In my Venetian postings I commented on the plethora of saints that are recognised by the Roman Catholic church, and the symbolism that accompanies them; St Anthony of Padua being a prime example. Bologna introduced me to a new name in the list of the venerated – St Petronius. Never heard of him? No me neither.
Perhaps that’s because he lacks some of the trappings we associate with other saints; a gruesome death like Santa Lucia, a track record of miracles like St Francis of Assisi, an act of heroism like St George, or even some great symbolism like St Peter with the keys to heaven.
Petronius lived in the 5th Century when the Roman Empire still existed to some degree (though it’s western half was in decline), and in fact his father had been a high ranking official, so Petronius came from a noble background.
So what is his claim to fame? Well he is the patron saint of Bologna, a bishop of the city who died in the mid 5th Century and whose greatest act seems to have been to order the building of the church of San Stefano about which more in a subsequent posting.
He doesn’t seem to have been celebrated as a saint until the 12th century when after nearly seven hundred years his relics were conveniently discovered (I’ve written before about how a good relic can guarantee income from visiting pilgrims). Churches were then built in his name culminating in the present basilica. If it looks a little underwhelming that is because during it’s construction Rome feared that Bologna was building a church which would rival St Peter’s and so cut off funding, which is why it is clad in marble only at lower levels.
It’s still worth a visit though – containing as it does the aforementioned relics, some remarkable sculptures, and an astronomical calendar designed by Cassini that was sufficiently accurate to lead to the introduction of the Gregorian calendar and the leap year. (There is a tiny hole in the ceiling and a marble channel on the floor that shows the date where the corresponding dot of light appears at noon)
There are plenty of images of the saint around the city and he’s usually easy to spot. St Peter may have had his keys, but St Petronius carries something a little more obtrusive. He is usually portrayed carrying the whole of Bologna.