Two days ago some friends and I decided to make the pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca, on the outskirts of the city of Bologna. The route extends from the gate of the old city walls, the Porto Saragossa, all the way up the hills surrounding the city and on to the Sanctuary which sits atop one of the tallest hills. From the top one can see the city of Bologna on one side, whilst on the other side one can see all the way to the mountains that form the border with Tuscany. The view is breath-taking and well worth the 7km hike (assuming one starts in Piazza Maggiore in the centre of the city). The Sanctuary itself is a basilica which houses an icon of the Madonna and child and was supposed to have been painted by St Luke the Evangelist. The icon was brought to Bologna from Constantinople in 1148 and placed on the hill, which is called La Guardia. The basilica which houses the icon was only built in the 18th century, replacing an earlier 15th century building.
Whilst the basilica was being built, construction began on the building of the portico. The icon of the Madonna is brought into the city every year, on the day of the Ascension, and it is kept overnight in the cathedral of San Pietro before being taken back up to the sanctuary. However, Bologna is capable of having tremendously bad weather (as I discovered when I reached the summit and was greeted by a hail storm at the height of summer) which often resulted in the procession not being able to take place. As such the portico was designed to provide shelter in all sorts of weather and allow the Madonna to be taken into the city every year. The portico, stretching for 3.5km is the longest in the world and snakes around the mountain up to the sanctuary providing great views of the city. However the portico is perhaps more famous for a different reason. Everyone in Bologna will tell you that there are 666 arches making up this portico (as will every guide book, website, and article). However, no one can tell you the reason behind the number of the beast featuring so prominantly on a pilgrimage route. The normal response to my asking about it was to shrug and say “it’s a mystery”. Looking online did not provide any better results. As one might expect I was inundated with conspiracy theories (most of them revolving around trying to prove the Catholic Church is the Antichrist) and Da Vinci Code-esque hypotheses (most of which revolved around the Templars and various attempts to find links with the plot of the fictional novel). There was an additional theory which stated that the number of arches did indeed refer to the devil and that the path winding around the hill was the snake, giving a symbolism to the procession each year of the Madonna trampling the devil.
At first it did seem a bit strange to have such an exact number as 666 and to dismiss it as just a mere coincidence. However, the more I looked into the the less strange it became. For a start the portico was not built in one attempt, bits were added and changed from the 17th century onwards. The very first part of the construction had only 312 arches. Most importantly it depends completely from where one counts. Whilst I was walking the portico I tried to count them (helped by the fact that the numbers are painted on top of the columns). From Porto Saragossa up to the end of the portico, marked by a cross, there are in fact 658 arches, 8 short of the infernal number. One could count the arches from the portico to the door of the basilica but then you would have 670; include all of the arches along the front of the basilica and you get 690 arches (or there abouts). So there aren’t really 666 arches, why lie? It is the sort of thing people get a wierd sort of pleasure from, be it in the form of a consipracy theory or just a sense of perplexion.
Regardless of the number the walk is worth it for the view if nothing else. The basilica itself is nice but nothing particularly special about it appart from the icon of course. Even if there aren’t 666 arches the portico is still the longest in the world. Besides some of the oldest copies of the Book of the Apocalypse claim that the number of the beast is really 616 and therefore it wouldn’t matter even if there were 666 arches.