Bologna: The cathedral of San Pietro

Cathedral of San Pietro.

I have many travel guides about Italy. Almost all of them contain information about Bologna, but remarkably not a single one of them discusses the cathedral of the city. Apparently the Duomo of Bologna is fairly unknown and frequently skipped by tourists, which may have contributed to the common misconception that the basilica of San Petronio is the cathedral of the city. This misunderstanding can actually be explained very well. Whereas the San Petronio adjoins the central square of Bologna, the famous Piazza Maggiore, the real cathedral can be found slightly to the north, in the Via dell’Indipendenza. It does not face a beautiful piazza, and the Via dell’Indipendenza is a busy street with a lot of traffic. On one side there is the cathedral and on the other a colonnade with stores. From under the colonnade one should be able to see the Baroque façade of the San Pietro, but one is simply too close to it and the façade is too large to take a good picture.

Those who want to get a good impression of the shape and size of the cathedral should really climb the Asinelli tower, which is 97 metres high. The tower is the highest in all of Bologna, and it offers a nice view of the rear of the San Pietro. Visitors can for instance see the atrium behind the cathedral and the apse, which features the Latin text TV ES PASTOR OVIVM PRINCEPS APOSTOLORVM. This means ‘you are the shepherd of the sheep and the first among the apostles’. The text obviously refers to Saint Peter the Apostle, to whom the cathedral is dedicated. From the Asinelli tower one can also see the bell-tower of the San Pietro very well. It is some 70 metres high. The cathedral is surrounded by several more towers, which were built by the noble families of the city as status symbols during the Middle Ages. Two towers from the second half of the twelfth century immediately catch the eye. These are the Torre degli Azzoguidi, also known as Altabella, which has a height of 61 metres, and the Torre dei Prendiparte or Torre Coronata, which reaches a height of 59,5 metres and is therefore slightly lower (see the image above). After climbing the Asinelli tower it is time for a visit to the cathedral itself.

Interior of the cathedral.


It is generally assumed that Bologna’s first cathedral stood outside the walls of what was then the Roman city of Bononia. The cathedral was dedicated to the African martyrs Felix and Navor. In 906 this building was destroyed by fire, and it is not inconceivable that the event was linked to a Magyar attack on Italy. A new cathedral was subsequently built within the city walls, on the spot where we also find the current cathedral. The building therefore has roots that go back to the tenth century. An octagonal baptistery was constructed next to the cathedral. When we visited the cathedral in the summer of 2020, a scale model of the medieval cathedral and baptistery were on display. Unfortunately the buildings no longer exist. On 1 August 1141 a fire in the San Pietro caused so much damage that the cathedral needed to be rebuilt in its entirety. The new cathedral was consecrated in 1184 by Pope Lucius III (1181-1185). In the three centuries that followed the consecration the building was embellished with sculptures and frescoes, but regretfully very few of these decorations have survived.

Starting in 1575, the cathedral was thoroughly remodelled. The work was commissioned by cardinal Gabriele Paleotti (1522-1597), who became bishop of Bologna in 1567 and then archbishop in 1582; in the latter year Pope Gregorius XIII, the man who left us the Gregorian calendar, had decided to make the city an archdiocese. Paleotti hired the architect Domenico Tibaldi (1541-1583) to lead the project. He was a younger brother of Pellegrino Tibaldi (1527-1596), who for a while served as lead architect of the Duomo of Milan. Domenico Tibaldi died rather young and was succeeded as architect by Pietro Fiorini (1539-1629). The remodelling operation was apparently so drastic that in the process the building became unstable. As a consequence, in 1599 the ceiling collapsed. The decision was then taken to rebuild the entire cathedral, a project that was launched in 1605. It would therefore not be wrong to see the San Pietro as a building that is largely seventeenth-century. However, the façade was only added in 1743-1747 by Alfonso Torreggiani (1682-1764), who had received his assignment from Pope Benedictus XIV (1740-1758). Torreggiani later also worked on the interior of the Duomo.

Lion by Maestro Ventura.

Things to see

Crucifix made of cedar wood from ca. 1170-1180.

As was already mentioned above, many of the medieval decorations of the cathedral have been lost. The decorations that have not survived include frescoes that were painted around 1477 by Francesco del Cossa (ca. 1436-1478) and Ercole de’ Roberti (ca. 1451-1496). I have previously discussed some of their work in Ferrara, the city where their roots lay. In 1220 a beautiful marble portal was added to the building which was made by Maestro Ventura, one of the Maestri campionesi, specialised craftsmen from Campione d’Italia near the Swiss border. The portal was known as the Porta dei Leoni, after the lions that were part of it. Although the portal itself has not survived, the lions fortunately have. The animals, sculpted from beautiful red marble, now serve as holy water stoups.

The cathedral has a Baroque interior, which is hardly surprising given that it mostly dates from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The interior is spacious and impressive, partly owing to the immense barrel vault, but it has few real highlights. In Domenico Tibaldi’s choir we do see two important frescoes: a God the Father by Prospero Fontana (1512-1597), made in 1579, and an Annunciation by his pupil Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619), made in 1619. The Annunciation must have been one of Carracci’s last works. The high altar (made by Torreggiani) is very special. On it we see a crucifix made of cedar wood from ca. 1170-1180. The crucified Christ is flanked by wooden statues of the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist. To conclude this post, I would like to mention a sculpture group representing the Lamentation of Christ, which was made between 1522 and 1526 by Alfonso Lombardi (1497-1537). It can be found in the first chapel on the right.

Sources: Italian Wikipedia, Bologna Welcome and Bologna Guide.

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