Historical Churches (Self Guided), Bologna

The historic city of Bologna is one of the most sumptuous medieval places in Italy, as well as one of the country's most visited destinations. There are churches everywhere in the city, many of which are well-preserved and well worth a visit. Magnificent and centuries-old, each of them has its own specialty and history carved into, replete with great historic artifacts associated with world renowned artists.

Such like, for instance, is the San Domenico Basilica that has a Michelangelo statue and a very particular piano that Mozart used to play whilst in Bologna.

Another no less remarkable religious object and a true example of Romanesque architecture is Santo Stefano (St. Stephen Complex) Basilica. Also known as Seven Churches or Holy Jerusalem, it was reportedly started by Saint Petronius himself, the patron saint of the city, and then continued in different styles over the period of 600 years. A definite must-see!

Among other religious sites you may want to visit in Bologna there are:

Basilica of San Petronio – dedicated to Saint Petronius, the most imposing church in the city; built throughout centuries since 1390.

Santa Maria della Vita (the Church of Holy Mary of Life) – established by Franciscan monk Raniero Fasani in 1260; one of its most remarkable attractions is the Lamentation over Dead Christ sculptural group.

San Paolo Maggiore Church – Baroque-style, Roman Catholic basilica commissioned between 1606 and 1611; richly adorned with frescoes, canvases and marble sculptures.

Basilica of San Domenico – one of Bologna’s major churches, holding the remains of Saint Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans).

To explore these and other majestic churches on your stay in this fascinating old city, follow our self-guided walking tour.
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Historical Churches Map

Guide Name: Historical Churches
Guide Location: Italy » Bologna (See other walking tours in Bologna)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 7
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.2 Km or 1.4 Miles
Author: vickyc
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Basilica of San Petronio
  • Santa Maria della Vita (Church of Holy Mary of Life)
  • San Giovanni Battista dei Celestini Church
  • San Paolo Maggiore Church
  • Basilica of San Domenico
  • Santo Stefano (St. Stephen Complex)
  • San Giacomo Maggiore Church
1
Basilica of San Petronio

1) Basilica of San Petronio (must see)

The Basilica of San Petronio is dedicated to the patron saint of Bologna, Saint Petronius. The church has been called the most imposing church in Bologna and is one of the most significant buildings on the Piazza Maggiore. It's the sixth-largest church in Europe.

Work on the Basilica began in 1390 and continued throughout the centuries. In the 1500s, a new architect planned to enlarge the Basilica to compete with St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. However, the work was too complicated and never completed. The Basilica was consecrated in 1954. In 2000, Saint Petronio's relics were moved from the Santo Stefano Church to the Basilica.

The current facade was begun in 1538 but has never been completed. It was designed using cosmological and esoteric "diagramming." The facade is divided into two horizontal bands. The upper band is unfinished and shows exposed brick. The lower band was covered in red and white marble during the 16th century.

The main doorway features a variety of carved scenes. The pillars feature scenes from the Old Testament. The archivolt features carvings of 18 prophets. The architrave has scenes from the New Testament, and the tympanum has a Madonna and Child, Saint Petronius, and Saint Ambrose. Michelangelo called the evocative Madonna and Child the most beautiful of the 15th century.

The side doors were originally built in 1500 and decorated by different artists throughout the years. The campanile was constructed in the 1400s and is an impressive 65-meters tall. The four bells are hand rung using traditional techniques.

The Basilica of San Petronio houses the world's longest indoor meridian line. The line measures 66.8 meters (219.16 feet) and was inlaid in 1656. A sunray enters from a hole in the vault 27 meters high and precisely hits the line, allowing for accurate time measurement.

An impressive 22 side chapels beckon visitors to explore. The chapel of San Petronio contains two important organs. The 1475 organ is one of the oldest organs in existence. This chapel also hosts the Four Crosses, one of the oldest Christian symbols in Bologna. These crosses may have been placed on top of Roman columns by San Petronio to spiritually defend the city.

Why You Should Visit

This impressive church is packed with history and beauty. It can host up to 28,000 people and has hosted many important ceremonies, including the 1530 coronation of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor.

