11 May 2020
A lockdown ‘virtual
tour’ of a dozen
churches in Bologna
The lockdown introduced as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic continues to grip most of Europe, and the latest discussions indicate there may be no travel from Ireland to other parts of Europe for the rest of 2020.
But I can still travel in my mind’s eye. And, so, in the spirit of my recent ‘virtual tours’ over the past month or two, I invite you to join me this evening on a virtual tour of a dozen or more churches and basilicas in Bologna.
1, Cathedral di San Pietro:
Bologna’s Cathedral, the Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro or Cattedrale di Bologna on Via Indipendenza, is dedicated to Saint Peter. Most of the present cathedral dates from the 17th century, but some parts date from the late 16th century.
A cathedral was standing on this site from at least 1028 had a pre-Romanesque campanile with a circular base, similar to the style of churches in Ravenna. This church was destroyed by a devastating fire in 1141. It was rebuilt and was consecrated by Pope Lucius III in 1184.
A high portico as added to the west front in 1396, which was rebuilt in 1467. The painters Francesco del Cossa and Ercole de’ Roberti from Ferrara worked in the Garganelli Chapel from ca 1477, creating frescoes that later influenced Niccolò dell’Arca and Michelangelo. Apart from a few fragments, these frescoes were lost in later reconstruction.
When Pope Gregory XIII made the Bishop of Bologna an Archbishop in 1582, the cathedral became a metropolitan church.
Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti began a radical remodelling of the cathedral in 1575. The crypt and the Greater Chapel (Capella Maggiore) survive from that time. However, the alterations were so extensive the vaults collapsed in 1599, and it was decided then to rebuild the main part of the cathedral. Work on the new building started in 1605. A new façade, added in 1743-1747 on the instructions of Pope Benedict XIV, was designed by the architect Alfonso Torreggiani.
The works of art in the Baroque interior include the Annunciation by Ludovico Carracci, a Romanesque Crucifixion in cedarwood, and an early 16th century sculptured group in terracotta by Alfonso Lombardi depicting the Compianto su Cristo morto (‘Lament over the Dead Christ’). The early 20th-century paintings by Cesare Mauro Trebbi (1847-1931) in the apse including ‘Saint Anne in Glory.’
The early campanile was never been rebuilt. The bell in the present bell tower is known as ‘La Nonna’ and weighs 3,300 kg.
2, The Basilica of San Petronio:
The Basilica of San Petronio dominates the Piazza Maggiore, the main square in the heart of Bologna, 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 brick. 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, San Petronio, who was Bishop of Bologna in 431-450. 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 in 1388, Antonio di Vincenzo was commissioned to build a Gothic church, and the foundation stone was laid in 1390. From the beginning, the church was planned on a 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 it was 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.
Arduino degli Arriguzzi proposed a revised plan for the church in 1514 in the form of a Latin cross that would be larger even than Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. However, tradition says, this ambitious project was quashed by Pope Pius IV. Ever since, the facing of the main façade remains unfinished.
Pope Clement VII crowned the Emperor Charles V in the Chapel of San Abbondio in 1530. 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.
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.
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 on the 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. 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.
Later, Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Bonaparte, was buried in the church.
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.
3-6, The ‘Sette Chiese’ or Seven Churches:
The ‘Sette Chiese’ or Seven Churches is an ecclesiastical complex that is known as Bologna’s Holy Jerusalem It is a little Zion in a quiet piazza in the heart of Bologna. For more than 1,000 years, this collection of churches, including the Basilica of San Stefano (Basilica di Santo Stefano), the has been known as the Sancta Jerusalem Boloniensis, or Bologna’s Holy Jerusalem.
San Stefano is not just one church or basilica, but a complex of church buildings known locally as Sette Chiese (‘Seven Churches’) and also as Santa Gerusalemme (‘Holy Jerusalem’).
Santo Stefano faces onto Piazza Santo Stefano, a long isosceles triangle rather than a square, and one of the most beautiful of Bologna’s many piazze. San Stefano and its precincts stand at the far end of this piazza, at the shortest edge of the triangle.
