The Porticoes of Bologna
Ministry of Cultural Hertage and Activies
Region: Emilia Romagna - Province: Bologna
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Today the historic centre of Bologna, that is to say the area included into the city walls of the XIIIth century, contains some 38 kilometres of porticoes build during a long historic period. (through XIth - XXth century). In addition, it is important to mention the 4-kilometer-wall built in 1674, driving to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Luca, on the hill of La Guardia. Thanks to their great diffusion and permanence, the Porticoes of Bologna are considered as 'outstanding universal value'.
Their long permanence and use (about 1,000 years) are due to the importance given to these artefacts in the city of Bologna through the centuries.
In the Middle Ages all the developed cities were characterised by porticoes. Generally, this phenomenon is due to the need of space for dwellings and occupation during a period of economic development and, at the same time, to poor control of public space by the authorities. For this reason, between the XIth and XIIth centuries a great number of porticoes were built in public areas: it is the typical case of ‘private use of public space'. At the end of the XIIth century, because of the great economic development of the cities and the population increase, the municipal authorities needed to put their cities in order: further invasion of public space was prohibited and some bulky buildings - or part of them - were demolished. Up to that moment, the history of Bologna was the same as the one of other cities. But the history of its porticoes was destined to change.
Actually, since the XIth century in Bologna there have been some examples of civic building whose porticoes were built on private space, i.e. without taking up public space. Day by day, this important change became a set rule.
At the end of the XIIth century an important change took place: actually it was no more possible to build porticoes (people needed be licensed to use public space). On the contrary, in Bologna porticoes were defined as compulsory for all the streets where they were considered useful on private soil (as Law settled in 1288), also by preserving their public uses; this law is still in force.
In 1363, it was ordered that no wooden porticoes should be built any longer, and in 1567 it was ordered that wooden pillars should be replaced by brick or stone pillars. Nevertheless, there are still extant nowadays some wooden porticoes dating back to the 13th century.
As well as mirroring the housing demand, the development of porticoes is also related, in particular, to the extraordinary development of the university city between 1100 and 1200, when a huge number of students came to Bologna from all over Europe. This gave rise to a typical housing standard: dwellings for students were available on upper floors, whereas shops and artisans' workshops were located on the ground floor.
All that was possible because the urban community appreciated the possibility of walking on the street sheltered from bad weather and of working ‘en plein air'. Bologna's porticoes became diffused because they were useful, as it is proved by the captation of a miniature painting of a code of the XIIIth century, which depicts a carpenter working on a quite big object, ‘Iste est magister Nicholaus de Rasiglio qui laborat sub porticu domus sue diebus feriatis et non feriatis'. (A.S. Bo. Carpenter's Statute, 1264)
From the architectural point of view, Bologna has been preserving several kinds of porticoes: medieval wooden-porticoes over the building; structural gothic and renaissance porticoes that are integrated into buildings and the nineteenth-century porticoes featuring the court-architecture of town-suburbs where lower classes lived.
Major architects from Bologna have contributed throughout many centuries to create these locations. In the mid-15th century, Aristotile Fioravanti (the architect who built churches and palaces within the Kremlin in Russia) designed the portico of the Palazzo del Podestà; in the mid-16th century, Jacopo Barozzi (also known as the Vignola) built the ‘Banchi portico', in the Pavaglione of Bologna; at the same time, Antonio Morandi (called the Terribilia) created the beautiful portico with sandstone pillars in the Archiginnasio, i.e. the seat of the oldest university in the world. Two centuries before, Antonio di Vincenzo had already built the portico in the Mercanzia Lodges as well as the portico at the Servi church.
After becoming a distinctive building feature of the city, porticoes took on, in some cases, religious and social significance. Ever since the 12th century, the people of Bologna have been used to go up the hill to reach the Holy Shrine of St. Luke's Madonna. This pilgrimage took place by means of steep pathways marked by small votive icons hanging from tree branches. At the end of the 17th century, to shelter citizens going from the city to the Shrine along the devotional pathway, a long, peculiar portico was built thanks to the contributions provided by all citizens; it unwinds itself over a total distance of 3.5 Km and is composed of 666 arches. It stands as the symbol of the civic and religious spirit of the people from Bologna.A similar portico can be found on the opposite side of the city, in the East, joining the heart of the city to the Alemanni church along the Emilia road.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
The porticoes of Bologna can be regarded on the whole as unique from an architectural viewpoint in terms of their authenticity and integrity. Some of them, such as the St. Luke's portico, the Alemanni portico, the Isolani house, the Grossi house, the houses in Begatto street are still composed of the same materials they had been originally built with; in other porticoes the original building pattern has been retained. Indeed, even in the case of renovation works as required to improve housing conditions, porticoes and their public use have always been left in place. For instance, the 1910 Regulations, as well as confirming the prohibition against using wooden pillars, also banned the restoration of old wooden pillars - unless the Municipality recognised that a building was of special interest from an artistic and/or historical standpoint.
Neither the records of the Municipality nor those of the University report that porticoes have ever been demolished, except following war bombings.The porticoes are protected pursuant to national legislation and municipal regulations.
Comparison with other similar properties
In all cities that have developed during the Middle Ages, buildings or streets with porticoes can be found, but they are never a distinctive feature of the urban settlement.
Some European cities still retain porticoed streets. In Padua there are over 20 Km of porticoes, however once the Republic of Venice came to power, the various noble families decided to show off their importance by breaking up the continuity of porticoes and withdrawing the façades of their palaces from the street margins so as to make them more visible and improve lighting conditions.
In the medieval centre of Innsbruck there are only a few porticoed streets. Berne has a single porticoed street for a total of 6 Km. Madrid can flaunt the Plaza Mayor, which started being built during the reign of Philip II and was completed in 1619, surrounded by porticoed buildings.
It is evident that all the above cities, though rich in major architectural works, have not turned porticoes into a feature of their town-planning criteria such as to impact on streets and buildings and become the distinctive trait of the whole city.Conversely, the porticoes of Bologna were first built during the Middle Ages and developed in a really peculiar manner by becoming an urban feature that is mentioned in all local regulations from the 13th century to these days.