Tips

Entrance is free, but if you wish to take photos, there is a small fee. There is an additional fee to enter Chapel of the Three Kings, which houses a controversial 15th-century fresco. There is a dress code; shoulders and knees must be covered. The Basilica is open every day from 7:45 am to 2:00 pm and 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm.
2
Santa Maria della Vita (Church of Holy Mary of Life)

2) Santa Maria della Vita (Church of Holy Mary of Life) (must see)

When Franciscan monk Raniero Fasani arrived in Bologna in 1260, he established a church and hospital to look after the sick. The original church was destroyed in 1686.

Construction on the ornate Baroque-style church that stands today began in 1687 and was completed in the 1700s. The exterior facade is simple with pilasters. The interior has ornate baroque decorations with numerous paintings. The side chapels are lavishly decorated.

One of the most remarkable attractions in the Church of Holy Mary of Life is the Lamentation of Christ. Artist Niccolò dell'Arca created this series of terracotta statues in the 15th century. The masterpiece shows mourners gathered around the body of Christ.

The adjacent oratory was completed in 1617 and hosts several artworks. Visitors will find various statues dating to the 16th century. The Madonna with Child and Saints was completed by artist Nosadella in 1550. The Transit of the Madonna features 14 terracotta statues. This artwork was created by artist Alfonso Lombardi in 1522.

Statues of St. Proculus and St. Petronius by Aseeandro Algardi adorn niches in the walls. Visitors will also find St. Francis and St. Domenic statues by Giulio Cesare Conventi.

The Church of Holy Mary of Life is often overlooked, but its fabulous interior and important artworks are worth seeing.
3
San Giovanni Battista dei Celestini Church

3) San Giovanni Battista dei Celestini Church

San Giovanni Battista dei Celestini is a Renaissance-style Roman Catholic church.

The Celestine order established itself in Bologna in 1368 at the request of Antonio Galluzzi. Under his patronage, they built a monastery and church, dedicated to St John the Baptist. The monastery extended to Via San Mamolo. In 1482, the church had become the home of the parish. In 1535–1554, it underwent reconstruction in its present general layout. In 1560–1561, the convent was rebuilt. In 1580, a bell tower was added. The church underwent a further reconstruction Carlo Francesco Dotti and Francesco Tadolini during the 18th century.

In 1797, the Celestines were suppressed, but it continued to act as a parish church until 1806, when it was attached to a new parish centered a Santissimo Salvatore. It again became a parish in 1824, when the Canons Lateran retook the Salvatore church. The Celestini remained a parish church until 1987.

The convent has been used as a meeting hall for the Council of Thirty, and other government and public offices over the centuries. In 2011 it was also home to a state archive
Sight description based on wikipedia
4
San Paolo Maggiore Church

4) San Paolo Maggiore Church

San Paolo Maggiore, also known as San Paolo Decollato, is a Baroque-style, Roman Catholic basilica church in Bologna.

The church was commissioned between 1606 and 1611 by the Barnabites from the architect Ambrogio Magenta or Mazenta. Patronage for this church was mainly derived from the Prince Virgilio Spada, brother of Cardinal Bernardino Spada. The Barnabites, also known as the Clerics Regular of St Paul, named this church as Maggiore to distinguish it from two other San Paolo's in Bologna. Between 1634 and 1636 the facade was built to designs by Ercole Fichi. The facade, in brick and stone, has statues of St Peter and Paul, respectively by Domenico Maria Mirandola and G. Cruventi.

Inside the building, the vaults were frescoed with scenes of St Paul in the Areopagus of Athens by Antonio and Giuseppe Rolli. Antonio died after a fall from a scaffold, and the work was completed by his brother. The cupola, apse, sacristy and two chapels in the transept were frescored with quadratura by Pietro Farina, and figures by Giuseppe Antonio Caccioli.

The main altar (1643-1650) features a dramatic marble sculptural group Beheading of St Paul (sculpted in Rome in 1634, but not in place till 1644) by Alessandro Algardi. Algardi also completed the bronze plaques on the altar.