Although this architectural ensemble is sometimes called Le Sette Chiese or the Seven Churches, the number seven has a mystical significance, and in fact there are now four churches, fused together in this complex maze or ecclesiastical labyrinth.
3, The Church of the Crucifix (Basilica of San Stefano):
The entrance to Santo Stefano is through the largest and most prominent building, the Church of the Crucifix, an austere space dedicated to the Passion of Christ. The Church of Saint Stephen or of the Holy Crucifix, was built in the eighth century and reshaped in the 17th century, with a crypt.
The altar stands on a mezzanine at the top of a double flight of stairs. Suspended above is a Byzantine-style crucifix, with a grey and skeletal Christ close to death, watched by his mother, the Virgin Mary, and Saint John the Evangelist. This is the work of the artist who became known as Simone de’ Crocifissi, or Simon of the Crucifixions.
A similar crucifix, but Baroque in style, hangs at a distance behind the first crucifix, in the apse of the church. These two works are separated by about 10 metres and 200 years. The Abbot Martino was buried in the crypt below in 1019.
4, The Holy Sepulchre:
A low door on the left of the Church of the Crucifix leads into the second church in the complex, the Holy Sepulchre. This tall, cylindrical building stands on the site of a Roman temple of Isis, the first sacred building on the site.
According to tradition, Saint Petronio built the basilica over the temple of the goddess Isis, replacing it with a building that recalled the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. However, the building seen today is more likely to have been modelled on the later Crusader Church than the earlier Constantinian church.
One of the Roman columns still stands, a slim marble rod jammed up against a stouter brick-built neighbour.
In the middle stands a 1,000-year-old mausoleum – a building within a building. It was planned as a replica of the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but has been altered and amended down the centuries. This was the burial-place of Saint Petronio, the fifth century Bishop of Bologna and patron of the city. At the bottom of the structure, like a grate in a fireplace, is a barred window, through which the grave of Saint Petronio could be seen. His body was moved in 2000 to the Basilica of Saint Petronio in the Piazza Maggiore, where his head was already enshrined.
The decorative work includes winged griffins, stylised lions, and three dozing soldiers who slept through the Resurrection.
5, The Basilica of Saint Vitale and Saint Agricola:
The Holy Sepulchre leads to the Basilica of Saint Vitale and Saint Agricola, built in the fourth century, and rebuilt in the 12th century.
These two Romans, master and servant, were the first citizens of Bologna to become Christian martyrs when they were tortured to death in the year 305 during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. Their bodies are said to have been found in the Jewish cemetery by Saint Ambrose of Milan when he visited Bologna in 392 and were reburied.
The church is bare but has some warm decorative touches, such as the low-relief peacocks and deer on the stone sarcophagus the saints.
Outside the Holy Sepulchre, the Courtyard of Pilate (Santo Giardino, the Holy Garden), dates from the 13th century and recalls the Roman paving in Jerusalem where Christ was condemned.
In the centre, a marble basin known as the Catino di Pilato is a Lombard work from 737-744, recalling how Pilate washed his hands of responsibility for what happened to Christ. The marble basin was the gift of the Lombard kings, Liutprando and Ilprando, who regarded Saint Stefano as their main religious centre.
Under the portico at the centre of a window on a column, a 14th-century sculpted rooster, known as the Rooster of Saint Peter, recalls the biblical story of Saint Peter’s denial.
The Benedictine cloisters, dating from the 10th to-13th centuries, have a double open gallery that is one of the most splendid works of Romanesque architecture in this region of Italy.
The capitals of some of the columns take the form of unhappy, naked little men, hunched or crouching or, in one case, clinging to the top of the column like a monkey on a palm trunk. These naked homunculi are the work of the Lombards, who are also responsible for the magnificent brickwork patterns, like a patchwork quilt in shades of terracotta, that make up the walls of Pilate’s Courtyard.
6, The Church of the Holy Cross (Church of the Trinity):
The fourth church in this complex, the Church of the Holy Cross or the Martyrium, is also known as the Church of the Trinity and dates from the 13th century. Its width is greater than its length, and it features a series of niches along the back wall.
