Bologna is a beautiful and historic city in the Emilia-Romagna region of Northeast Italy. It has the oldest university in the Western world, a lively student population, excellent food, a striking brick terracotta-roofed cityscape, and lots to see and do. The city itself has a population just under 395,000.
Bologna has the world’s longest collection of covered sidewalks, and many of the piazzas are surrounded by porticoes. The plural in Italian is portici, or in English, porticoes. You might also call them arcades or loggia or colonnades. This page will discuss the porticoed roads as well as some of the more interesting piazzas that have porticoes around them.
The city is also famous for its cuisine (la cucina Bolognese). It is viewed as a progressive and well-administered city, considered second only to Venice in beauty by many Italians. It has one of the largest and best-preserved historic centers among Italian cities, with architecture noted for its palette of terracotta reds, burnt oranges, and warm yellows.
The extensive town center, characterized by miles of attractive covered walkways, known as "porticoes," is one of the best-preserved in Europe. The cityscape is enriched by these elegant and extensive porticoes, for which the city is famous. In 2021, the porticoes were named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In total, there are some 38 kilometres (24 miles) of porticoes in the city's historical center (over 45 km (28 mi) in the city proper), which make it possible to walk for long distances sheltered from the elements.
The Portico di San Luca is possibly the world's longest. It connects Porta Saragozza (one of the twelve gates of the ancient walls built in the Middle Ages, which circled a 7.5 km (4.7 mi) part of the city) with the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, a church begun in 1723 on the site of an 11th-century edifice which had already been enlarged in the 14th century, prominently located on a hill (289 metres (948 feet)) overlooking the town, which is one of Bologna's main landmarks. The windy 666 vault arcades, almost four kilometres (3,796 m or 12,454 ft) long, effectively links San Luca, as the church is commonly called, to the city centre. Its porticos provide shelter for the traditional procession which every year since 1433 has carried a Byzantine icon of the Madonna with Child attributed to Luke the Evangelist down to the Bologna Cathedral during the Feast of the Ascension.
These arcades serve two basic functions. One is to provide shelter from the sun, the rain, the occasional snow, while they also enable the buildings to extend out over the sidewalk, creating additional floor space in the building's upper levels.
Perhaps even more importantly, the porticoes provide an outdoor living room, a shared community space where people can interact, serving as crossroads of civic life. A place where you are at home, but also out in the world. A meeting place to stop and chat, run into neighbors, make new friends, do a little smooching, maybe fall in love. These arcades provide a social network that ties this city together.
Porticoes also create a delightful ambiance, a sheltered area that brings the outdoors in and the indoors out. It's kind of an in-between space that encourages pedestrian traffic while increasing access to the many shops that line these streets, which can display products for sale in outdoor stands and in the old days were used by craftsmen for making things. It's like an early version of our modern shopping malls.
Porticoes also provide a comfortable setting for the numerous outdoor cafes and restaurants that you'll find throughout the city. You will often see the restaurant expanding out beyond the portico into the adjacent street or piazza, creating additional useful spaces which give customers the choice to sit indoors or under the portico or out in the open. A fine example of that is the very popular Piazza Santo Stefano, which has a triangular shape with porticoes on two sides of medieval and Renaissance origin, and the Church of Santo Stefano at the end with seven churches inside it, including an octagonal portico in one of the ancient churches and a beautiful cloister surrounded by two levels of columns and arches.
Another interesting building on this piazza is Palazzo Salina, with a portico clad in terracotta. Its nickname is the Palace of the Heads, because there are 300 faces looking down at us from the facade.
The largest piazza in town, just a few blocks away, is Piazza Maggiore, with more porticoes along several of the most important buildings in Bologna. The main square of Bologna is always a busy place, daytime and right into the evening. It's surrounded by the big church, the town hall, cafes and little lanes leading off from it that have many restaurants, lots of outdoor eateries. It's an amazing busy place.
On the north side of the piazza is the Palazzo del Podesta, which is the oldest public building remaining in Bologna, first built from the year 1253. And now its portico is the scene of a delightful outdoor restaurant with nice views looking out at the piazza and Church of San Petronius, the biggest in town. The tables spill right out into the adjacent piazza—plenty of room here, and on the right side, the City hall.
The famous statue of Neptune by Giambologna was executed to perfection in 1564.The Basilica of San Petronius is the world's 10th-largest church, and it would have been the biggest if it had been finished to the original plans, but they never even quite finished the facade.
The large portico along the east side of the piazza is the busiest and largest of all the porticoes in the central historic area. It forms part of the facade of the Palazzo dei Banchi, containing some of the best shops in town and many restaurants behind it in what's called the Quadrilateral. The arcade is 130 meters long, extending south of the piazza, where it becomes the Portico del Pavaglione.
Continue one block further along that portico to reach Piazza Galvani with an outdoor restaurant, and in the center, a statue of Bologna native Luigi Galvani, who back in the mid-18th century discovered the role of electricity in biological functions like muscle contraction and transmission of nerve impulses.
