I was probably spoilt by my first visit to Piazza San Stefano in Bologna, for two reasons: first it was a Sunday and so the flea market was in full swing, and second it was in a cafe here that I first tasted “tortellini in brodo” so the memorability of the afternoon is guaranteed.
The irregular space of the piazza was home to all manner of stalls selling rugs, antique furniture, military memorabilia, paintings, glassware and more, and there was such a friendly and relaxed ambience arising from a blended sound of the busking musicians and the banter of the traders across the space between displays.
I would have been happy to have visited the square even if I hadn’t ventured into the church that gives the place its name, but then I would have missed out on a real treasure.
Actually to say that San Stefano gives the square its name is a little misleading for the monastic complex here has a number of names to spare; the clue is in the name of the cafe where I dined, or to be more accurate caffe! Sette chiese means seven churches, for San Stefano once comprised this number, though as a result of some inconsiderate remodelling by the citizens of Bologna in days past there are now only four. Even so the contrasts they provide makes for a worthwhile visit.
Through the first door you enter a small and relatively unremarkable church, but for the light which streams in from the windows to the south. A photographer’s dream. This is the Church of the Crucifix, and appropriately enough the building is dominated by just such an artefact suspended from the ceiling.
The unusually raised altar is built on a mezzanine to accommodate a crypt below, or given the event that the church recalls, is it supposed to represent that “green hill far away”?
There are differing theories about the development of the site; some claiming that each of the seven churches was meant to represent the locations of the passion of Christ, whereas other believe it to have been a purely organic development spreading from an old pagan temple that Petronius the patron saint of the city converted. The first theory gave rise to another name for the complex – Holy Jerusalem, with some postulating that it was built to replicate the buildings that the Roman Emperor Constantine erected over the site of the crucifixion and burial of Christ.
Fittingly the pagan temple was dedicated to Isis, an Egyptian goddess appropriated by the Romans, now re-appropriated to become the Holy Sepulchre, and designed to resemble the church of that name in Jerusalem. Whatever the theory this is an entirely different structure to the first, not so much a church as central high pulpit with a tomb incorporated below where Petronius rested before being decanted to the cathedral that bears his name.
After this the links to the passion are a bit harder to recognise. Pilate’s courtyard is… a courtyard. The 4th century Church of Saints Vitale and Agricola doesn’t seem to fit with the Jerusalem theory, and the other buildings all seem to medieval to be replicas of any Roman originals, which is not to say they don’t have charm; the Church of The Trinity with it’s wooden nativity scene, the frescoed ceilings by the Chapel of the Bandage, the well at the centre of the cloister, and the coloured brickwork designs of the courtyard.
There is plenty to explore here – I just need to return to the city to do it justice.