Originally, the church was built in the form of a basilica with five naves, with an apse in front of the Courtyard of Pilate and the façade to the east. But due to a lack of the building remained unfinished, and it later became a baptistry.
One niche contains a colourful and joyful group of wooden figures representing the three kings presenting their gifts to the Christ Child. These too are the work of Simone de’ Crocifissi.
A horizontal wooden statue depicts the dead Christ, his feet foremost, his pierced hands crossed over his abdomen, his head lost in shadow.
The small chapel, known as the Chapel of the Bandage (Cappella della Benda), is dedicated to the strip of cloth worn around the head by the Virgin Mary as a sign of mourning. This is now a museum.
7, Basilica di San Domenico:
The Basilica of San Domenico dates back to the arrival of Saint Dominic in Bologna over 800 years ago in the year 1218. The basilica is visited regularly by pilgrims and tourists because Saint Dominic is buried inside the church in the exquisite shrine of the Arca di San Domenico.
The shrine is the work of Nicola Pisano and his workshop and of Arnolfo di Cambio, and there are later additions by Niccolò dell’Arca and the young Michelangelo.
When Saint Dominic (Dominic Guzman) first arrived in Bologna in January 1218, he was impressed by the vitality of the city and recognised the importance of the university city.
The first house for Dominicans was established at the Mascarella church by Reginald of Orleans. But this house soon became too small for the growing number of friars, and in 1219 the brothers of Saint Dominic’s Order of Preachers moved to the small church of San Nicolò of the Vineyards at the outskirts of Bologna.
Saint Dominic also moved to this church and the first two General Chapters of the Order of Preachers or Dominicans were held here in 1220 and 1221. Saint Dominic died in that church on 6 August 1221, and was buried behind the altar of San Nicolò.
The Dominicans bought all the plots of land surrounding the church between 1219 and 1243. After Saint Dominic’s death, the church of San Nicolò was expanded and a new monastic complex was built between 1228 and 1240.
The church was then extended and grew into the Basilica of Saint Dominic, which would become the prototype of many other Dominican churches throughout the world.
The basilica was divided in two parts divided by a ramp: the front part, or ‘internal church,’ was the church of the brothers, and the church for the faithful, or the ‘external church.’ The church was consecrated by Pope Innocent IV in 1251.
Saint Dominic’s body was moved in 1233 from a place behind the altar to a simple marble sarcophagus. But most of the pilgrims could not see the new shrine, which was hidden by the numbers many people standing in front of it.
But the large number of pilgrims created a need for a new shrine, and in 1267 Saint Dominic’s body was moved from the simple sarcophagus to a new shrine, decorated with episodes from the life of the saint by Nicola Pisano.
Saint Dominic’s chapel has a square plan and a semi-circular apse, where the remains of the saint rest in the splendid Arca di San Domenico under the cupola which contains three sculptures by Michelangelo: Angel, Saint Proclus and Saint Petronius.
The chapel was built by the Bolognese architect Floriano Ambrosini, replacing the old gothic chapel from 1413, to match the splendour of the other existing chapels. It was decorated between 1614 and 1616 by important painters of the Bolognese school.
Over time, the church was enlarged, modified and rebuilt. New side chapels were built, a bell tower was added, the dividing wall between the two churches was demolished, and the choir was moved behind the altar. Then, in 1728-1732, the interior of the church was completely rebuilt in the Baroque style by the architect Carlo Francesco Dotti (1678-1759) under the patronage of Pope Benedict XIII, who was a Dominican.
The square in front of the church, now paved with pebbles, was also the original cemetery. In the middle of the square, a bronze statue of Saint Dominic (1627) stands on the top of a brickwork column. Close-by are two Byzantine-Venetian-style tombs of the celebrated jurists of Rolandino de’ Passeggeri and Egidio Foscarari.
8, Basilica di San Francesco:
The Basilica of Saint Francis (San Francesco) was founded in the 13th century, and has belonged to the Conventual Franciscan friars since then.