Exiting the south end of that piazza, crossing via Farini, we enter what is the most beautiful portico, the only one with a frescoed ceiling. It figures this is the building of the Bank of Italy. They had the money back in the mid 19th century to create these elaborate scenes decorated with griffins, centaurs and garlands. This illuminated portico of the Palazzo della Banca d'Italia runs alongside Piazza Cavour with a green tree-shaded park in the middle and porticoed buildings all around it.
Some buildings extended their upper floors just a little bit so that they did not need external columns to support that extension. It gives us some insight into the evolution of porticoes.
Some early ones were simple extensions that were held up by wooden supports rather than columns going down to the ground. But after several fires destroyed parts of the city, the government decreed they'll all be made from stone or brick. Porticoes were greatly expanded after the year 1288, when a new law was created that required that all new houses had to be built with a portico and existing homes that did not have one were required to add them. Later laws established requirements for minimum height and width and types of building materials. Those rules were established many centuries ago and are still in effect today, along with more recent regulations protecting the city center's historic preservation and integrity.
But why was it so important to expand the upper floors of these buildings? Back in the Middle Ages, when the porticoes were first developed, Bologna was already a densely populated city, and then when they opened the world's oldest university in the 11th century, many students moved in from Italy and beyond, as well as other foreigners, which created tremendous need for more housing.
So this extension of the building was especially important to create that expanded living space. And sometimes homeless students and others could spend the night outdoors, but under the shelter of the porticoes. Some of them would have been curtained off at night to provide sleeping accommodations for the poorest students.
You can get around for a good view of the porticoes by either walking, maybe rent a bicycle, or take the tourist tram, which provides a little one-hour round-trip through the center of town, giving you access to see many different kinds of porticoes. This will drive you along one of the main streets of downtown, which follows the path of an original ancient Roman road, the Via Emilia, which now changes names from Ugo Bassi to Rizzoli and Strada Maggiore.
It's the busiest shopping street of town, and part of it has the arcades, the loggia sheltering the many shops and outdoor cafes and restaurants and other parts do not. In some places, we see the stores and buildings above flush with the sidewalks and no portico out front. But there are some restaurants in the street and more of the arcades up ahead, including a view of the statue of Ugo Bassi himself, who was one of the heroes of the war for independence.
This tourist tram is about the only motorized vehicle you'll see on the main streets here, because I'm here on a weekend. And on Saturday and Sunday, Bologna closes off most of the center to all traffic, turning the streets over to the pedestrians. This has the effect of converting this major street into a vast piazza. Many cities are struggling with traffic congestion, too many automobiles, and trying to find a way to make the streets more friendly to pedestrians. Well, here is a fine example, which is a big bonus for the visitor, because walking is always the best way to see a place.
The conversion of this busy street into a pedestrian mall, even though it's just on the weekends, is a fine example of the movement towards complete streets. This tram ride does make it easy to get around, especially convenient right here in this busy neighborhood as we roll along right into the heart of downtown and look up for a view of the Asinelli Tower, at 97.2 meters high, the tallest medieval leaning tower in the world. We are reaching the end of this busy street now called Via Rizzoli, and it widens into a bit of a piazza with protective barriers, and now the sidewalks are once again covered by porticoes.
This Piazza della Mercanzia is located at a busy intersection which had been the crossroads of the two main Roman streets back in the ancient days, one street leading onto Rimini and the other street leading on to Ravenna. Here you can see the foundation of the two tall towers, Garisenda at 48 meters high, Asinelli towering above that 97.2 meters. Back in the Middle Ages, Bologna was full of these towers, but now there are just 20 of them left.
On the piazza you will see the Palazzo della Mercanzia, which housed a forum of merchants from the 14th century through the 18th century. Then it became the seat of the Chamber of Commerce, which it still is today. In Bologna the porticoes are public-private partnerships where the arcades are owned privately and yet open always to the public.
A law created many centuries ago established that the underlying loggia was to be used as a public space, even though it was built by private citizens on private property centuries ago. It was kind of an expropriation by the government, a foreshadowing of Bologna's more recent political atmosphere which has been on the left wing socialist side, although lately with a more centrist government. Two giants are on the facade of the Davia Bargellini Museum, showcasing painting, sculpture and applied arts.
Across the street we find the widest portico in all of Bologna in front of the Church of Santa Maria de Servi. It was built around the year 1300 to accommodate citizens who could not attend religious rites inside the church because they had not been baptized so they could participate outside in the portico. Now it functions more like a little piazza where the local kids can have some fun tossing the ball around. Only pedestrians are allowed to use the porticoes, no bicycles, skateboards, no scooters, although you can always park or walk your bike here in this bicycle-friendly city. But in the old days you would have seen people riding horses in them. There was even a height requirement to make sure they were tall enough for people to ride their horses safely. Now the only non-humans you'll see in the arcades are dogs.
