Postcard from Bologna, Italy: Climbing to visit the Madonna of Saint Luke

“It’s just up this flight of stairs,” the Mister said. But not quite. What appeared to be the top of the mount, it was merely a sharp turn near the bottom of the route leading to the Santuario di Madonna di San Luca.

The Byzantine-styled painting of the Madonna reputedly was brought to Bologna from Santa Sofia in Constantinople during the 12th century. Some devotees claimed the painter was Saint Luke himself, but that probably adds a large number of centuries to her actual age. A chapel was built atop Monte della Guardia to safeguard the icon.

The icon’s popularity in Bologna led to the construction of a massive basilica in her honor during the 1700s. A sheltering arcade, supported by 666 arches, also was built to guide pilgrims up the hill from the city at its feet.

By the end of the day, the Mister’s Fitbit claimed we climbed the equivalent of 79 flights of stairs and walked about nine miles to see her. But, alas, the Virgin was not home. The views of the surrounding countryside and the opportunity to work off some of that pasta were our only, although worthwhile, rewards.

As it turned out, the Madonna was on her annual spring break below in a church about a block or two from our apartment. The Bolognese faithful who are unable to visit her Basilica are rewarded as she spends about a week-long residency rotating among three churches downtown.

A day or two after our climb to visit her we bumped into a long parade of priests in garbs signifying their order and rank – surely, the Vatican must have been emptied – returning her to her basilica. The Madonna was framed beautifully with flowers as she was borne aloft on an ornate litter.

We did not follow along but did notice some practical members of the clergy elected to sport contemporary comfort shoes for the long climb ahead.


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