The church altars have masterpieces by Guercino and Giuseppe Maria Crespi. In the second chapel is a canvas depicting Paradise by Lodovico Carracci. Nicolo Tornioli painted a Cain Killing Abel and Jacob wrestling with angel for the church.
Sight description based on wikipedia
5
Basilica of San Domenico

5) Basilica of San Domenico (must see)

The Basilica of San Domenico is one of Bologna’s major churches. The remains of Saint Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), are buried inside the exquisite shrine Arca di San Domenico, created by Nicola Pisano’sm and Arnolfo di Cambio, with later additions by Niccolò dell'Arca and a young Michelangelo.

The square in front of the church is paved with pebbles, as it was in medieval times. The square was where the faithful listened to sermons and also served as the original cemetery. The brick column in the middle of the square has a bronze statue of St. Dominic (1627) and on the back of the square a marble, brick and copper column contains the Madonna of the Rosary, designed by Guido Reni (1632), commemorating the end of the city’s struggle with the plague.
Sight description based on wikipedia
6
Santo Stefano (St. Stephen Complex)

6) Santo Stefano (St. Stephen Complex) (must see)

This complex of religous buildings is also known as Seven Churches or Holy Jerusalem.

Tradition states that Saint Petronius built the complex over a temple dedicated to Isis. Saint Petronius wanted to emulate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The Saint Stephen Church or of the Holy Crucifix dates back to the eighth century. Artist Simone dei Corcifissi created the crucifix in 1380. In addition, 15th-century frescoes depict the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen. A crypt with five naves is located underneath the church.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre dates to the fifth century. It was built by Bishop Petronius, who was later venerated as Saint Petronius. Petronius wanted to emulate the Constantinian Sepulcher of Jerusalem and reproduce where Christ's remains were held. A shrine holds San Petronio relics. The church was damaged in the 10th century and rebuilt in the 11th century.

The Church of the Saints Vitale and Agricola is the oldest in the complex. The remains of the venerated saints Vitale and Agricola were moved from the church in 393 AD. This indicates that the church was built sometime before 393 AD.

In the 1400s, a sepulcher with the inscription Symon was found. When pilgrims began coming to the church to look for Saint Peter's tomb, the Pope had the church filled with earth for seventy years. The interior features a Roman mosaic floor.

The Courtyard of Pilate commemorates the place where Jesus was condemned to death. In the courtyard center is a limestone basin known as Pilato's Cat. The basin dates to the eighth century. Visitors will also find a 14th century stone rooster to symbolize the denial of Jesus.

The Church of the Trinity or of the Martyrium is also known as the Church of the Holy Cross or of Calvary or Trinity. This church was planned to emulate the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem but was unfinished. Inside the church, visitors will find a 12th-century life-sized wooden nativity scene.

Finally, don't miss the St. Stephen's Museum, which houses various relics, artworks, and religious objects.

Why You Should Visit

The oldest parts of the complex date back to Roman times. Visitors will find a Roman mosaic floor in The Church of the Saints Vitale and Agricola. This complex is full of history and provides insight into medieval religious customs.

Tips

Benedictine Monks sell souvenirs and their special liquor in the gift shop.
7
San Giacomo Maggiore Church

7) San Giacomo Maggiore Church

San Giacomo Maggiore is a church in Bologna founded by the Augustinian Order in 1267. It houses, among the rest, the Bentivoglio Chapel, featuring numerous Renaissance artworks. A community of hermits had established itself near the walls of Bologna, along the Savena river, as early as 1247. Here they founded a monastery with the annexed church of St. James. They were later merged with the Augustinian Order in 1256 and, as they needed a larger religious complex within the walls, in 1267 construction of the new church in the present location. The edifice was finished in 1315, but it consecration took place in 1344 after the completion of the apse section.

The façade is the oldest part of the church, with its late-Romanesque proportions. The decorations in Istrian stone on the ogival windows, in Venetian style, were added by Lombardy masters in 1295. The four funerary cells were added in the early 14th century, a few time after those in the portico, which date to the 13th century and had frescoes; the original entrance protyrus was modified in the same period.
Sight description based on wikipedia

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