Exploring a City Hidden in Plain Sight – Under the skin of Bologna

Novelist Tom Benjamin gets under the skin of Bologna, where its forty kilometres of porticoes have just been granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

In terms of sheer scale, Bologna’s porticoes are unique. Dating from 1100, they were originally constructed to help accommodate scholars pouring into Europe’s first university as landlords built additional rooms over public land. In 1288 they were established by a municipal bylaw, which not only ruled that all new buildings had to be built with a portico, but existing ones had to add them. This policy continued through the Renaissance up to the present day, with the city – which boasts the second largest historical centre in Europe after Venice – displaying a stunning range of porticoes, from those along the main thoroughfares constructed according to the regulation that they should be high enough to accommodate a horse and its mount, to the humble, low slung dwellings you can imagine unscrupulous medieval landlords packing students into (in fact, because each property owns the space outside, they would on occasion even partition off the area outside the house and the poorest students would bed down upon the pavement). 

The porticoes are woven into the fabric of Bologna, providing its character and masking many of its treasures – from Renaissance palaces to medieval convents – lending it a labyrinthine, timeless feel, manna for the novelist. It’s no coincidence the city is viewed as Italy’s giallo – or mystery – capital.  As I write in my debut, A Quiet Death In Italy: ‘A haze of wood smoke hung in the damp streets, cloaked on either side by dark porticoes. The steady drip from a leaky gutter…. A pair of shutters slammed shut. If it hadn’t been for the parked cars, it could have been any time in the past half a millennium.’ Certainly Daniel Leicester, my Bologna-based British sleuth, makes liberal use of them to tail suspects, sip a Montenegro, or simply shelter from the sun, rain or snow. 

Let’s begin our tour with perhaps the first portico the visitor to Bologna will encounter as they leave Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s main square. Renaissance ‘Pavaglione’ beautifies a muscular late-medieval piazza dominated by the bulk San Petronio, the fifth largest church in the world. The portico hides beneath one of its thirty arches the Archiginnasio, the first custom-built seat of the University of Bologna, constructed in the mid-sixteenth century at the behest of Pope Pius IV. 

Photography by Lorenzo Burlando

At the end of Paviglione, we cross Via Farini to enter the portico that borders Piazza Cavour. In contrast to the Renaissance porticoes, this arcade is relatively modern, dating back to the 19th Century and embodying the bourgeois values, and aspirations, of the era – for a few years Bologna was seriously being considered as capital of the newly independent Italy, and the Bolognese cleared a medieval section of the old city to match these ambitions, although by the time work had been completed, Rome had been chosen as the seat of political power. 

Photography by Lorenzo Burlando

It is a five minute walk to The Bastardini in via D’Azeglio, which until 1797 marked the city orphanage, and it is here the second book in my series, The Hunting Season, opens: ‘I walked along our little Via Mirasole then onto D’Azelgio, crossing the cobbled road and stepping up to the old orphanage – the Bastardini – where warm light flooded between the tall, red brick columns. I slowed along with the other pedestrians to savour every last lick of summer. The church bells, which seemed to keep their own hours, began to peal.’

Photography by Lorenzo Burlando

We cross the city. Let’s say it’s a Sunday and we want to join with the locals in that time-honoured Bologna work-out – walking the portico up to San Luca. While medieval towers Garisenda and Asinelli, the fountain of Neptune in Piazza Maggiore, or the church of Sant Petronio might symbolise Bologna to tourists, San Luca is the symbol of Bologna to the Bolognese, as much as Saint Paul’s cathedral, rather than Big Ben or the Buckingham Palace, is to Londoners. The five kilometres of portico, beginning at Via Saragozza and running up to the domed red church on the hill, is the longest in the world. 

Photography by Lorenzo Burlando

Fortunately those five kilometres are easier on the way down, but we are still pretty tired as we head back to the centre for dinner. Before we do, we have one more stop: Piazza Santo Stefano, is home of the The Seven Churches, a religious complex set on the site of a former temple of Isis where Petronio, the patron saint of Bologna, founded a basilica which sought to recall the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Today the piazza is lined by porticoes embodying the romance and glory of the old city. 

Photography by Lorenzo Burlando

Over dinner – inevitably, the local dish of tagliatelle al ragù (although after all that exercise I might choose the even more calorific Cotoletta alla Bolognese, a cutlet breaded with eggs, flour and breadcrumbs covered with a slice of Prosciutto and melted Parmesan cheese) I explain the true joy of Bologna is much like that of Venice – to lose oneself, something as easy to do among the porticoes as canals. The porticoes you discover the next day include… 

  1. Via Ugo Basi
  2. Via Castiglione
  3. Via Santa Caterina
  4. Via Altabella
  5. The Old Jewish Ghetto
  6. The author in Via Mirasole, home of his fictional English detective.

Tom Benjamin’s critically-acclaimed The Hunting Season is available on Amazon, with A Quiet Death In Italy arriving in January. The third novel in the series, Requiem In La Rossa, is due out later in 2022. Follow Tom on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @Tombenjaminsays.