Monday, October 7, 2013

San Petronio

Fresco, 'Annunciation', Basilica di San Petronio - by Lorenzo Costa
I have another saint for you! Though my main reason for adding San Petronio to my pantheon of Roman Catholic saints is not so much his interesting story - he has one, of course - as his interesting and enormous Basilica in Bologna. On the day I visited, workmen were verrryyy carefully moving the effigy of San Petronio down from his wall pedestal - he’s life-sized - and onto a wheeled trolley. He was being taken away for a good clean, since his Saint’s Day was coming up. The Church’s guide book tells me that this effigy was made in the 15th century, and has been repaired and painted often since.

The Basilica (not shrouded in scaffolding as it presently is)
Fuzzy snap of the workmen
carrying off San Petronio.
Basilica San Petronio is said to one of the finest Gothic brick buildings in Italy, and as originally planned it was to out-do even Saint Peter’s in Rome in sheer scale. But the money and land to built an additional side aisle were diverted by the pope’s man in Bologna to a new university, and so the building was never completed as planned. Some say that it was Pope Pius IV who stopped construction. However, even more or less unfinished, it's the biggest church in Bologna - 132 metres long, 60 metres wide, and the nave is 45 m high. The foundations stone was laid in 1390, and the church was finished in 1670.

Its facade is mostly plain brick, and its soaring vaults are bare, though they were meant to be covered in frescoes - a few initial efforts can be seen on some of the pillars. Making the best of this bare-ness, the Church’s guide books says:
“The Interior of the church is solemn and imposing...The whole has a very beautiful impulse of masses and lines which develop like a symphony and which rise towards the sky.”
However, this doesn’t mean that the Basilica is without any interesting art. Inside there are 22 side chapels - 11 on each side - and although a few are rather bare, most have their own collection of frescoes, art, marble, gilt and stained glass, generally provided by a benefactor - a rich Renaissance Bolognese.

Interior of the large Basilica.
Chapel of the Magi
And of these many chapels, one in particular is worth a closer’s known as 'The Chapel of the Magi’ or the ‘Bolognini Chapel’ - it was paid for by one Bartolomeo Bolognini, who lies under a carved tombstone in the centre. This chapel is entirely covered in frescoes from the 15th century, and pretty fascinating they are too. The Church will rent you, for a bargain €2, an audio guide which will tell you all about it. On the back wall is a gilded and painted wooden polyptych, early 15th century, with 27 carved figures, and paintings along the base by Jacobo di Paulo - scenes of the journey of the Magi to find the Christ child. Rather obviously, the journey of the Magi is a symbol of the journey of all souls in their search for Christ. Plus it’s a nice Christmas story.

Above this gilded and painted panel is some beautiful stained glass, depicting Christ crowning the Virgin, and the Twelve Apostles (St Paul replacing Judas Iscariot - I always wondered what they did about Judas in these commemorations of the Apostles...)

But I digress. Around all of this are scenes from the life of San Petronio- and I know you’ve been waiting to hear his story: in a nutshell, he journeyed to far lands and successfully retrieved and brought back - to Bologna - the remains of Saint Florian, who had been martyred. Petronio was the Bishop of Bologna, and he’s the city’s patron saint today. His skull is kept in one of the Basilica’s chapels, though it was only moved there from the Church of San Stefano in 2000 (there’s an inscription on the outside of the Basilica, from 1734, corresponding to this chapel, speaking of the “treasure” within.)

San Petronio (imagined?)
Petronio died around 450 AD, so we’re talking about a life lived in the 5th century. he became Bishop of Bologna in 432, and built the church of Saint Stefano (it’s on my visiting list). Wiki says that the building scheme of Saint Stefano is in imitation of the shrines on Golgotha and over the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and speculates that Petronio had taken a journey to Jerusalem. If so, this would have been before Islam even existed; and possibly while it was dangerous to be a Christian in that city, still controlled by the Romans. I mean - look what happened to Florian. But I get ahead of the story...

Actually, I had a bit of trouble finding the full history of San Petronio. Wiki finishes rather abruptly, before telling us of anything saint-like about him; so I turned to which says:
“His two main achievements were the repair of the many buildings and churches destroyed by the Goths during their invasion of the Western Empire and building the monastery of St. Stephen in the design of the sacred sites of the Holy Land. Petronius figured in a fictitious life which was immensely popular during the Middle Ages.”
Delving deeper, I realised that we must not confuse San Petronio with the Roman writer Petronius who lived in the first century AD, and wrote a famous comic novel, "Satyricon."

This website says of the Saint that “He enriched the city with the relics of many saints, particularly those of the holy martyr St. Florian, who seems to have received his crown under Dioclesian [that is to say, Emperor Diocletian had Florian killed for being Christian]... his relics were brought from Vicenza, and deposited by St. Petronius in the church of St. Stephen.”

But it seems that the popularity of San Petronio is owed principally to the revival he brought to the city of Bologna after an unfortunate series of sacking by Vandals and Goths; and to publicity: in the twelfth Century there appeared a legendary life of Saint Petronio, after his relics were discovered in 1141.

Did I say grotesque? Hell, and Lucifer.
The frescoes in the Chapel of the Magi stick to the story of Petronio retrieving and returning Florian, depicted being hauled into Bologna in a coffin. On the right wall of the Chapel, the frescoes tell, in a series of panels, the story of the Journey of the Magi, delightfully depicted, including returning to their homeland in dinky little sailing ships. But the really stunning wall is that on the left -- a heaven and hell fresco, a la Dante, with heavenly choirs, doctors and virgins of the church sitting primly in pews, and down below, a hideous scene of hellish damnation presided over by a ghastly Lucifer with two mouths, both of which are eating things. It is grotesque.

Helpful guide book.

It’s said that one of the figures being tortured in Hell in this fresco is Mohammed, though I’m not sure how the identification is made. This was enough, however, to attract a couple of extremist threats to blow up the Basilica, in 2002 and 2006, both thankfully thwarted. The audio guide book didn’t mention this, but Wiki comes through.

And I should mention the artist responsible for these marvellous frescoes in The Chapel of the Magi. The audio guide insisted upon Giovanni da Modena, hailing him as a genius. The guide book, however, says it is more “probable” that they’re the work of Jacobo di Paolo. 

The Magi returning home. In little ships.
Some other intriguing things in San Petronio’s Basilica...

A Meridian Line Sundial: inlaid in the paving of the left aisle in 1655 (replacing an earlier one laid in 1575). It was calculated and designed by the famous astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who was teaching astronomy at the Bologna University: at 66.8 meters it is the longest sundial in the world, following measurements that were for the time uniquely precise.

Relics: apart from San Petroniuos’s skull and various other bits and pieces in the various chapels, there’s an entire chapel dedicated just to relics. They were big business in medieval times.

Carvings and reliefs: the basilica is famous for these, but I’m afraid I can’t report much about them, since many are external and all presently shrouded in scaffolding for a restoration project. The few I could see over the internal entrance doors looked very fine.

Chapel of San Sebastian: Once called the Vasari Chapel, this features a a large painting by Lorenzo Costa of the very unfortunate saint surrounded by archers doing their dastardly work, from the end of the 15th century. But the real beauty in this chapel, IMHO, is the wonderfully delicate ‘Annunciation’ scene to the left and right of the central picture, also attributed to Lorenzo Costa. That beautiful angel kneeling before the columns reeling off into the perspective distance...

Once more. Because I love it. Lorenzo Costa, 15th C.

No comments:

Post a Comment