Perhaps my favourite place in Bologna is the collection of 7 churches collectively called “Santo Stefano” together with the piazza of the same name in front of these churches. It’s a very atmospheric place, steeped in history. A lively monthly antiques market also takes place in this piazza once a month.
Some of the churches in this complex are extremely old, although many modifications have been made over the centuries and there was considerable damage done by the Huns in the 10th century.
The main entry to the complex is via the church on the right, which was built by the Lombards in the 8th century. A large suspended crucifix dating from the 14th century gives this church its name – La Chiesa del Crocifissero. Beneath is a crypt dating from around 1017.
On the left is a sculpture from the 18th century depicting the “Lamentation over the Dead Christ”. The story goes that it was made from playing cards confiscated during the years when gambling was prohibited.
The Lombards had invaded Italy in the mid 6th century. Bologna, however, remained under Byzantine rule until the city was finally conquered by the Lombards in 728. They established a separate quarter outside the old walls in the vicinity of Santo Stefano.
The octagonal basilica of Santo Sepulcro, the middle church viewed from the Piazza, is located above a spring, which in early Christian times represented the river Jordan. In the medieval era, the water was considered miraculous and capable of healing. In all probability this building was originally a baptistery. It dates from around the 5th century.
The location has had a spiritual significance for a long time. It’s likely that in Roman times there was a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis on this site. An engraved stone from around the 1st century AD was found during renovations of the piazza and is now fixed to the external wall of one of the churches. It bears an inscription with her name in Latin (Isidi). The existence of the spring is typical of temples to Isis and it would have represented the river Nile.
As was usual with temples to Isis, this one was located outside the Roman town walls, which ran along the line of today’s Via Castiglione. Inside the church can be found a number of ancient Roman columns, probably in their original position, giving further weight to the theory that the church is based on a previous Roman temple.
Usually temples to Isis were rededicated in Christian times to the Madonna or Saint Mary Magdalen, however this one bears the name of the Holy Sepulchre. Nevertheless, during the middle ages, the prostitutes of Bologna would come here on Easter Sunday to pray in memory of Mary Magdalene. Another tradition has it that pregnant women would come and circle the half sized replica of the Holy Sepulchre in the centre of the church 33 times and then go to pray at the fresco of the pregnant Madonna in yet another of the complex’s churches. The replica is of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and was constructed in the 13th century, perhaps by returning crusaders. It has been heavily modified over the centuries.
As a substitute for Jerusalem, Santo Stefano together with the nearby church of San Giovani in Monte, was a place of pilgrimage. The latter, situated on one of central Bologna’s few hills, represented the Mount of Olives.
To the left of Santo Sepulcro looking from the Piazza is the church of Saints Vitale and Agricola dating from the 4th century. These two saints, master and slave, were victims of the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Diocletian. Their sarcophagus remains in the church, though their remains were relocated to Milan late in the fourth century.
There are remains of the 6th century floor.
In the 15th century there was a belief that the remains of Saint Peter were in the church and as a result, the Pope of the time had the roof removed and the church filled with soil as it was affecting the pilgrim trade in Rome.
Behind Santo Sepulcro is a beautiful courtyard called the Cortile di Pilato or the Courtyard of Pilate. A central feature is a large basin called the Catino di Pilato or Pilate’s Basin.
This basin is however of Lombard origin and bears the name of Liutprand, the Lombard king at the time of their conquest of Bologna. The basin dates from some time after then, probably between 730 and 740. Over the centuries, there have been many theories as to the original purpose of this bowl. At one stage it was believed to be that used by Pontius Pilate to wash his hands before sending Jesus to his death, hence the name. Another theory was that it was a baptismal font. However the balance of opinion now seems to be that it was a receptacle for donations of bread and wine later distributed to the clergy and the poor.
At the rear of this space is the Church of the Trinity where you can find what is reputedly the world’s oldest nativity set dating from the 13th century.
Continuing into the complex, you will find a two storied medieval cloister with interesting capital carvings.
Beyond that is a little museum as well as a shop run by the monks selling products of various monasteries. Other chapels are open at times, including one dedicated to the Italian Air Force.
A visit to Santo Stefano is like a short journey through the layers of history of the city. Only memories of pre-Roman times are absent, although probably present below the floor in the form of remains of previous places of worship. Outside, a nice coffee awaits you in one of the nearby cafes in the Piazza or Corte Isolani.