Opening hours and prices: every day 8.00 – 19.00 (during religious functions the visit could be limited of suspended. Timetables may be subject to slight modifications. Info Curia Arcivescovile tel. 051 6480611). Donation up to you on entry.
A place of exceptional importance in the town’s religious topography, the construction of the Santo Stefano complex is ultra-millennial.
It is articulated in a collection of sacred buildings – churches, chapels, monasteries – named after the martyr though none of these buildings bear its name.
Built and restructured at different times, resulting in the difficulty of a historical interpretation of its components, there are traces of the structure dating to the late antiquity.
The complex of Santo Stefano
During the fierce invasion of the Hungarians at the beginning of the tenth century, the complex suffered enormous devastation. It was largely rebuilt by the Benedictines in the early twentieth century. Subsequently, important restorations were carried out between 1880 and the early twentieth century, which led to modifications that changed the ancient face of the complex. The changes, including the extension of the courtyard with the addition of an archway and the moving back of the “Martyrium“, were based on the knowledge of the present forms of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, rebuilt by the Crusaders. Not taking into account that , in reality, the complex of Santo Stefano was inspired by the lost original, erected by Constantine in the fourth century.
Only four churches remain today: the church of the Crucifix, of the Holy Sepulcher, of the Calvary and of Saints Vitale and Agricola. Pilato’s courtyard and Benedictine’s cloister are also annexed to the complex. The tomb of San Petronio placed in a cell surmounted by an altar with a thirteenth century pulpit in the church of the Holy Sepulcher (this is something you really must visit).
The relics of San Petronio are, from the year 2000, at the basilica of San Petronio.
From the square in front you will have an overview that includes the façades of the three churches of the Crucifix. Of the Sepulcher. And of Saints Vitale and Agricola. Despite the different types of buildings and the numerous interventions, restorations and refurbishments, the complex presents a consolidated stylistic homogeneity. Consequently it is the most important Romanesque monument in the city.
The Seven Churches
The Basilica of Santo Stefano is commonly known in Bologna as the “Seven Churches“. This name comes from the number of buildings that originally formed the complex, which was conceived as reproduction of the Holy Sepulcher. According to tradition, the bishop Petronio in the fifth century wanted to build it after a trip to the Holy Land. In fact, what is considered as Saint Jerusalem of Bologna was built in the same place where in ancient times there was a circular pagan temple devoted to the goddess Isis.
The present form of the basilica is the one given to it in the XII century by the Benedictine monks to which it was entrusted. You enter the first church, called of the Crucifix, where is the necklace with which Christ was whipped and which would be brought to Jerusalem by the patron citizen. From here you move into the octagonal church of the Holy Sepulcher, where once the relics of Petronio were preserved, now they are kept in the basilica of the same name. The Romanesque church dedicated to Saints Vitale and Agricola recalls the sacrifice of the two martyrs. Finally, there is the church of the Trinity which preserves the beautiful wooden polychrome group made in the 14th century. The wooden group was built by Simone dei Crocifissi and depicting the adoration of the Magi.
In Pilate’s courtyard, a copy of the eighth century basin where the prefect washed his hands is preserved. The monastic cloister charms for the double-portico with Romanesque capitals.
In the spaces outside the basilica of Santo Stefano, in the nearby garden on the right side of the Church of the Crucifix, there are two medieval sarcophagi. These held the remains of the first bishops of the Church of Bologna.
Curiosities on the Basilica of Santo Stefano
Inside the church of the Holy Sepulcher, part of the complex of the seven churches, remote traditions tell that it was possible to crawl inside the Sepulcher in the past to worship the remains of the saint. It is also said that the prostitutes of Bologna on Easter morning, in memory of Mary Magdalene, went to say a prayer before the Holy Sepulcher whose contents were never revealed.
Another ancient tradition tells that pregnant women in the city walked around the tomb thirty-three times, corresponding to the years of the Savior’s life, and entered the sepulchre at every round to pray. At the end of this, the women would go to the nearby church of the Martyrium to pray, this time before the painting of the Pregnant Madonna.
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