Three Monkeys Online

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Bologna’s Santuario della Madonna di San Luca

From the TMO Bologna City Guide

The hill-top church of San Luca (the santuario della Madonna di San Luca) can be seen from various vantage points around the city, with its impressive 3.5 km covered arcade that slopes down into the city’s Porta Saragozza gate.

A flickr’s eye view of Santuario della Madonna di San Luca

Photos on flickr with the tag ‘ Santuario della Madonna di San Luca

The Church is one of Bologna’s oldest and most dear monuments. Bolognese singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla summed it up perfectly in his song Dark Bologna, dedicated to the city, by starting with the lines:

“Lungo l’autostrada da lontano ti vedró
ecco lá le luci di San Luca
[Along the motorway from afar I’ll see you, there they are the lights of San Luca] “

Because San Luca is the first thing you see coming into the city, by train, car, or from the airport. And what a sight it is.According to legend, the story of the Madonna di San Luca starts in the Basilica of Saint Sophia in Byzantium (Istanbul), where a Greek pilgrim Teocle, in the 1100’s was entrusted with a valuable icon of the Madonna and child, to be brought to the Colle Della Guardia in Italy (the hows and whys of this are medievally vague). The hapless Teocle travelled with the icon to Rome, where he was informed by a helpful senator, Pascipovero, that the mountain in question actually overlooks Bologna in the North. Notwithstanding the dictum ‘beware Greeks bearing gifts’ the then Bishop of Bologna, one Gerardo Grassi, eventually recieved the icon from Teocle, and consigned it to two pious lady-hermits (Azzolina and Beatrice), who lived in a small church overlooking the city on the hill top of Colle della Guardia.

In reality the icon, whilst faithful to the Byzantine school of the 9th and 10th century, was most likely created between the 12th and 13th century by a western artist. The first official Church on the site, though, dates back to 1194.

Saving Bologna from the Rain

In 1433 the city suffered a particularly rainy spring (Bologna’s winter months are cold and often wet), that threatened to ruin crops and bring a disastrous famine upon the city. A bright spark on the City’s ruling council, one Graziolo Accarisi (a noted jurist and lawyer), suggested that the icon of the Madonna and Child be brought down to the city to implore the Madonna to save Bologna from the rain. It worked, and since that year a procession has been held annually, bringing the icon down from the sancturay where it is paraded throughout the city for a week.

The Portico

Given that the Madonna di San Luca saved Bologna from the rain, it’s not surprising that, between 1674 and 1715 the City built the magnifent portico under which pilgrims can walk from the City’s Porta Saragozza gate all the way up to the church. A huge and expensive undertaking, funded by the citizens of Bologna (as you walk along the portico you’ll see various plaques which show who paid for particular sections), the portico is 3.2km long, composed of a continuous stretch of 666 arches and 15 small chapels, making it apparently the longest continuously covered walkway in the world! Particularly handy to protect you from the winter rain, or the roasting summer sun in Bologna.

Walking up to San Luca

From Porta Saragozza

To do the full ‘San Luca’ walk, you need to start at the Porta Saragozza gate of the city. The gate, one of the best kept remaining gates from the city’s medieval walls, includes a small museum dedicated to the Virgin of San Luca. The walk, which procedes along Via Saragozza takes you through a leafy and beatiful part of Bologna – one of it’s most affluent suburbs, where plenty of Villas dot the leafy slopes to your left. Half-way down the road, on the left is the beautiful Villa Spada that contains the museum of tapestery, established in 1990, and some spacious gardens which can make you feel out in the middle of the country. Nearby on the same road is Villa Rose, which hosts occasional art exhibitions. Continue down the road, towards the stadium and the start of the ascent to San Luca, and you’ll see the Teatro delle Celebrazioni , one of Bologna’s funkier theatres which often plays host to interesting plays and concerts.

As you arrive at the start of the ascent to San Luca, take a brief detour to your right, to visit Bologna’s Dall’Ara stadium. Built in the late 1920s during the period when Mussolini’s fascist government sought, with some success, to establish ‘calcio‘ or football as the national game. The stadium was renovated for the Italia ’90 world cup, and hosts regular home games for Bologna F.C.

Cheat and start the walk from the Meloncello Arch

The walk up to San Luca is arduous, so if you want to limit the effort somewhat, you can take a #20 bus from the Porta Saragozza, to the Meloncello arch, which is the starting point of the walk up the Colle della Guardia. climb the steps up to the impressive road-spanning arch designed in 1732 by Carlo Francesco Dotti, and, with a deep breath, start the climb up to San Luca, which will provide you with some stunning views of the city.

Inside the Sanctuary of the Madona of San Luca

While many people take the trip up to San Luca simply to enjoy the hike, and to view the city, the Church itself is obviously well worth a look inside and out. Run by the Dominican order, the modern day church was built, by Dotti, between 1723 and 1757 over the existing 15th Century Church. From the outside the church is delibarately simple and stark, without elaborate decoration, emphasising the simple curves and the impressive dome. Inside, the church has an eliptic plan in the shape of a Greek cross, leading up to the main altar and the Chapel of the Virgin. The Cupola is decorated with frescoes by the late-Baroque Bolognese artist Vittorio Bigari – who also painted the Basilica of San Domenico in the city. The third chapel on the right as one enters,has a painting of the asumption by one of Bologna’s most noted artists of the 17th Century Guido Reni. Other notable works in the church are by Donato Creti, and Giuseppe Mazza.

San Luca by Bus

The public bus company ATC does not provide a direct service from the city up to San Luca. You can, though, take the #20 bus to Villa Spada, from where you can take the private minibus run by the Cosepuri agency. It’s a 20minute ride up to the Basilica, and costs in and around €3 for a return ticket.


The steep 2km road leading up to the Sanctuary, apart from providing an eagle’e eye view of the city’s Dall’Ara football stadium (a prime example of fascist architecture), is also the setting for a number of exciting sporting events. On the un-organised side of things, most weekends you’ll find keen cyclists pitting their muscles against the road’s wicked gradient. On the organised side of things, the road plays host to a stage of the Giro di Emilia, and has also played host to the Giro d’Italia.

Another great event, recently relaunched is the Bologna – San Luca Gran Premio, where vintage cars race up the road in an exciting hill-climb event. The event, first held in 1956, is held over two days in november.