herself soon to give birth to John the Baptist. They didn’t look like women sharing happy news; they seemed lost in grief, as if prophetically aware of their sons’ hard life-paths. The third mystery, 20 arches on, was a painting of the Nativity – seen not as the hopeful genesis of the Christian era, but as a private episode in the life of a young mother. She sits in the foreground, cradling a curly-headed Jesus. A greying Joseph and an ineffectual band of shepherds look on.

I turned away from that domestic scene to admire the view. By now I was both in the high 300s and high above the city. I could look down on Bologna’s football stadium with its red Art Deco tower, which seems to echo the imposing city gates. A season or two ago, I was told, Bologna FC narrowly avoided being sent down to a lower league – and the first thing the team did after that redemption was go up the portico to San Luca in order to give thanks. Slightly farther on, at 399, I stepped outside the portico, making my exit through a gap in the balustrade. I crossed the silent, carless road and looked back. From this vantage point the 18th-century portico looked early-industrial, like a disused Victorian viaduct. But San Luca was still out of sight, so I walked onwards and upwards, past mysteries seven, eight and nine, which tell the story of the crucifixion.

At this point you could be in a church, albeit one that has been unravelled like a woollen sweater, and teased out into a single thread. Though I stopped for a moment at each station of the cross, my pilgrimage had by now turned into something more like a yatra, the mindful walking of the Buddhist tradition.

The light had changed too: it was clearer somehow, perhaps because I was above the dust and fumes of the city. And the patches of sun on the flagstones were no longer wedges or fingers, because the hour had moved on. They were now a series of oblique stripes, like a sergeant’s insignia.

After the 510th arch, the path grows steeper. There is a flight of steps every ten yards, and a rising stretch of path between them. When you reach the twelfth mystery, Christ’s ascension, a bend in the portico suddenly reveals a magnificent panorama of old Bologna, far below. You can see the medieval towers looking like so many upright matchsticks, the motley orange and apricot rooftops, the great immovable massif of San Petronio in the midst of it all. Once you pass the fifteenth and last mystery – Mary enthroned as Queen of Heaven – you know that you are nearly there. At the top of a final flight of stairs you see a simple cross, silhouetted against the sky.

The last arch of the Portico di San Luca is the 666th – which is the number of the devil. This superstitious coincidence has led some devout commentators to imagine the portico as a demonic snake, its head crushed under the heel of the Mother Church, as embodied by the Santuario di San Luca. That church is now before you – a giant stone cross attached to a rosary more than five thousand paces long. A few more steps take you to the door, and then into an interior as cool and refreshing as meltwater. Inscribed in Latin at ceiling level is a Biblical quotation – Exibit salvatio de monte, ‘Salvation shall come forth from the mountain’ – which, now that you have reached your destination, reads like a promise as well as a prophecy. Your eye will be drawn to the altar.

A series of steps leads up to it, giving it the form of a ziggurat – or a stylised version of the mountain you have just climbed. On the far wall, behind a forbidding balustrade, hangs the wonder-working Byzantine icon of mother and child. Mary is almost lost behind tall candlesticks that stand like sentries in the chancel, and giant incensebearing thuribles that hang like chandeliers from the ceiling of the apse. And she is overlaid with a gold-and-silver screen that obscures everything except her face and the infant’s, which form two dark specks at the centre of a rich baroque cloudscape of gilt and marble. It all adds up to a spectacular tableau, a shimmering piece of ecclesiastical showmanship.

Sit still, pilgrim, and drink it in, because this is your reward.


Article by Jonathan Bastable

Photographs by Paolo Righi


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