BOLOGNA — This is the story of Bologna and her porticos. We SAIS Bolognese use them everyday, yet know little of their origins. Most assume they are for escaping from foul weather, but there is more to it than that. Hold onto your behinds. It is a wild ride.
The tale begins in the Middle Ages. The urban migration of students to the University of Bologna caused tremendous growth in the city’s population. To accommodate the influx of residents, property owners began building the sporto, a protruding wooden structure meant to extend the inner living space of second and third level floors. As the structures increased in size and weight, large wooden beams were installed to shoulder the weight, stretching down to the street.
Streets became crowded as more structures were built, leading the city to take action. Instead of prohibiting porticos, as was done in surrounding cities, in 1288 the Bologna city council made them mandatory. The statutes created standards like a minimum height requirement “in order to allow the passage of a man riding his horse.” These standards had lasting implications and have contributed to the walkways we use today.
As porticos spread, they became a defining feature of Bologna. Professor Anna Ottani Cavina, adjunct professor of Italian Art History and professor emeritus of art history at the University of Bologna sees porticos as integral to Bologna’s identity: “Streets like Strada Maggiore have architectural variation in their porticos that’s marvelous. The porticos and color of the town – the red, yellow, and orange – are the two peculiar urban traditions of Bologna.” They are of such importance that following the Allied bombing of the city during World War II, one of the top priorities in reconstruction was to save the porticos.
And now, with 38 kilometers of beautiful, rain-stopping porticos in the city center and the winter months looming, we are thankful for that foresight.