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The Church of San Petronio


San Petronio is the most important church for us locals: it represents the struggle of our bolognese ancestors o be and feel free, independent, autonomous.

In its medieval past, Bologna went through events that saw the Bolognese civic pride either ally or clash with external or internal forces that competed for the domination of the city.

The myth of the "popular government" manifests itself every time a local family or a powerful outsider seeks hegemony.

In 1376 the temporarily free city of Bologna decided to show off the pride to be a free city with a huge church, in one that could be even considered a massive crowdfunding. Taxes and donations were all channeled to the San Petronio construction site.

But money was tight. Too tight. And the political situations changed and developed fast. They tried, did their best, but the church couldn’t be finished.

This church tells a story, and being unfinished is what makes its story unique and meaningful, and an incredible surprise is about to take place in Piazza Maggiore very soon.

San Petronio church in Bologna is a coffer of art, beauty and hidden gems and I'm happy to unveil to you 5 of its secrets:


With this church, city government wanted to make an ex voto for the rediscovered freedom, a hope for the future, visible proof of economic power and a demonstration of unchanged orthodoxy despite past discords with the papacy.

The first architect, Antonio di Vincenzo, died in 1401 or 1402. His project is lost, and we do not know what his figurative intentions were. After him, Arduino degli Arriguzzi proposes a monumental, out-of-scale, enormous project. The money was never going to be enough. The construction site had already slowed down due to lack of funds, and despite the motivation and goodwill, the facade was never finished. What we see is just the beginning.

In the following centuries, many architects proposed their ideas to the Municipality or to private patrons to complete the church or to adapt it to the artistic taste of the moment. But nothing ever came of it: San Petronio is and will always remain so.

But what would San Petronio be like with a complete facade? What would have happened if architects of the caliber of Jacopo Barozzi or Palladio had had carte blanche??

From the 15th to the 19th of September 2022 it will be possible to participate in an extraordinary event: a videomapping show during which the church facade will be illuminated to show us, through accurate projections, how it could have been. From the Gothic style to the Renaissance, up to the Baroque and 20th century architecture: an unmissable event!


One thing that you notice quite quickly inside the church of San Petronio is that some stained glass windows are without decorations, while others look ancient but in reality they are recent or the result of heavy restorations.

The reasons for this lack are many: for example, in the chapels decorated in the Baroque period, the stained glass windows disappear to make room for enormous altar decorations.

In other cases, the windows are reworked, modified or restored for various reasons such as their age or wear.

An event, however, can be considered one of the main reasons for this lack: on February the 24th 1530, during the imperial coronation of Charles V inside San Petronio, the artillery shots and the arquebuses fired to celebrate the very important event, they produced large gashes then repaired subsequently inadequately, and other minor damage followed in the following centuries, so the windows were subjected to a vast reinstatement.

When you say "a bad idea"!


Not may people know that Bologna was, for a short time, the home of Maria Anna Elisa Bonaparte, Napoleon's sister.

This space originally belonged to the Rossi family, but was purchased by Felice Baciocchi, husband of Elisa Bonaparte, in 1826. It is there that the remains of the Baciocchi family still rest: Felice, his wife Elisa Bonaparte and their children.

Felice Baciocchi was born into a decayed noble family of Ajaccio and started his military career at a very young age, reaching the rank of captain of the Royal Regiment.

In 1797 he married Elisa Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte's sister. In 1804 he became a major general and then a senator.

After the advent of the French Empire, his brother-in-law Napoleon I, in 1805, granted him the rank of prince of Piombino and Lucca: his administration was mild, even if the government was always governed by Elisa, who was subsequently appointed by brother emperor grand duchess of Tuscany.

