How do you recognize a Bolognese on a rainy day? He/she will stride confidently down the streets of Bologna without an umbrella, knowing they won’t get wet: there are 53 km of porticoes to shelter them. (38 km are within the 13th century walls, what corresponds to the historic city center).
Porticoes in Bologna aren’t just a defining architectural feature of the city; they’re part of our collective identity as we spend so much time under their protective embrace. And you will too, when you visit!
The porticoes of Bologna have been in the ‘Tentative List’ of Unesco’s World Heritage sites since 2006. Now, the city of Bologna is going to move forward with the candidacy and present the full dossier to Unesco next year, as announced last week at a public meeting in Palazzo d’Accursio. Not all 53 km of porticoes will be nominated, but rather 12 of the most symbolic stretches will. Response on the part of Unesco is expected in 2021.
To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of ‘outstanding universal value’ and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria. For Bologna’s porticoes, it was explained at the meeting, two criteria will be used:
-number iv: “an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;”
-and number ii: “exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design.”
Read on to understand how these two criteria apply to the porticoes of Bologna.
How the Porticoes of Bologna Were Born – and Why They Spread All Over the City
Porticoes were born out of space and social needs. As Bologna began rapidly growing in the High Middle Ages (starting in the 11th century), as an independent ‘Comune’ and as the seat of an increasingly important University that attracted students and professors from all over Europe, it needed new residential and commercial spaces. From the first floor up, residents started to create additional space in their houses by extending the buildings outward; the ledge that was created was supported by wooden beams resting on blocks of stone or selenite (glassy gypsum found in abundance in the Bologna area).
By law, the city of Bologna established that the underlying loggia was to be used as a public space, even though it was built by private citizens on private soil.
It’s this rule that has made the development of porticoes in Bologna different from all other major European cities. Construction of porticoes was standard in the Middle Ages (just as it was in antiquity), but they were mostly for private use. Recognizing the public benefit of having porticoes, when other cities prohibited the construction of further porticoes in order to regulate community space, Bologna instead ordered that porticoes be built on all streets where they would be useful and that their use be public; this law dates from 1288 and is still in force. Building houses without porticoes would become the exception in Bologna.
Of Service for the Community: What Made the Porticoes of Bologna Special
The keyword here is useful: Bologna’s porticoes expanded and became a fixture of the city because they were considered functional. Citizens appreciated the opportunity to walk sheltered from bad weather, while artisans valued the possibility to easily display their merchandise and to work outside rather than in the dark, cramped spaces of the buildings’ ground floor. Students without accommodation for the night found shelter under them.
Realize how forward-thinking Bologna was, compared to other European cities of the time; after all, Bologna, with its university, led the way in the teaching of laws that governed civic life. (Incidentally, Bologna was the first to abolish slavery, in 1256; other cities followed much later.)
The 1288 statute also established that all porticoes should be at least 7 feet high (about 2.70 m) in order to allow the passage of a man riding his horse.
Later, in 1363, a law ruled that wooden porticoes could no longer be built as they were more prone to fire; in 1568, a decree ordered that wooden pillars should be replaced by brick or stone pillars. Not everyone complied, especially in the poorest areas of the city, and some wooden porticoes dating from the 13th century still survive today.
We Bolognesi are so used to the porticoes we no longer pay much attention to the details when we walk under them, but my suggestion for you is to observe closely as you’ll notice a myriad different, compelling features: a special decoration, a unique perspective created by the succession of arches and pillars, how light and shade play together, the variety of arcades, vaults and columns…
In the meantime, read about the monumental Portico di San Luca, famous for being the longest covered walkway in the world, connecting Bologna to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. Its history is quite unique and fascinating; I lead a walking tour up the Portico di San Luca (every Thursday afternoon for groups up to 8 people, as well as private tours anytime; contact me for info: firstname.lastname@example.org).