Com'è bella! -- Life Under Bologna's Porticoes

by Mary Tolaro Noyes

It's easy to take them for granted -- Bologna's porticoes -- to walk, eyes focused a step away, not running along the ribbon of walkway that stretches out toward the distant swatch of lucid sky. It's easy to take advantage of the comfort they provide and neither search up into the niches and angles, nor gaze at the shadows casting shapes on the stone pavement while the sun fulfills its daily rounds. It's easy to say to oneself "yes, aren't the porticoes interesting," and not search underneath the reality of their physical presence, to understand the uniqueness and spirit of Bologna that mandated their existence in the 13th century.

To walk under Bologna's porticoes, the nearly twenty-five miles of them that remain today, is to soak in the marvelous life that has and continues to beat there in the Città Rossa. The images push and crowd their way into my mind whenever I remember . . .

"Buona sera, signora!" he greeted me, his voice inflected up as he stopped short, breaking unexpectedly his long, fast stride. The gentleman from the small bank on Strada Maggiore where I always changed my dollars into lire -- and always managed a fine conversation in the meantime -- was hurrying home from work. His free right hand shot out and met mine in salutation under the broad portico between Santa Maria dei Servi and Palazzo Hercolani.

I had been doing my usual late afternoon shopping in Piazza Aldrovandi and my bags were filled with fresh vegetables and fruit, cheese, bread and wine. "Buona sera," I replied, startled to be recognized per strada by someone in the rushing crowd. We stood among congregating students from the Faculty of Political Science, which occupies Palazzo Hercolani, and the bank of parked motociclette. The traffic whizzed by, its noise echoing up underneath the portico as we chatted. Our topics usually centered on my discoveries in Bologna and his study of English.

"How's your book coming?" he questioned with a smile, and we discussed my research, which at that point centered on the Basilica of Santo Stefano. He grew visibly pleased as I described my insights into one of the places that most Bolognesi hold very sacred.

Then we segued, laughing, into the topic of his unwillingness to speak English with me. I asked him how his lessons were coming and he re-explained that he understood abbastanza bene when the teacher spoke, but "I still can't force myself to say anything, Mary, in case I would make a mistake."

"Yes, I understand," I rejoined, "you don't mind deciphering my Italian, including my mistakes, but you have to be perfect before you'll converse in English!"

"You're right" he admitted, "it's a problem and I'm working on it. I guess I need to put some extra effort into the class since I will surely want to read your book!" He added with a smile, "I have to see what an American writes about my city!"

"Don't worry," I teased, as we waved good-bye to each other and went off in opposite directions.


A walk in Bologna under the porticoes tended to be like that, even for me, a visitor. A friendly glance, an animated greeting, a firm handshake -- a merchant or clerk, outside the oft-frequented shop or office would recognize me and a conversation would ensue. Under the portico was an extension of the home, market or office. Sometimes no walls seemed to separate inside and outside. Almost everyone walked, bustled about outside at certain times of the day: hectic morning rush, late morning visit to the nearby bar, early evening shopping and socializing . . . later evening exit to restaurants or concerts. The porticoes connected every aspect of everyone's life to its next stop. The sometimes elegant, sometimes crowded, sometimes dark and narrow, and yes, sometimes dirty and noisy porticoes, became a second home for me, like they are for most of the Bolognesi.


Porticoes did not originate in Bologna. The idea might have come from the Roman maenianum, wooden extensions that overhung the street from the first floor (not the ground floor) of the insulae, the block-long apartment-like complexes characteristic of ancient Rome. After the year 1000 in and around medieval Bologna, religious abbeys, like Santo Stefano and San Procolo, sprung up, with their remarkable and functional cloisters built by the local artisans. A short leap of the imagination shows the connection between them and the porticoed streets in Bologna today.

Perhaps the building of porticoes in the 12th century grew out of two practical needs as well. To protect the production and exchange of their goods from the rain, snow and hot sun, the merchants would attach tent-like awnings to the house or store front and extend them over the street space. Their stalls would often be up close to the edifice for stability, so the covering became a natural way to protect the ongoing work or products or clients.

The population of Bologna in 1230 had doubled due to the huge number of students from around the world that continued to arrive to frequent the University, already famous as the Alma mater studiorum. The medieval walled city was not able to accommodate their constant influx, and the following law was promulgated: whoever took in a student could increase the space in his home by one meter and 20 centimeters by extending outward the wall facing the street. One thing led to another, of course, and eventually what began as a little push outward from the house, called a sporto, became a little bigger extension, until finally, the weight was so great, that trunks of oaks on pedestals of gesso (gypsum) had to be used to support the bulge as it hung out over the street. The 'portico bolognese' was born! Eventually the tree trunks were replaced by pilasters of brick and columns of stone, as one can readily see when traversing the modern city.

Today a group of houses on Via Clavature testify to the development of this type of portico. Casa Isolani in Strada Maggiore (n. 19), Casa Grassi in Via Marsala (n.12) and Casa Rampionesi-Reggiana in Via del Carro (n. 4) illustrate some of the earliest porticoes with the tree-trunk supports. Eventually wood was abandoned in favor of bricks and stone because of terrible fires that destroyed many edifices.

