15 November 2017

How San Petronio in Bologna became
the world’s tenth largest church

The Basilica of San Petronio dominates the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I am staying just two or three minutes’ walk from the Piazza Maggiore in the heart of Bologna, where the Basilica of San Petronio dominates the square and is the most imposing and most important church in this city.

This is the tenth-largest church in the world and the largest church built of bricks. It is 132 metres long and 66 metres wide; inside, the vault reaches a height of 45 metres, outside the building is 51 metres high at its façade.

The church is named in honour of Bologna’s patron saint, San Petronio, who was the eighth Bishop of Bologna from 431 to 450. But Building the basilica was a communal project for the people of Bologna, and not of the bishops or the church, and it became a symbol of communal power in Bologna.

Following a council decree issued in 1388, the town council commissioned Antonio di Vincenzo to build a Gothic cathedral, and the foundation stone was laid on 7 June 1390.

From the beginning, the church was planned on monumental scale. To make way for the project, the Curia of Sancti Ambrosini was demolished, along with many other fine buildings, including at least eight churches and towers.

When the architect died, his original drawings were lost and proved difficult to reconstruct his model, so that later plans changed his former proportions.

Building work continued for several centuries. After the first version of the façade was completed, work began on the first pair of side chapels in 1393, yet this series of side chapels was not completed until 1479.

Inside the Basilica of San Petronio, the tenth largest church in the world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Arduino degli Arriguzzi proposed a revised plan for the church in 1514. This envisaged a church in the form of a Latin cross and that would be larger even than Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. However, local tradition says, this ambitious project was quashed by Pope Pius IV. Ever since, the facing of the main façade remains unfinished. Although many architects were commissioned to finish the façade, none succeeded in the task.

Inside, the basilica has 22 chapels, and the treasures include a Madonna with Saints by Lorenzo Costa the Younger, a Pietà by Amico Aspertini, the frescoed walls and stained-glass windows.

In 1530. Pope Clement VII crowned the Emperor Charles V in the Chapel of San Abbondio. Later that century, Pope Clement VIII said Mass in one of the side chapels, and then went out barefooted into the square to bless the people of Bologna.

Giovanni da Modena’s fresco of the Last Judgment was inspired by Dante’s descriptions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The best-known and most splendid side chapel is the Chapel of the Magi, decorated with frescoes by Giovanni da Modena, showing the journey and return of the Magi, and the Last Judgment.

This chapel once belonged to the Bolognini family. The triptych wooden altar with 27 figures was carved and painted by Jacopo di Paolo. The walls were decorated by Giovanni di Pietro Falloppi and Giovanni da Modena with a cycle depicting Episodes in the life of San Petronio (north side), the Journey and Return of the Three Magi (east side), and the Last Judgment, the Coronation of the Virgin Mary and Heaven and Hell, inspired by Dante’s descriptions and with a gigantic figure of Lucifer.

The vaulting and central nave were decorated by Girolamo Rainaldi, who completed this work in 1646-1658. Above the high altar, the crucifix hanging from the ciborium dates from the 15th century. In the right nave, in the niche under the organ, is the Deposition of Christ, by Vincenzo Onorfi, with seven terracotta figures.

The church also has a marking in the form of a meridian line inlaid in the paving of the north aisle in 1655. It was calculated and designed by the astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who was teaching astronomy at the University of Bologna.

A meridian line does not indicate the time, but instead the day of the year and meridian lines were also used to determine accurately the length of the solar year. At 66.8 metres, it is one of the largest astronomical instruments in the world.

Its length corresponds to the 600000th part of the earth meridian. In 1775, it was restored by the astronomer Eustachio Manfredi, who substituted an iron line with a brass one.

Later, Elisa Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, was buried here.

The church was not transferred from the city to the Diocese of Bologna until 1929, and the basilica was finally consecrated in 1954. In 2000, the relics of San Petronio were moved to the church the Church of Santo Stefano, where they had been held for centuries.

The altar in the Chapel of Saint Bridget (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A warrior cardinal who gave his name
to a college and hotel in Bologna

Cardinal Gil Álvarez Carrillo de Albornoz … his red hat gives the Al Cappello Rosso Hotel in Bologna its name

Patrick Comerford

The red hat of a 14th century Spanish cardinal gave its name to the Al Cappello Rosso Hotel, where I am staying in Bologna this week. The hat in question belonged to Cardinal Gil Álvarez Carrillo de Albornoz (1310-1367), who is known in Italian as Cardinal Egidio Albornoz.

Cardinal Albornoz was born at Carrascosa del Campo in the early 14th century. He was the son of Gil Állvarez de Albornoz and of Doña Teresa de Luna. His father was a descendant of King Alfonso V of Leon, his mother belonged to the royal house of Aragon, while his uncle, Jimeno de Luna, was Archbishop of Toledo.