At first, the Franciscans had a modest house in Bologna, Santa Maria delle Pugliole, founded in 1211 by Bernard of Quintavalle, one of the first Franciscan friars. Saint Francis of Assisi visited Bologna in 1222, sparking interest in his new order.
At the request of Pope Gregory IX, the city authorities gave the property on which the basilica stands to the friars in 1236. This area was known as civitas antiqua rupta (‘the old city ruins’), and included the remains of the Roman city of Bononia.
The church was consecrated in 1251 by Pope Innocent IV, and the main structure was completed in 1263.
The architect of the church is unknown. When the vault of the apse collapsed in 1254, the restoration work was supervised by a friar, Andrea Maestro della Ghiexia, described as ‘of the twisted legs.’
Although the church has a Romanesque façade, it is one of the best examples of French Gothic architecture in Italy. The interior has a nave and two aisles, the apse has a corridor, and the high vaults are divided into six sections, like in Notre-Dame in Paris, with ogival arches.
The friary was known as a centre for musical performances and studies in the 18th century, with a girls’ choir singing at the services.
The church was desecrated by occupying French troops in 1796, the friary was used as a barracks, and the works of art in the church were seized and scattered. The church was restored to religious use in 1842, but was seized again during the Second Italian War of Independence and used as a storehouse. It was finally returned to the Franciscans in 1886.
The restoration of the church, supervised by Alfonso Rubbiani, was completed in 1919.
9, Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore:
The Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore (Saint James the Great) was built as part of a monastery of Augustinian friars. It was built in 1267 and is known for the Bentivoglio Chapel and the Poggi Chapel, with their Renaissance works of art.
A community of hermits founded by the Blessed John the Good of Modena was living near the walls of Bologna, along the Savena river, as early as 1247. They founded a monastery a church dedicated to Saint James the Great.
The hermits merged in 1256 with other eremetical communities in the Bologna region to form the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine, and one of their members was elected the first Prior General of the new order.
The new order needed a larger religious complex within the city walls, in 1267 work began on building a new church on the present site. The building was finished in 1315, and it was consecrated in 1344 following the completion of the apse. The church was built in sober Romanesque style, with some Gothic elements, and had a single nave, a polygonal apse-chapel and two square chapel.
The Bentivoglio family built their family chapel in the church in 1463-1468, and added a long portico on the Via San Donato (1477-1481). The bell tower was raised in 1471 and the interior was largely renovated in 1483-1498 with a new cover and a dome. New chapels were created in the side walls, and these were decorated with Renaissance and Baroque altars and paintings.
The Augustinian friars were expelled by the French in the early 19th century. They returned in 1824, although part of the monastery remained a music school, now the Conservatorio Giovanni Battista Martini. The friars later gave up the monastery and kept only of the church.
10, Santa Maria della Vita:
Santa Maria della Vita is a late Baroque-style church in the Quadrilatero, near the Piazza Maggiore. The church is the most important example of Baroque art in Bologna. It was first built for the religious confraternity known as the Compagnia dei Battuti, active in Bologna as early as 1260, offering shelter to pilgrims and care for the sick.
The story of this church dates back to a former Franciscan friar, Ramiero Barcobini Fasani, who set out from Perugia in 1260 and who had gathered 20,000 followers along the way. On their journey, they flagellated themselves in imitation of Christ’s Passion, and called for peace between the different warring Christian factions.
When Ramiero arrived in Bologna, he founded the Confraternity of the White Flagellants and set up a hospital or hostel for pilgrims and the infirm. Their first church was dedicated to Saint Vitus but soon became known as the Chiesa della Vita (the Church of Life) because of the life-saving work of the doctors in the hospital. In time, the hospital, church and oratory became known as Santa Maria della Vita.
The church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1686, but was soon rebuilt. Building a new church began in 1687-1690 with designs by Giovanni Battista Bergonzoni, who built the elliptical plan. The dome designed by Galli Bibiena was completed in 1787. The façade was added in 1905.
