Bologna’s religious patron saint (Petronio is the ‘civic patron’) is this icon of the Madonna attributed to St Luke, which according to local legend once hung in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. A pious Greek named Theocles had a vision there, in which the Virgin commanded him to remove the icon to the ‘sentinel mountain’. He wandered for years with it, before coming to Rome, where he was taken in by a kindly Bolognese senator who told him about the Colle della Guardia back home.
Nobody knows for sure when the icon turned up (it has been dated to the 12th century), though this sanctuary seems to have begun as a pilgrim hostel, perhaps in the 11th century, before becoming a pilgrimage destination in its own right. Every year, just before Ascension Day in May, the icon descends in procession through the portico to spend a week in the cathedral of San Pietro.
The sanctuary church was designed by Carlo Francesco Dotti in 1723. In this age, when the impulse of Baroque architecture was running out of steam, architects often tried to find inspiration by going back to the origins; this church, with its elliptical shape preceded by a curving portico, draws heavily on Bernini’s revolutionary churches in Rome, built a century earlier.
Still, Dotti had a big problem – making a monument that would make a fitting end to the long pilgrimage walk, and at the same time be a conspicuous landmark, visible from all over Bologna – and his retro creation does the job admirably. The interior is richly decorated; besides the miraculous icon it contains three paintings by Guido Reni and one by Guercino. From outside, there are fantastic views of the Apennines.
As of April 2017, visitors can take in the even more spectacular views from the Panoramic Terrace, reached by way of a 100 steps up a narrow spiral stair to the church's attic for the unique 180 degree view of Bologna and the hills.
Via di San Luca 36. You can climb up under the 666 arches of the amazing Portico di San Luca, starting at Porta Saragozza, or else just take the No. 58 bus from Villa Spada or Arco di Meloncello, both along Via Saragozza west of the Porta Saragozza. Alternatively, take the hop on, hop off San Luca Express Bus €10, which runs between Piazza Maggiore and San Luca weekends in Jan and Feb, and daily Mar-Dec.
Hours Church: Mon–Sat 6.30am–7pm, Nov-Mar 6.30am-5pm.
Panoramic Terrace: Mon-Fri 9.30am-12.30pm & 2.30-7pm; Sat & Sun 9.30am-7pm.
Adm Free for church. San Luca Sky Experience Card: €5; €3 ages 10-18; under 10 free
+39 051 6142339
Images by: Puscas Vadim, GNU Creative Commons Licence