Living the World’s Longest Arcade

Portico di San Luca, Bologna

It all starts from one of the longest streets in Bologna: Via Saragozza. As commendably described by Serena Bersani: “There’s the Via Saragozza of yesteryear, the one of Pupi Avati’s Bar Margherita, and then there’s the Saragozza Street of Jack Frusciante Has Left the Band, for speeding towards the new millennium on your bike.” Via Saragozza is Bologna. The Bologna of the arcade recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Bologna caught between urban architecture and the natural surroundings, where everything seems to culminate at the Arco del Meloncello. From this arch, the symbolic edge of the city centre, you start the climb towards the Colle della Guardia, where you will find the majestic Baroque sanctuary of San Luca, at an altitude of 300 metres. To get there, you walk an arcade that stretches more than 3,700 metres long (3,796 to be exact), the longest in the world. A triple record-breaker, actually, with its 666 arches and 15 chapels. The more arcane among us will have noted the curious number of arches, which together with the sinuous, serpentine form of the arcade when seen from above suggest a symbolic metaphor of the struggle between good and evil, where the Madonna, the uncontested protagonist of the place, reigns supreme.

Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of San Luca, Bolgona

And it is no accident that this magical place grew out of female energy. The founder of the church dedicated to Mary was a young medieval woman named Angelica Bonfantini. The current building, which is predominantly Baroque in style, is the sum of expansions and posthumous construction, carried out for the most part in the 18th century under Carlo Francesco Dotti, who also designed the Arco del Meloncello. Inside the sanctuary, besides the icon of the Virgin and Child, you will also find three art-historical treasures: a trio of altarpieces by Guercino, Guido Reni and Donato Creti.
Historically, the cult of the Madonna of St Luke exploded in the 15th century and seems to coincide with the “miracle” that took place on 5 July 1433 during a procession to beg the Virgin to stop the incessant rain that had been decimating the farmers’ crops for days. According to the legend, as soon as the procession reached Porta Saragozza, the rain stopped. And the procession has been symbolically repeated ever since, each year during the month of May, before the Ascension.

Vintage photo of the arcade of San Luca with the Sanctuary in the distance. Photo: Piero Poppi

Experiencing the arcade of San Luca, whether on foot, by bike, by car or by bus, is not just a spiritual affair, it is something that transcends the divine and represents the heart of the city spirit. Besides being a treat for the eye, this fascinating walk elevates us to the city’s natural state, offering a panoramic view of the breadth of human activity: from sport and photography to meditation. Everything seems to spring to life, unexpectedly, under the arcades, which follow one after another in a magical, unique, atemporal loop.From those who go for a jog in the early morning to those who do photo shoots during the lively afternoon hours and quiet romantic couples in the lights at night, the arcade is a piece of living anthropology, where you can find all the wondrous nuances of the people who walk along it. It is literally about living the longest arcade in the world.

An old fresco painted in warm hues that range from yellow and ochre to orange and embrace Bologna and its residents and passers-by. A trip through memory, through the chapels and the epigraphs, and a future journey, through its windows onto the greenery and nature, a continuous spectacle that alternates between the hues of day, night and the seasons. The journey becomes something more than a simple walk, it becomes an intimate, personal theatrical pièce, where the ecstasy culminates at the top, at the end of the arcade, where we are met by the irreverent, set-like architecture of the sanctuary, which rises on the Bologna hills, with all the majesty worthy of a sovereign of its time.