The Ospedale della Vita was merged in 1801 with the neighbouring Ospedale della Morte (Hospital of Death) to form the Grande Ospedale della Vita e della Morte.
Inside the church, the Compianto sul Cristo Morto (‘Lamentation over the Dead Christ’), by Niccolò dell’Arca, dates from 1465. It is the largest collection of terracotta sculptures of the Italian Renaissance and was called the ‘scream of stone’ by Gabriele D’Annunzio.
The Museum of Health and Assistance (Museo della Sanità e dell’Assistenza) is beside the church.
11, Santissimo Salvatore:
Santissimo Salvatore on Via Zamboni is a Baroque-style church on the site of a 12th-century church of the Canons Regular of Santa Maria di Reno. The only surviving feature from the earlier church is the 16th-century bell tower.
The present church was built in 1605-1623 by the priest Giovanni Ambrogio Mazenta and the architect Tommaso Martelli. It has eight chapels, four on each side. The façade has three copper statues by Orazio Provaglia, along with statues of the four evangelists attributed to Giovanni Tedeschi.
One of the four chapels has a large canvas by Jacopo Coppi or Jacopo del Meglio depicting ‘The Miracle of the Beirut Crucifix’ (1579), and a painting of the ‘Virgin at the Church of Saint Thomas Becket of Canterbury (mid-1500s) by Girolamo da Treviso. Saint Thomas Becket had studied in Bologna.
The story of the ‘Crucifix of Beirut’ is recalls an anti-Semitic story in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend telling of events in the year 320 in the Roman city of Berytus (Beirut). A stolen crucifix begins to bleed and causes the local Jewish population to convert to Christianity.
12, Church of San Donato:
If the Church of Santissimo Salvatore has memories of an anti-semitic story, then the Church of San Donato on the other side of Via Zamboni is a reminder of the former Jewish quarter in Bologna. This was near the famous Due Torri (Two Towers) in an area bounded by Strada San Donato (now Via Zamboni) and Via Cavaliera (now Via Oberdan).
The first reference to the Jewish presence in Bologna is a letter by Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, at the end of the fourth century. Later, the Jewish Quarter was a warren of small streets with names such as Via del Giudei or Via dell’Inferno.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Jewish community in Bologna had 11 synagogues and a renowned rabbinical academy. The Jewish printing houses in Bologna included those of the Montero family and Abraham ben Haim of the Tintori family, and in 1482 their presses produced the first printed version of the Pentateuch with commentaries by the French rabbi and scholar Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105) , known as Rashi (רש״י).
Bologna’s ghetto was established in May 1556, just after that of Rome, with an edict issued by Pope Paul IV. The Jews of Bologna, like Jews in Rome and Venice, were forced to wear a distinguishing mark so they could be easily identified and shut inside in the ghetto at night. The papal edict allowed only one synagogue to open; this synagogue was probably located at No 16 on Via dell’Inferno.
Jews were first expelled from Bologna place in 1569. They returned in 1586, only to be banished again in 1593. There was no real Jewish presence in the city again until after Italian unification.
Four large gates or doors stood at the main entrances to the ghetto. The only access point that is still visible is a door under a large vaulted roof built in the early 1700s that connects the Manzoli-Malvasia building with the small Church of San Donato.
I have written about Bologna’s synagogue HERE.
Some recent ‘virtual tours’:
A dozen Wren churches in London;
Ten former Wren churches in London;
More than a dozen churches in Lichfield;
More than a dozen pubs in Lichfield;
A dozen former pubs in Lichfield;
A dozen churches in Rethymnon;
A dozen restaurants in Rethymnon;
A dozen churches in other parts of Crete;
A dozen monasteries in Crete;
A dozen sites on Mount Athos;
A dozen historic sites in Athens;
A dozen historic sites in Thessaloniki;
A dozen churches in Thessaloniki;
A dozen Jewish sites in Thessaloniki.
A dozen churches in Cambridge;
A dozen college chapels in Cambridge;
A dozen Irish islands;
A dozen churches in Corfu;
A dozen churches in Venice.
A dozen churches in Rome.