The city of Bologna has over 30km (20miles) of porticoes, the covered walkways in front of its shops and city buildings, perhaps the most distinctive feature of this former walled city which grew rich on trade routes of northern Italy. I had always heard of Bologna as an industrial town, giving it a somewhat dreary image that meant I had missed it for Rome, Venice and Florence.
But of course I have been distracted by guide book tourism. Outside its old centre Bologna is part of Italy’s industrial north and the roadsides have many factories and warehouses. But in a country like Italy, bursting with gems of antiquity and culture, it is easy to overlook places that in any other country would be star attractions. It was only after visiting the centre this weekend that I found so much more. As a morning person I loved the tranquillity and the hazy sunshine as the city came to life.
At the weekend Bologna’s mediaeval streets are closed to traffic and after slow relaxed early morning the city gradually starts to bustle and then bursts out into lively evenings as the student population of the oldest university in the world hits the streets. The porticoes themselves create an interplay of light and shade which lends itself to photography and the weekend scene is wonderfully undisturbed by engines.
My host was proud Bolognese Moreno who was determined not only to give me the tour but to represent the sights as a symbol of the city’s population – hard working and business-like, none of your fancy types of Florence or Milan here.
He identified the porticoes as the symbol of this industrial culture. Today they are shopping heaven. Each portico has its own character, differing slightly in the height of the arches, the spacing of the columns of the colour of the plaster. But they provide the model for the shopping mall of the 20th Century – cool in the heat, dry in the rain or snow, cover for eating and drinking.
Their origins actually are in sales, but the portico itself was the sales space, craftsmen acquiring a bit of the street to lay out their wares while the building behind was the workshop and store for each craft. Fed by the trade routes between the many cities there was an abundant supply of material which the craftsmen converted for sale. Each street has its own trade, from fishmongers to jewellers, bakers and woodworkers.
This trading pattern also brought us other features of modern commercial life. Bologna has one of the first stock exchanges in the world, financing the business ventures of the larger families and merchants, not to mention the towers they built to show off their power and status. And I learned the origin of two of the most feared phrases of commercial life – “bankrupt” or “broke”. When you defaulted on your debts in mediaeval Italy the bankers would come to the display in front of your workshop and break your shelves to stop you trading. The bank “ruptures” your shelves and you were indeed “broke”.
The very oldest porticoes surviving today didn’t have the more modern columns, they have just timbers or arches supporting the lodgings above the store. You can see examples down some of the narrower side streets and over the older shops. But gradually the city insisted that property owners build and maintain the columned walkways which feature today. However to underline the workmanlike image which Bologna cultivates the columns here were built of brick, not the marble that adorns Rome and Florence.
Heavily damaged in the Second World War many have been restored.The more pretentious arcades are clearly prized by the most aspirational brands, but of course there are just a few that really feel like they shouldn’t be here.
OK call me a culture snob if you must, but it just isn’t right – is it?
After trade the other cultural icon of the Bolognese is food. The city has apparently been called la Grassa or “Fat one” and all food lovers know Bolognese sauce. But other pasta such as filled tortellini have equal billing here. Without understanding a word of the Italian it was enough to listen to Moreno and our waiter argue about whether it was ever acceptable to serve tortellini with sauce to know that this really matters in Bologna. Moreno lost the argument too, a rare occurrence. The restaurant would clearly rather we left than defile the tortellini with sauce, but the broth in which they came was exquisite, a delicate clear consommé.
These bakers making the craft breads in front of the old church on Sunday morning were representing the artisan bakers of the whole district with a constant bustle of locals buying by the bagful to go with Sunday lunch.
I could get very, very attached to a historic and attractive city that has thousands of bicycles, clears its streets for its people and places such value on community, work, food and education. Bologna has clearly been hard-done-by in the competition for guide book reviews, it provided a thoroughly enjoyable weekend.