Bologna: San Giacomo Maggiore

Church of San Giacomo Maggiore.

When we visited the church of San Giacomo Maggiore, we got the impression that tourists are not really welcome here. There was a large ‘no pictures’ sign (although the ban on photography does not seem to be strictly enforced) and very little light in the church, and the chapels with the top pieces were all closed. My advice: do not be deterred by all of this. The San Giacomo Maggiore is a beautiful church chock-full of interesting art. Do not forget to inspect the church from the Asinelli tower, which is 97 metres high. One will immediately notice the rather odd roof construction of the San Giacomo. In front of the large dome are three octagonal parts of the roof which look a lot like miniature domes.


The San Giacomo Maggiore is dedicated to the apostle Saint James the Great. He was the son of Zebedee and the brother of John. In the year 42 or 44 he was arrested and executed by king Herod Agrippa. His remains were said to have been transported by ship to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and the site where they were reportedly buried has been a famous place of pilgrimage for centuries. The church dedicated to Saint James in Bologna is the church of the Augustinians. On 25 April 1267 the foundation stone for the building was laid. In 1315 the edifice was nearing completion, but as the apse still had to be added – which was constructed between 1331 and 1343 – the church was consecrated as late as 1344. The rear of the San Giacomo touches the oratory of Santa Cecilia, an older parish church that was built against the eleventh-century city walls. The oratory can be visited for free en there is usually a guide around to provide visitors with interesting information about the frescoes by Francesco Francia (ca. 1447-1517), Lorenzo Costa (1460-1535) and Amico Aspertini (ca. 1474-1552). If you are able to tell the guide that Saint Cecilia was buried in Rome and her statue there was sculpted by Stefano Maderno, expect him to be deeply impressed by your knowledge.

The church seen from above.

Now back to the San Giacomo Maggiore. In the fifteenth century important changes were made to its exterior and interior. In 1471 the imposing bell-tower, with a height of 55 metres, was built. It can be viewed very well from the Piazza Giuseppe Verdi behind the church and from the aforementioned Asinelli tower. Between 1477 and 1481 the famous colonnade running along the left side of the church was built. After the colonnade had been completed, the interior of the San Giacomo was thoroughly remodelled between 1483 and 1498. The project involved changing the roof construction and adding the rather conspicuous rib vaults. More changes were made to the church after the fifteenth century. Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque works of art were hung or set up inside, but as a building the San Giacomo had more or less reached its present form around 1500.

Oratory of Santa Cecilia, with San Giacomo Maggiore behind it. Note the colonnade running alongside the two buildings.

Things to see

Interior of the church.

The sober façade of the building dates from about 1295. The most remarkable decorations are the Gothic windows made of stone from Istria. It seems rather unlikely that the windows ever had glass panes; they were likely intended as purely decorative elements. The façade furthermore has a simple portal surrounding the only entrance. The outer columns of the portal are supported by lions. All the way at the top of the façade we see a statuette of the apostle Saint James. He is easily recognisable by the sculpted scallops that were named shells of Saint James after him.

Visitors entering the church will see a large open space. The San Giacomo has a single nave and a great many chapels, three in each bay. It should however be noted that many of the chapels in the nave are no more than shallow niches. The chapels are decorated with works by many famous artists from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The big names include Prospero Fontana (1512-1597) and his daughter Lavinia (1552-1614), the Sicilian painter Tommaso Laureti (ca. 1530-1602) and the sculptor Alfonso Lombardi (ca. 1497-1537). The church also has works by the Bolognese painters Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619), Bartolomeo Cesi (1556-1629) and Lorenzo Sabbatini (ca. 1530-1576), and by Sabbatini’s student, Denijs Calvaert (1540-1619) from Antwerp.

A chapel that is very interesting is the Cappella Poggi, commissioned by cardinal Giovanni Poggi (1493-1556) and dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. It was designed and frescoed by Pellegrino Tibaldi (1527-1596), who for a while served as lead architect of the Duomo of Milan. The aforementioned Prospero Fontana contributed to the decoration of the chapel as well. Of course we may also find some older works of art in the chapels. The Cappella Cari for instance has a large crucifix from 1370, painted by Simone dei Crocifissi, and in the next chapel, the Cappella Calcina, Cristoforo da Bologna painted scenes from the life of Saint Mary of Egypt in the second half of the fourteenth century. She was a prostitute who repented and went to live in the desert as a hermit. Among other things we see how the priest Zosimas of Palestine brings her the sacred host. And then there is a polyptych by Paolo Veneziano (died ca. 1365) from 1345. What is special about the polyptych is that a piece of the Holy Cross takes up a central position and is accompanied by the Latin text Lignum Sancte Crucis.

Tomb of Anton Galeazzo Bentivoglio – Jacopo della Quercia.

The Bentivoglio family

The church of San Giacomo Maggiore has a strong connection to the Bentivoglio family, who – albeit intermittently – ruled the city of Bologna between 1401 and 1512. A true highlight is the tomb of Anton Galeazzo Bentivoglio (ca. 1385-1435). In 1420 he seized the city, but not much later he had to leave it again. The next fifteen years he offered his services as a condottiero (mercenary captain). Anton Galeazzo managed to return to Bologna towards the end of 1435, where he was seen as a threat and ultimately murdered. The former condottiero was initially buried in the church of San Cristoforo del Ballatoio, but a few years later his body was taken to the much more prestigious San Giacomo Maggiore.

His splendid tomb may rightly be seen as a form of reparation. The tomb was made by the famous sculptor Jacopo della Quercia (ca. 1374-1438). The church dates the work to 1438, which means that it must be one of Jacopo’s last works. The reliefs below the image of the deceased show a man giving a lecture. The depiction is quite correct: before he became a condottiero Anton Galeazzo Bentivoglio had taught civil law at the university of Bologna. We see similar reliefs on the tomb of the physician Nicolò Fava, who died in 1439 (see the image above). His tomb is, however, not made of marble, but of painted terracotta.

Cappella Bentivoglio with frescoes by Lorenzo Costa.

Opposite the tomb we find the famous Cappella Bentivoglio, the Bentivoglio family chapel. It was built in the second half of the fifteenth century and the architect involved was Pagno di Lapo Portigiani (1408-1487) from Fiesole in Tuscany. Most of the painted work in the chapel was provided by the aforementioned Francesco Francia and Lorenzo Costa. The former was responsible for the altarpiece featuring a Madonna and Child with saints (1494). Lorenzo Costa first painted the Pala Bentivoglio (1488), a panel painting that depicts Giovanni II Bentivoglio, his wife Ginevra Sforza and their eleven children. By the way, the couple originally had sixteen children…

Giovanni ruled Bologna between 1463 and 1506. In the latter year he was expelled from the city by Pope Julius II. Since he died in Milan in 1508, he found his final resting place there and not in his family chapel. A person who was in fact interred there is his father Annibale I Bentivoglio, lord of Bologna in 1443-1445. His tomb with an equestrian decoration has been attached to the right wall. On the opposite wall Lorenzo Costa painted two famous frescoes in 1490: the Triumph of Death and the Triumph of Fame. The frescoes are of excellent quality, but when the lights in the chapel are off and the gates are closed, it is rather difficult to appreciate the fine details of the works. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post: it does appear that tourists are not really welcome in this church.

Sources: Evert de Rooij, Emilia-Romagna, p. 84, Dorling Kindersley travel guide about Italy, Italian Wikipedia and Bologna Welcome.

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