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Basilica San Petronio

Religious building, Bologna

Basilica San Petronio: Attraction informations

Whoever comes to Bologna for the first time should visit the Basilica San Petronio, the biggest and most famous church of the city characterized by an incomplete facade.

San Petronio ranks second place among the biggest churches in Italy, but the original design planned it to be even bigger. Its construction began in 1390 with the project of Antonio di Vincenzo, commissioned by the civil authority of Bologna as a tribute to its freedom and autonomy, without any influence of the Church.

According to the original intention, the surface of San Petronio had to overcome even the one of the Basilica di San Pietro in Rome. The Latin cross plan by Arduino degli Arriguzzi involved that every wing should end in a dedicated square. The legend goes that the project was downsized by Pope Pio IV, who stopped this ambitious and expensive construction in 1505. That’s why today the church has no transept.

When the works finished in 1659, the church’s facade was covered in red marble and Istria’s stone in the lower part, while the upper one was in bricks, and that’s how it remained till today. Its incompleteness is probably due to the indecision on how to conclude it and to the lack of funding.
In spite of being incomplete, the lower part of the façade is very interesting and peculiar.

In the central position you can admire Porta Magna, a marvellous gate with two little doors on both sides. It’s a work by Jacopo della Quercia which shows some scenes of Old and New Testament, the prophets and a Madonna with child; next to it there are St. Ambrose and St. Petronius in the central lunette.

The interiors of San Petronio

The magnificent facade reflects the extent of the internal spaces, which across the centuries have hosted solemn ceremonies such as the crowning of emperor Charles V in Bologna in 1530 by Pope Clement VII.

The Gothic church is made up of 3 naves supported by 10 bricks pillars of mixed styles, and is characterized by a scattered light due to the north-south orientation of the building (contrary to the traditional east-west one). Looking down you can see the longest sundial in the world, from 17th-century, which runs on the floor for 67 metres.

Going deeper inside the church, in the side naves there are 22 chapels delimited by marble or wrought iron transennas. The best-known and admired chapels are those on the left, keeping the entrance at the back. You can’t miss chapel number 4 which is said to be “of the Three Wise Men or Bolognini”, which enshrines the extraordinary, well-kept frescoes of Giovanni da Modena. Here, on the left wall you can see the representation of Hell, showing Satan in the middle, and Paradise, while on the right you can admire the story of the Three Wise Men.

Among the other chapels, don’t forget to take a look at the 8 with a board by Parmigianino representing San Rocco and a benefactor. Moreover, chapel 5 hosts the works by Lorenzo Costa and Francesco Francia, two painters from Bologna who worked between 15th and 16th century.

Inside the Basilica San Petronio you’ll find four stone crosses, set close to the chapels. According to tradition, they were placed by San Petronio himself to delimit and protect the centre of Bologna, which at the time was held in the first city walls (called the selenite walls).

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