After the fall of Napoleon, Bonaparte moved to Bologna with her husband Felice Baciocchi. Their stay, however, did not last long. A year later, on February 26, 1815, Napoleon fled the island of Elba, where he was exiled. An escape that also had consequences for the life of her sister, who was forced to leave for Austria, then arrested and taken to Moravia in prison. A few months later, there was the Battle of Waterloo and the famous defeat that led to Napoleon's exile in St. Helena. It was then that Elisa Bonaparte regained her freedom. She wanted to go back to Bologna, but she didn't have time. She died in Trieste in 1820, but she was buried here. In fact, when Felice became a widower he chose to live in Bologna, where he bought a noble palace. He died on April 27, 1841 at the age of 79. He was buried next to Elisa in the basilica of San Petronio and in front of her three sons, Federico, Felice and Girolamo, who died at a very young age.

The tomb of Elisa and Felice is a double sarcophagus decorated with garlands of flowers and facing the Baciocchi coat of arms. In the center, with a sort of triumphal arch, the statues of the two eternally young spouses, gathered at the threshold of eternity under the protective wing of an angel.


Bologna is famous for the red of the brick with which it has always built houses and palaces. But Bologna is also famous for the polychrome terracotta statues which since the 15th century have been among the most revered and appreciated works of plastic art in churches and monasteries.

The most famous are the Compianto in the church of Santa Maria della Vita and the Compianto in the Cathedral of San Pietro; few people know the late polychrome by Vincenzo Onofri, located in a niche near the High Altar, in the right aisle.

“Compianto” means “Lamentation”. It usually represents the Lamentation over dead Christ and the charachters are usually the last people who saw Jesus dying, such as His own mother Mary, John the Evangelist, Mary of Magdalen.

This one was modeled probably in the nineties of the fifteenth century (but according to some scholars during the first decade of the sixteenth century) by Vincenzo Onofri, the original location of this famous Lamentation is not known, however it is undoubtedly high profile and most likely linked to the Fabbriceria. of the Basilica. Of the many present in the city, this is the group that more than any other collects the figurative legacy of that of Santa Maria della Vita: the link with the work of Niccolò Dell’Arca is strong and evident; yet, although Niccolò's model is in fact essential, it is replaced here by a less melodramatic and more rarefied idea of ​​the representation of pain, as well as a more marked relationship with classical antiquity.

Very important is the fact that the color has been maintained, giving us back the polychromy that very often the statues in marble, terracotta or wood have lost over the centuries.


The 16th chapel is called “Cappella dell’Immacolata” and it is the only one fully modern as it’s been decorated between 1914 and 1951.

The last overwhelming "fever of restorations" that sweeps over the Basilica occurs in coincidence with the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, in 1854. From that date, the congregation in charge of the cult of the Virgin considers it essential to intervene in her chapel.

Solicited the pity of the faithfuls because they contribute to the costs, an attempt is made to launch a restoration project, but finding the funds will take a lot of time. The start of the works will take place only in 1904.

The narrative theme is that of a flower garden around the central figure of the Virgin.

The ornamental tiles on the floor in blue, yellow, orange and green, simulate a meadow of primroses and then become edges of a geometric patterned tablecloth that descends on the steps of the altar. These are the figurative and symbolic bases of a motif that then develops laterally on the postergals, whose inlays are hedges of lilies and mystical lamps among rose bushes, ending on the back wall in the figuration of the Virgin.

If you look carefully at the tiles on the floor, made in 1918 by the amazing Faenza ceramics house Fornaci Borgo San Lorenzo Chini (founded in 1904) you will find one with the inscription: "Gloria, Victoria et Pax" (Glory, Victory and Peace in latin) with a date written in Roman numerals: IV - XI - MCMXVIII (November the 4th, 1918). That tile was specially decorated to commemorate the end of the First World War, which officially took place in Italy on November 4th, with the signing of a unilateral peace. The rest of Europe in fact celebrates the end of the war a few days later, or 11 November.


Now that you know some of the secrets that San Petronio church hides, you can feel part of the bolognese community that has been so deeply involved in this project ever since its beginning and enjoy the forecoming show with all of us. Follow us on Instagram as we’ll be sharing some highlights of this incredible event!

Another way to feel part of the Bologna community all year long is to join our tours: don't miss the chance to see San Petronio church with your own eyes!

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