He was educated at Zaragoza, while his uncle was the Bishop of Zaragoza, and later he studied law in Toulouse.

The power and influence of his family secured him an early career in Church and State. While he was still in his 20s, he was appointed Archdeacon of Calatrava and to the King’s Council while young.

In 1338, when he was still only 28, he succeeded his uncle as Archbishop of Toledo through the patronage of King Alfonso XI of Castile. Two years later, at the battle of Rio Salado in 1340, he successfully fought against a Muslim invading force from Morocco, and at the capture of Algeciras in 1344 he commanded an armed force he had been raised in his diocese.

Meanwhile, as Archbishop of Toledo he convened two reform synods, one at Toledo in 1339, the other at Alcalá in 1347.

At the same time, he was advancing in his diplomatic career, and in 1343 he was sent to Pope Clement VI at Avignon in to negotiate a grant of a tax on the revenues of the Church for the Crusade. But Archbishop Albornoz left Spain when King Alfonso XI died in 1350, and never returned. It was said that he was fleeing King Pedro ‘the Cruel’ of Castile.

In the courtyard of the Church of San Clemente in Rome … Albornoz became the cardinal-priest of San Clemente in 1350 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

His military and diplomatic ability soon came to the attention of the Pope, who made him the cardinal-priest of San Clemente in Rome in December 1350, and he then resigned as Archbishop of Toledo.

Two years later, after the election of Pope Innocent VI in December 1352, he was appointed grand penitentiary and became known as the ‘Angel of Peace,’ a title loaded with irony, given his subsequent future military campaigns in the Papal States.

In 1353, Innocent VI sent Albornoz from Avignon as his legate to Italy, with the mission to restore papal authority in the states of the Church. He arrived in Italy with a small mercenary army, and immediately received support from Archbishop Giovanni Visconti of Milan, along with the Archbishops of Pisa, Florence and Siena. At the Battle of Viterbo on 10 March 1354, he defeated Giovanni di Vico, who had usurped much of the Papal territories in the Latium and Umbria.

Albornoz then moved on to the Marche and Romagna, forcing more cities, including Ravenna and Ancona, to surrender to his military might and forcing once-powerful families to submit to the Pope. At the end of 1356, Albornoz was appointed Bishop of Sabina.

Before being recalled to Avignon in 1357, Albornoz issued the Constitutiones Sanctæ Matris Ecclesiæ, generally known as the ‘Egidian Constitutions.’ They regulated all matters in the Papal States and remained in force until 1816.

On his return to Avignon, Albornoz was feted as Pater Ecclesiæ, but he soon returned to his campaigns in Italy. In this second campaign, he missed only Bologna to complete his rebuilding of the Papal States. When Bologna was attacked by Bernabò Visconti of Milan, the city’s ruler, Giovanni d’Olleggio, decided to surrender Bologna to Albornoz.

The red hat of Cardinal Gil Álvarez Carrillo de Albornoz gives the Al Cappello Rosso Hotel in Bologna its name (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

When Pope Innocent VI died in 1362, it is said, Albornoz turned down an offer of being elected to the papacy, and Urban V was elected instead. Once again, Albornoz returned to his military campaign against Visconti.

When all attacks failed, Pope Urban proclaimed a crusade against Visconti, but the eventual treaty was highly favourable to Visconti.

The military career of Albornoz ushered in a decade of warfare and atrocity that culminated in the massacre of Cesena. The town was faithful to the Papal cause but the entire population was executed by the Papal forces while paving the way of Urban V to Rome in 1367.

However, despite all his military campaigns, Albornoz achieved little to secure the submission of Italy to the Papacy. Instead, he was responsible for spreading bloodshed and strife throughout Italy. Yet, as a mark of gratitude, the pope appointed him the Papal Legate at Bologna in 1367.

Albornoz died at Viterbo 650 years ago, on 23 August 1367, and was buried in the Church of Saint Francis in Assisi. Four years later, his body was taken back to Toledo, where King Henry of Castile had him buried with full royal honours.

In his will, Albornoz also provided for the foundation of the College of Saint Clement in Bologna (Collegium Albornotianum) for 24 students from Castille, Aragon and Portugal, with two chaplains.

Today, the Collegio di Spagna (Royal Spanish College or Royal College of Spain in Bologna, officially Real Colegio Mayor de San Clemente de los Españoles) is a college for Spanish students at the University of Bologna. Arguably, it is the oldest institution carrying the name Spanish outside of Spain, predating the union of the crowns that led to the formation of the Kingdom of Spain.

The red hat of Cardinal Albornoz at night at the Al Cappello Rosso Hotel in Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)