Various community statutes tried to regulate their building and maintenance. In 1249 it was mandated that the height from the ground had to be seven feet, that is 2.66 meters, so that a man on horseback could pass comfortably under them. The house, which used to be the Orphanage of San Leonardo (14th century), at number 17 Via Begatto illustrates the old porticoed house. Then in 1289 a law mandated that the proprietor of any house in Bologna without a portico must construct one. In addition, the maintenance of the private space fell to him, who, nevertheless, must allow public use. A very democratic, egalitarian idea for the Middle Ages! Bologna's solutions for maintaining and regulating her characteristic porticoes function today in more or less the same manner.


And now, to glimpse life as it unfolds and the hidden treasures that abound under Bologna's porticoes, I admonish one . . .

To walk Strada Maggiore Monday through Friday from eight to five when busy people scurry to office, school and market. To walk there when the thrown-open portoni of Palazzo Hercolani (n. 17), Palazzo Davia-Bargellini (n. 44) and the Palazzo Bonfiglioli Rossi (n.29) surprise the pedestrian who grabs a look inside. Their usually hidden courtyards, whose gardens and frescoed tranquillity and graceful stairways up to the piano nobile, expose a 'green' Bologna, a city that is not only stone and brick walls.

To walk Via Zamboni early Sunday morning when silence permeates and the quiet inspires reflection. To stare with wonder at the chunk of medieval wall that borders Piazza Verdi and blends comfortably with the graceful sculpted cornice and arch of the adjacent portico.

To walk Via San Vitale at night, when the porticoes seem like the insides of long, slightly lit, winding serpents, wending way far away into the unfathomable blackness ahead. To notice from the corner of Via Caldarese in daytime the giant 'legs' of the porticoes, like soldiers on a march, while the narrow curve of Via San Vitale heads off toward the medieval Torresotto. To walk sheltered under them when sheets of pouring rain would have pelted me without mercy had I not planned my outing according to their availability.

To walk Via Castiglione on a sunny day and notice the shadows on the parade of ocher-toned houses across the street and realize that every walk everyday seems different depending on the sun. To see what designs I will find there, watching the shadows change almost imperceptibly as the sun takes on and uses the tall, narrowness of the columns and the gentle curve of the arches.

To enjoy the threadlike passageway painted sunny yellow and pumpkin orange on Via Saragozza, then notice the myriad of other shades and transformations as the street wanders toward Il Meloncello. To observe the slices of light that cut the winding tunnel of porticoed stairs under their 666 arches on the incredible trek up to the Sanctuary of San Luca, perched high on Colle della Guardia.

To walk under the broad, elegant, crowded porticoes of Via dell'Indipendenza and under the Portico del Pavaglione, near Piazza Maggiore, when everyone is out shopping or 'being seen'.

To notice the echoes off the stone and brick world everywhere around, not only the traffic noises, but the bells, the marvelous serenade of Bologna's bells amplified a hundred-fold. To notice the mustiness, the smell of old, and feel the cold of the stone in Via Foscherari near Piazza Maggiore or under the Voltone dei Malvasia as it flows into tiny Via del Carro and the old, narrow darkness of the Jewish Ghetto.

To stop sometimes under the portico of Palazzo Bolognini, sit on the raised sidewalk, propped against a column, and watch the world walk or peddle by. To study the diversity of the Renaissance palazzi across Piazza Santo Stefano with their flower boxes spilling red and pink blossoms, and ponder what to do next.

To sit at a table at an outside bar under any one of many porticoes, and read the paper, scour the map or guidebook or just watch the sky as the sun and clouds jostle to dominate the scene. To wonder at the ornamental balcony across the way: who during the centuries stood there, looking down, and why?

To allow the sidewalk display of a little store tease me inside, way into the bowels of a dark, surprisingly large collection of practical housewares and gadgets.

To smile and tip my head in acknowledgment of the barman, who looks out from above his counter as I hurry past and realize that he recognizes me. I am part of his day as he is part of mine.

To walk one time one direction on Via Galliera and then change sides. Perspective brings new images into focus. To search for the sculpted head of Giovanni II Bentivoglio on one of the capitals outside of Casa delle Tuate (n. 6).

To walk toward the intersection with Via Riva di Reno and when I arrive, visualize the grand canal that at one time entered Bologna, hear the slapping water and imagine the silk mills and the flapping clothes of her 'laundromat'.

To look up into the nooks and crannies -- and at the dead end at Via Barberia, for instance, where it begins its escape away from the city-center, and notice the shrine to the Madonna and Child, complete with flowers, votive light and dedications. To wonder at the devotion as I continue on my way.

Then, to walk on, knowing that I will find more treasures under the porticoes. All it requires is a bit of time and paying attention. "Com'è bella, la vita . . ." I say to myself, "how beautiful . . ."


Com'è Bella! - Life Under Bologna's Porticoes Copyright January 1996. All rights reserved. Mary Tolaro Noyes


I am a writer currently working on a short book about Bologna that I hope will be enjoyable to armchair travelers and prospective visitors as well. I invite your comments in English or Italian about Bologna -- or about what I have written.

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Last update: 20-Mar-2004 Page Author: Mary Tolaro Noyes