The complesso di Santo Stefano is a very special complex of churches, chapels, a courtyard and a cloister. Although the complex adjoins the Piazza Santo Stefano and a street named the Via Santo Stefano runs alongside the buildings towards the Porta Santo Stefano, the complex rather surprisingly does not have a single church or chapel dedicated to Saint Stephen the Protomartyr. I have not been able to find a clear answer to the question whether there has ever been such a church, and this may partially be explained by the fact that much remains unclear regarding especially the earliest history of the complex. Santo Stefano is also known as the complex of the Sette Chiese, the seven churches. I myself counted just four churches, but perhaps the chapels and courtyard are included in the seven as well. Before you visit the complex, you may want to go for a drink at Il Caffè delle Sette Chiese, a bar with a nice terrace facing the piazza. As Bologna is a typical student city, the prices are very reasonable.
It is generally assumed that the history of the complex starts with a sanctuary for the Egyptian goddess Isis that stood in what was then Roman Bononia. This sanctuary was built in about 80-100 CE. A well was part of it, which is presumably explained by the fact that Isis was closely connected to the river Nile. The oldest church of the complex is that of Santi Vitale e Agricola, dedicated to two fairly obscure martyrs who were said to have been martyred in Bologna around the year 304. Agricola was reportedly a Roman Christian and Vitalis his slave. The latter must therefore not be confused with the soldier Vitalis, whose cult is especially strong in Ravenna. In 393 the remains of the two Bolognese martyrs were rediscovered. Church father Ambrosius (ca. 340-397), the bishop of Milan, subsequently had some of the remains translated to his city, while others remained in Bologna. It is assumed that the church of Santi Vitale e Agricola was then built around 393.
Next to the church dedicated to Vitale and Agricola we find an octagonal building with a dodecagonal dome. Construction of this Basilica del Sepolcro – basilica of the Holy Sepulchre – is attributed to Saint Petronius, the man who served as bishop of Bologna between ca. 431 and 450, and is considered the patron saint of the city. The edifice was based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built by the Roman emperor Constantine (306-337), the first Christian emperor. Behind the Basilica del Sepolcro is a courtyard, the Cortile di Pilato, which may also date from the days of Petronius. The church of the Holy Trinity (Trinità) on the other side of the courtyard may be from the same era, but the history of this building is extremely obscure. This is evident from the many appellations that are used for it: apart from Chiesa della Trinità we also find Chiesa della Santa Croce, Chiesa del Calvario, Golgotha and Martyrium. It appears that the church originally referred to the Crucifixion of Christ. After visiting this church, a visitors would cross the Cortile di Pilato, named after the man who condemned Christ to death on the cross. He or she then entered the Basilica del Sepolcro, based on the tomb of the Messiah.
Next to the Basilica del Sepolcro we find the Chiesa del Crocifisso, the church of the Crucifix. It was built in the eighth century, at a time when a large part of Italy was under Longobard rule (568-774). At the beginning of the tenth century the complex of Santo Stefano was destroyed during a Magyar invasion. Between the tenth and twelfth centuries it was subsequently rebuilt in the Romanesque style by the Benedictines that had settled here. These men were also responsible for the elegant cloister, of which the lower part dates from the tenth century and the upper part from the twelfth. Starting in 1880, the complex was thoroughly remodelled. It then got its current appearance, without losing its Romanesque character.
It is now time for a tour of the complex. Visitors enter at the church of the Crucifix. Passageways connect all the buildings, providing an easy route through the complex.
Church of the Crucifix
As was already mentioned above, this church dates from the eighth century. Officially it is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. Stairs lead to a raised choir from the seventeenth century where we find the crucifix after which the church takes its name. The crucifix was painted around 1380 by Simone dei Crocifissi. In the church we may furthermore admire a fresco of a Madonna and Child by Michele di Matteo da Bologna from the fifteenth century and on the wall there is a tomb from 1500 belonging to the Aldrovandi family. The church has a crypt where some relics of Vitalis and Agricola are kept. I got the impression that the church of the Crucifix is the only church in the complex that is actually still used for celebrating mass.
Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre
Although built by Saint Petronius in the fifth century, the present building dates from the eleventh century. In the centre is a ‘thing’ that is supposed to represent the Holy Sepulchre itself. When the relics of Petronius were rediscovered in 1141, they were stored here. In 2000 they were subsequently translated to the basilica of San Petronio. The Sepulchre is decorated with reliefs featuring, among other things, the symbols of the four evangelists, but otherwise the building is just sparsely decorated. The frescoes that were painted in the thirteenth century and then in the nineteenth century have all vanished without a trace.
Church of Santi Vitale e Agricola
The current church of Santi Vitale e Agricola dates from the twelfth century, but I already noted that its history very likely goes back to about 393, when a first church dedicated to these two Bolognese martyrs was constructed. It is clear that the present building is no longer used for religious services, as all the pews have been removed. We do see two sarcophagi that are claimed to have once held the remains of Vitalis and Agricola. This is no more than a pious legend: the sarcophagi date from the eighth or ninth century. Do not forget to go outside to admire the Romanesque reliefs on the façade.
There is an interesting story about this church. At the beginning of the fifteenth century a Paleochristian tomb was discovered here. It had an inscription mentioning the name ‘Symon’. And as Simon or Simeon was Saint Peter the Apostle’s real name, it was soon widely rumoured that the prince of the Apostles had been buried in Bologna. The rumour drew hordes of pilgrims to the city, but greatly angered Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447). His wrath was, of course, quite understandable: tradition dictated that Saint Peter had been crucified and buried in Rome, and that Saint Peter’s Basilica had been built over his tomb. To end the pilgrimages to Bologna, Eugenius ordered the church of Santi Vitale e Agricola to be closed and filled with earth. The building was ultimately restored by cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, who served as bishop of Bologna in 1483-1502. In 1503 the cardinal was elected Pope Julius II, the notorious pope who launched the project to rebuild Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Courtyard of Pilatus
From the church of Vitalis and Agricola we re-enter the church of the Holy Sepulchre and then leave it again using the eastern exit. We are now in a courtyard called the Cortile di Pilato, which symbolises the place where Pilatus condemned Christ to death. In the centre of the court is a man-sized basin, the Catino di Pilato. After all, Pilatus supposedly washed his hands in innocence. The basin dates from the eighth century and has an inscription mentioning the names of two Longobard kings: Liutprand (712-744) and Hildeprand (ca. 735-744), an uncle and nephew who shared the throne. The inscription also mentions the then bishop of Bologna, one Barbatus.
The courtyard leads to three small chapels, the Cappella della Consolazione, the Cappella di San Girolamo and the Cappella di Santa Giuliana de’ Banzi. These were not open to the public when we visited the complex in August of 2020. It should be possible to peep inside through the bars of the windows to see some of the frescoes.
Church of the Holy Trinity
This is the part of the complex with the most muddled history. The church may have been started by Petronius as a basilica, but during the Longobard era it likely functioned as a baptistery. The Franks then remodelled this baptistery and turned it into a church again. However this may be, the church is mainly of interest because of the sculptures that have been put on display and the frescoes on the walls, which date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. One of them features a pregnant Virgin Mary caressing her belly. However, the true highlight of the church is a set of wooden statues from a thirteenth-century Nativity scene. The statues represent the Virgin with baby Jesus, Saint Joseph and the three Magi. They were made around 1290 and were painted much, much later by the aforementioned Simone dei Crocifissi. It is a pity (but otherwise quite understandable) that the statues are kept behind glass. This causes reflections and makes it more difficult to take good pictures. Finally, a piece of the Holy Cross is kept in this church.
The Benedictines began the construction of the Romanesque cloister in the tenth century. In the twelfth century a second floor was added. Apart from a well in the centre of the cloister and traces of reliefs between the bricks there is very little decoration in this part of the complex. Those looking for art will have to visit the museum of Santo Stefano, which was unfortunately closed when we wanted to go there. Click this link if you want to get an impression of the museum collection.