It is simply impossible to imagine Bologna without its colonnades. An architectural feature that is so widespread throughout the city, the colonnade has become a symbol of the city itself, like its famous two towers or tortellini. Moreover, they are the reason the city has become a world record holder: with a total distance covering almost 40 kilometres, the Bolognese colonnades are the longest in Italy and in the world.
Halfway between “inside” and “outside”, the colonnades have always been conducive to social interaction and commercial activities, but they also have a practical function since they act as protection from the weather and the sun, allowing the Bolognese locals and tourists alike to walk comfortably through the city (almost) always with a roof over their heads. The colonnades are also one of the candidate sites for UNESCO World Heritage status.
How did the colonnades come about? To learn about their origins, we have to jump back to the Middle Ages, when the increase in population, which was linked, in particular, to the influx of people attending the university, made it necessary to create new urban spaces.
This led to the idea of expanding the upper floors of the buildings with the construction of a sort of wooden balcony (called a sporto, or protrusion), which was added onto the façade. Over time, these extensions grew in size until they needed to be supported with wooden beams, resting on street level.
This all began in the eleventh century, but, two centuries later, due to the proliferation of this practice, the City of Bologna established the obligation to build a masonry porch for each dwelling (1288 AD). From that moment on the colonnade officially became a place of trade and commerce, as well as the space in which artisans kept their workshop.
However, some rare wooden colonnades have survived to the present day in the historic city centre. To see this incredible legacy of the past with your own eyes, just look for the picturesque Isolani House on the Strada Maggiore, or stand in the piazza under the Two Towers and admire the nearby colonnades of the Reggiani-Seracchioli houses.
The journey through Bologna’s colonnades continues along the Strada Maggiore with the Santa Maria dei Servi Church, which boasts the widest colonnade in the city, home of the Christmas market of Santa Lucia. Not far from Piazza Maggiore is the colonnade of the Archbishop’s Palace, which, at 10 metres tall, is the highest, built in 1293 AD on Via Altabella. By contrast, at only 95 cm wide, the colonnade of the central Via Senzanome wins the title of the narrowest colonnade.
The majestic colonnade that climbs up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca deserves a paragraph all its own. A succession of 664 arches, for a total of 3.796 km, make this colonnade the longest in the world. It was built between 1674 and 1739 AD for religious reasons: it was necessary to protect the faithful who attended the annual procession of the holy image of the Madonna of St. Luke to the old city centre, a ritual still celebrated today.
After a flat stretch that starts just outside Porta Saragozza, the route begins to climb uphill in the stretch called Meloncello and from here, step after step, eventually reaches San Luca, at an altitude of 270 metres. There are many athletes today who jog up to the Sanctuary; it can also be reached by car or by train on the San Luca Express.