Although Bologna is widely recognized as one of most remarkable Medieval cities in Italy, it is also one of the most important centers of the Italian Renaissance period. Nowhere can its historic and artistic evolution be better appreciated than in its many magnificent churches
Wander along its network of Porticoes, the ubiquitous arcades that have been woven into the fabric of the city since the13th century. They are sure to lead to a picturesque piazza, usually dominated by an ancient church. Here are my personal favorites, all within an ten-minute walk from the central Piazza Maggiore.
Basilica of San Stefano
By far the most fascinating is the Basilica of San Stefano. Reaching back to the 5th century and the early days of christianity in Italy, its origins are controversial. According to the most accepted theory, it was build by Petronius, then Bishop of Bologna (dead circa 450 AD), on the ruins of a pre-existing temple dedicated to Isis — a major Egyptian goddess whose whose worship had subsequently spread throughout the Greco-Roman world.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher — The original sanctuary, a reproduction of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, is a small circular space with rising columns, high up arched windows and a domed brick ceiling. In the center is a carved stone structure, part altar, part tomb, flanked by a spiral staircase, and topped with a simple crucifix. Upon his death, Petronius was buried there.
Additional sanctuaries were constructed, all in different styles, over the next six centuries.The San Stefano complex became known as “Sette Chiese” (Seven Churches). While the moniker still endures, changes throughout the centuries have resulted in the current four churches, each a striking example of the evolution of religious Romanesque architecture.
Church of the Holy Crucifix — The only entrance to the complex is through the 8th century Church of the Holy Crucifix. Of Lombard origin, it consists of a single nave with a trussed vault and a raised presbytery. At the center of the presbytery, the Crucifix, by Simone dei Crocifissi dating back to about 1380. On the walls, there are 15th century frescoes with the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen. Under the presbytery, at the far end of the crypt, an altar hold two urns containing the remains of local martyrs: Saints Vitale and Agricola (305 AD). On the sides of the altar, a few years ago, two 16th century frescoes were discovered under layers of plaster, illustrating the martyrdom of Vitale and Agricola.
Church of Saints Vitalis and Agricola — The oldest of the complex, this simple 4th century basilica-shaped church without a transept, is dedicated to saints Vitale and Agricola, respectively servant and master, the first two martyrs from Bologna. Extensively rebuilt in 12th century, it still hold the medieval sarcophagi that once held the remains of the saints, and on the floor, a mosaic of Roman origin.
Church of the Trinity — Originally intended by Petronius as a major basilica to duplicate Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it was never completed (probably due to lack of funds), With the advent of the Lombards, it became a Baptistery, with a remarkable central marble basin and intricate brickworks, in what is now known as the Courtyard of Pilate. Then the Benedictines added a superb cloister with dual storied arcaded loggia (10th -13th centuries). The current church was added in the 13th century, and substantially altered several times since. The church displays statues representing the Adoration of the Magi, also thought to be from the 13th century, and a number of fragments of lovely 14th century frescoes.
Basilica of San Petronio
Dominating the Piazza Maggiore and dedicated to Saint Petronius, the patron saint of Bologna, the Basilica of San Petronio is the most imposing — and the most visited — church in the city. Built between 1388 and 1479, its main facade has remained unfinished ever since. It is the largest church built of bricks in the world. The facade appears cut in half: the base is an opulent creation of rose and white marble, with steeples and decorative sculptures over the portals, then right above it, it’s just plain brown bricks.
The interior, however, is a soaring Gothic extravaganza. Its light-filled nave is lined by 22 side chapels decorated with works by prominent Italian painters and sculptors from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Although Petronius was originally buried in the San Stefano complex, a conflict arose after his canonization and the construction of the Basilica of San Petronio, as to the resting place of the saint’s relics. Eventually, the head of the saint was placed in the Chapel of Cardinal Aldrovandi, now Chapel of San Petronio.
Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore
Located on Piazza Rossini, one of the most attractive squares in Bologna, the Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore was built in the mid-13th century and renovated at the end of the 15th century, which accounts from its Romanesque exterior and Gothic interior. Its single monumental nave houses a wealth of art treasures, most notably in the 15th century Bentivoglio Chapel, regarded as one of the most significant creations of the early Bolognese Renaissance. In addition to the white marble tomb of A.G. Bentivoglio by Jacopo della Quercia, its walls are covered with artwork by Lorenzo Costa, depicting the family’s victories over other Bolognese dynasties.
Santa Cecilia Oratorio — Flanking the Basilica, an elegant Renaissance portico leads to the Santa Cecilia Oratorio, enriched with ten splendid frescoes depicting episodes from the life of the saint and her husband San Valeriano. The paintings were executed in 1504-1506 by some of the most important artists of the Bentivoglio court.
Basilica of San Domenico
Another of Bologna’s most notable churches, the Basilica of San Domenico holds the remains of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order. The tomb is on a raised white marble shrine by Nicola Fisano and the young Michelangelo. The basilica also boasts a remarkable 102 stalls wooden choir that is an exquisite example of Renaissance carving by Dominican Friar Domiano da Bergamo, and magnificent Baroque ceilings
The square in front of the church is paved with pebbles, as it was in medieval times. Here, in addition to a brickwork column holding a bronze statue of St Dominic (1627), two platforms raised on high columns hold the tombs Rolandino de’ Passeggeri by Giovanni (1305) and on the left, adjoining a house, the tomb of Egidio Foscarari (1289), enriched with an ancient Byzantine marble arch with relief works from the 9th century.
Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita
Built in the late 17th century on the foundations of an earlier church, the late Baroque-style Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita (Church of Holy Mary of Life) is especially notable as the home of Compianto del Cristo Morto (Lamentation over the Dead Christ), This haunting terracotta masterpiece of Italian Renaissance sculpture by Niccolò dell’Arca was created during the second half of the 15th century and has been in the church ever since. It features six life-sized figures hovering over the dead Christ, their faces in various stages of grief and torment. The pathos of the scene is magnified by the howling figure of Mary Magdalene entering the scene with her robe and veil flapping in the wind.
Good to Know
- Getting there — By Air: Bologna international airport receives scheduled flights from most major European cities. By train or road: Bologna is easily accessible from all other Italian major cities. High speed trains connect the center of the city to Rome, Florence, Milan or Venice in approximately two hours. There are also direct high speed train connections between Bologna and Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. The A1 highway efficiently connect the city with Florence and Milan.
- Getting Around — The center of Bologna is best explored on foot, following its amazing network of porticoes. To visit further afield, the city’s bus network is extensive and efficient.
- Visiting — San Stefano complex , Via Santo Stefano, 24 – 40125 Bologna, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and 2:30 pm to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday Contact: Tel. +39 0514983423. E-mail. Basilica of San Petronio, Piazza Galvani, 5 – 40124, Bologna is open daily from 8:30 am to 1:00 pm and from 3:00 pm to 6:30 pm. Contact: Tel. +39 051231415. E-mail. Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore, Piazza Rossini – 40126, Bologna is open Monday through Friday from 07:30 am to12:00 noon and 3:30 pm to 6.:30 pm, Saturday from 9:30 am – to 12:30 pm and 3:00 pm to 6:30 pm, Sunday and holidays from 8:30 am to 3:00 pm and 3:00 pm to 6.:30 pm. Contact: Tel. +39 05 122 5970. E-mail. Church of Santa Maria della Vita, Via Clavature, 10 – 40124, Bologna is open Tuesday through Sunday and holidays from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Contact: Tel. +39 05 119 936385.