Petronio the Saint, the Basilica of San Petronio and Michelangelo

Today is the Celebration of San Petronio in Bologna. It is a holy day in Bologna with many businesses closed (at least for part of the day) in commemoration of the city’s saint.

As we know, Bishop Petronius was responsible for salvaging the city and is accredited with designing and building the first nucleus of Santo Stefano (also called Santa Gerusalemme). He is believed to have died in 450AD. We do not know exactly when he was born but it is thought that he was born into a noble Roman family and members of his family occupied high ranking positions in the imperial court of Milan, as well as, in the provincial administrations at end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th centuries AD.

It is understood, that as a youth and after having converted to Christianity, Petronius visited the Holy Places of Jerusalem and that this, in turn, inspired the imitation of the Golgotha and Holy Sepulchre shrines of Jerusalem in the Church of Santo Stefano.

In the 12th century he became the Patron Saint of Bologna after his relics were discovered in 1141. In iconography, Petronius is depicted as a bishop holding a miniature Bologna in his hands.

The council decreed in 1388 for the construction of the Basilica and the first stone was laid on 7 June 1390. Antonio di Vicenzo was in charge of the building work.

However, the plans for the Basilica needed space and so to make room, the Curia of Sancti Ambrosii was demolished along with numerous other buildings including 8 churches and towers.  And the building work itself lasted for several centuries. Once the facade was completed,construction on the first side chapels began.The series was completed in 1479.

As a tempio civico, the Basilica belonged to the city of Bologna meaning that it was not the property of the church until it was transferred to the diocese in 1929. The Basilica was consecreated in 1954.

Today, it is the 10th largest church in the world. It measures 132 metres long and 66 metres wide. The vault reaches 45 metres inside and 51 metres in the facade. Its volume is measured at  258,000 m³ making it the largest (Gothic or otherwise) church built in bricks in the world.

The Basilica is not short of controversies.

First, in 1514, Arduino degli Arriguzzi proposed a new plan for the Church in the form of a Latin Cross. Thus the Bolognese had planned to make this church even larger than Saint Peters in Rome. However, once Pope Pius IV discovered this he ordered that work on the church cease as so, even today, the church is incomplete.

Secondly, the relics of San Petronio were located in Santo Stefano. It was not until 2000, that special permission was given to sever the head of the Saint which now rests in the Basilica whilst the body has remained in Santo Stefano.

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