There is a high quality of life here. These streets and arcades are part of a residential neighborhood where you've got people living upstairs, including many university students. We're close to the campus now as well as the regular working people of the city. Another benefit of porticoes is they shelter the ground floors, making them more habitable by isolating them from the dirt and noise of the streets.
The porticoes are also beautiful, adding a nice architectural touch to the buildings. And it seems like each one of the porticoes is a little different in design and detail than the others, with a variety of styles, including Renaissance, Gothic, neoclassical, Belle Epoque, medieval Baroque, and modern.
Of course, porticoes were not invented here in Bologna. They have a long history going back a couple of thousand years as far as ancient Greece, where the idea was widely used in the architecture of temples and many other buildings, also ancient Rome, for example, in front of the Pantheon. Or how about three and a half thousand years ago in Egypt, where they built the temple to Hatshepsut with a colonnade design in the façade. Porticoes have been used by various cultures all around the world. For example, many Spanish cities make extensive use of porticoes and they've incorporated them into their Spanish colonial architecture as well, such as found in Cusco. A more recent example is the East Portico of the United States Capitol Building.
Porticoes can line a street as a roof structure over a walkway, or they can just be a porch leading to the entrance of a building. But here in Bologna, it's all about creating those sheltered walkways along the street, which has been done here more extensively than any place else.
Porticoes are so important here that they were declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO, which stated they are an "expression and element of the city's identity….An architectural model, but also a social one, a place of integration and exchange in which the main protagonists of the city, citizens, migrants and students live and share time and ideas, relationships and thoughts.”
"It is a reference point for a sustainable urban lifestyle where civil and religious spaces and residences of all social classes are perfectly integrated. A place of continuous interchange of human values that permeates and shapes city life."
This is the reason why the portico models were continuously exported elsewhere in Italy and in Europe. The skillful use of materials, primarily, stone has allowed the constructive preservation during the centuries. This approach has ensured an extraordinary state of conservation of most of the porticoes.
Bologna is the seat of the world's oldest university, founded in 1088. A significant portion of its population consists of away-from-home university students. In common with other Italian university towns, it is in parts marred by excessive graffiti on its historic palaces.
About twenty medieval defensive towers remain out of up to 180 that were built in the 12th and 13th centuries before the arrival of unified civic government. The most famous of the towers of Bologna are the central "Due Torri" (Asinelli and Garisenda), whose iconic leaning forms provide a popular symbol of the town.
San Petronio Basilica, built between 1388 and 1479 (but still unfinished), is the tenth-largest church in the world by volume, 132 metres long and 66 metres wide, while the vault reaches 45 metres inside and 51 metres in the facade. With its volume of 258,000 m3, it is the largest (Gothic or otherwise) church built of bricks of the world.
The Basilica of Saint Stephen and its sanctuary are among the oldest structures in Bologna, having been built starting from the 8th century, according to the tradition on the site of an ancient temple dedicated to Egyptian goddess Isis. The Basilica of Saint Dominic is an example of Romanic architecture from the 13th century, enriched by the monumental tombs of great Bolognese glossators Rolandino de'Passeggeri and Egidio Foscherari. Basilicas of St Francis, Santa Maria dei Servi and San Giacomo Maggiore are other magnificent examples of 14th-century architecture, the latter also featuring Renaissance artworks such as the Bentivoglio Altarpiece by Lorenzo Costa. Finally, the Church of San Michele in Bosco is a 15th-century religious complex located on a hill not far from the city's historical center.
Bologna was named a Creative City of Music by UNESCO in 2006. Music is performed throughout the city: in the Teatro Comunale (the Opera Theatre), by the Orchestra Mozart youth orchestra, founded and directed by Claudio Abbado, and in clubs and inns where jazz is regularly played. There are open-air concerts and music can be heard at the Conservatory, the Opera School, and hundreds of music associations operating within the territory.
The strategic location of the city molded its history. Inhabited since the 10th century BC during the Iron Age, it was fortified by the Celts and became a municipality under the Romans. The presence through the centuries of the Huns, Goths, Lombards, Franks, Austrians and French, have each left traces which are still visible on the city today.
Bologna struggled for autonomy, having been dominated by emperors, kings, and the Church. It was ruled by the Pepoli and Bentivoglio families, and was a papal fiefdom. The papal power made it a city of the Guelphs, while many of its residents supported the anti-Papal Ghibellines. Bologna had the first city council in Italy, and was, with the Liber Paradisus law in 1256, one of the first cities in the world to abolish slavery. This political activity was rooted in the lively environment surrounding the Alma Mater, as the university was known.
Bologna developed along the Via Emilia as an Etruscan and later Roman colony; the Via Emilia still runs straight through the city under the changing names of Strada Maggiore, Rizzoli, Ugo Bassi, and San Felice. Due to its Roman heritage, the central streets of Bologna, today largely pedestrianized, follow the grid pattern of the Roman settlement. The original Roman ramparts were supplanted by a high medieval system of fortifications, remains of which are still visible, and finally by a third and final set of ramparts built in the 13th century, of which numerous sections survive.