San Luca

I use it to gauge the weather.
It tells me when I'm almost home.
It works its way amusingly into local language.
It's an anchor, a watchtower, an integral part of what you might call my "adopted heritage", contradictory as that sounds.

One thing I don't think comes across very clearly in what I've written in these pages (almost two years' worth!), is how closely I identify with this city. I've bought into the whole provincialism of this country, where people are hesitant to identify themselves as "Italian", except to foreigners, preferring instead to cite their native city. Local and regional identities are very strong, whereas Italy is mainly just a political entity, a set of coastlines and a border on a map. People do not wear clothing or accessories with the national flag, most don't even know the words to the national anthem. But all can wax poetic about their home town.

Being an expat in this kind of situation is rather tricky. You're not a local, but you've stuck around long enough to prove a sort of loyalty. You're grudgingly admitted to the club, but no real local misses any opportunity to point out that you're a guest member, without full privileges. You may know more about the local history, the hidden treasures of the city, than many who were born and raised here, but you can't change your genes. And if you dare to make the slightest unfavorable comparison between your new home and anywhere else--especially any other Italian city--the response will be an uncomfortable silence. You've broken the code, turned against your gracious hosts, committed a grievous breach of etiquette. Only natives are allowed to criticize, and you should know that by now.

But I, for one, can't help but feel a close connection to Bologna. My criticisms aren't the detached observations of a stranger, but the frustrated complaints of someone who cares.
I won't go back and read through all my past entries and essays to check, but I'm pretty sure I can safely say that when I write about Italy I tend to bitch about a whole array of things, large and small, that irritate me; I may be wry about it, but it all boils down to this: I don't really take this country seriously (then again, most Italians don't seem to, either). Much of what goes on here seems so far beyond the bounds of logic, it's impossible to consider it a major power in the Western world, not since Roman times. I don't feel a part of this country in any way at all.*

On the other hand, I can't play the objective observer when it comes to the city. Bologna is more than just an address, it's a cultural and architectural framework on which to hang my adult life. It's home.


This is one unexpected advantage of working in other cities. My accent, my language, and even certain aspects of my behavior clearly identify me as Bolognese anywhere outside the city limits. Even when people know that I'm "really" American, they can't get away from what they hear and see, and they casually refer to me as being "from Bologna". It sends a little zing of pleasure through me when that happens, when others see me the way I see myself.

The other bonus to driving elsewhere, then having to turn around and come back, is that there always comes that moment when I can smile and realize I'm almost home: when I catch that first glimpse of San Luca, perched atop its hill.


Architecturally speaking, the Santuario della Madonna di San Luca is nothing extraordinary. There are thousands of more beautiful churches in Italy, I daresay a few dozen in Bologna alone.

What makes San Luca special is the way it's woven into everyday life in this city. Bologna without San Luca would be a more barren place, indeed.


It sits modestly atop il Colle della Guardia, or Guardian Hill, calmly surveying the city from its privileged position. If it's true, as the guidebooks say, that Bologna is the world's most porticoed city (who actually goes around measuring that stuff, I wonder?), then San Luca is largely responsible: the portico stretches alongside the stadium, crosses above the street at Meloncello, then snakes up the hill to take pilgrims--or folks just out for a stroll--right to the door of the church.


There is an annual procession that carries an effigy of the Madonna from... um, some church in downtown Bologna (I think it's San Francesco, but I'm not positive), down Via Saragozza and up the hill. She vacations at San Luca for about two weeks, then the whole thing is repeated in reverse. People refer affectionately and humorously to la Madonna di San Luca, often as a way of saying "everything but the kitchen sink", to wit:

I only meant to pack a few things for my trip, but I ended up taking la Madonna di San Luca!

I can see San Luca from my office window, as long as there's no fog. I judge the weather based on how clearly it appears, framed by my curtains. It's a comforting anchor, to look out the window and see it there in the distance, on the far side of the city, looking over the bolognesi as they go about their business.

The bolognesi, and me. Whatever I am.



* Okay, that's not entirely true. I do bristle when people make crass generalizations about the country without having a clue what they're talking about. I like to pretend that's just my deep-seated sense of fairness talking, though, and not really a matter of identity. Back to text.