The Seven Churches of Santo Stefano

Church of the Crucifix, Basilica of Santo Stefano, Bologna.

Church of the Crucifix, Basilica of Santo Stefano, Bologna.

I'm drawn to churches in Italy. There is something peaceful and spiritual about them. The coolness, the quiet, the dim light, the candles - all invoke a sense of calm and of one's place in the greater universe. I've probably lit 1,000 candles in churches big and small all across Italy - a nod to my Catholic upbringing - somehow those small flames seem to guide hopes and prayers on their way.

And then there is the art. I love the fading frescoes, the sculptures, the biblical stories told in paintings, the carved crucifixes, the Madonnas. And while I don't consider myself particularly religious, I find all of these tremendously meaningful.

Intricate brickwork in the Pilate's Courtyard, between two of the churches in the Santo Stefano complex.

Intricate brickwork in the Pilate's Courtyard, between two of the churches in the Santo Stefano complex.

Perhaps the most amazing church I've visited in Italy isn't a single church at all but rather the Sette Chiese (Seven Churches) of the Basilica of Santo Stefano in Bologna. Parts of this series of interconnected chapels date to the 5th century and were likely built on the site of a fresh water spring and over a former temple to the Goddess Isis. Originally seven churches, changes throughout the centuries have resulted in the current four churches: Church of the Crucifix (the largest in the complex), Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Church of Saints Vitale & Agricola (local martyrs), and Church of the Trinity (or Martyrium).

Along with the four churches there are smaller chapels, the Pilate's courtyard with its intricate brickwork, a cloister with a central well and arcaded second story logia, and a small museum/gift shop.

Cloister Courtyard, Santo Stefano, Bologna

Cloister Courtyard, Santo Stefano, Bologna

The whole series of churches is fascinating and each one is unique, but it was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the oldest part of the complex) that most intrigued me. It is a dark space, small and round yet quite tall with rising columns, arched windows high up in the cylindrical walls, and a domed brick ceiling. In the center is a carved stone structure that is part tomb (intended for the now absent Saint Petronio), part altar, part spiral staircase, all topped with a simple crucifix. There are beautiful stone carvings and a small opening into the tomb space itself (I actually watched a tourist climb into the tomb opening but I decided not to follow!). This space is mystical and somewhat eerie - the air just feels different in here, filled with a presence that is not quite visible. Perhaps it is the distant echos of those early worshipers. 

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The Basilica of Santo Stefano is about a 10-minute walk from Piazza Maggiore and sits on a lovely triangular piazza at the end of Via Santo Stefano. It offers a unique experience, different from some of the more famous churches in Italy which get considerably more visitors. Its a worthwhile stop on any visit to Bologna.                                                                                -post by JB

I Portici di Bologna

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Portico - the word is the same in Italian and English; portici is the Italian plural. The dictionary definition, "a porch or walkway with a roof supported by columns" (thefreedictionary.com), does not begin to describe the grandeur of Bologna's portico-lined walkways.

Bologna's earliest porticos date to the 11th century (with modifications and additions in later centuries) and are found throughout the historic center of town. They are as practical as they are beautiful. Originally, they allowed for additional living space to be built on upper floors, an important housing consideration in a town with a large student population. This was accomplished by extending living space above the areas used by the people passing underneath, creating both living space and covered walkways. The ceilings of the porticos are quite high - legend has it that they are a standard height, designed to accommodate a man on horseback.

 

The porticos open to the streets through a series of arches. 

The porticos open to the streets through a series of arches. 

Some of the earliest porticos were made of wooden beams and coverings, later banned and mostly removed. Today the porticos have brick or stone columns, arched openings, vaulted ceilings, and stone or marble pavements. As an additional practicality, the porticos offer protection from both rain and direct sun, making the streets of Bologna perhaps the most pleasant place to stroll in all of Europe.

This length of portico has beautiful columns and ceilings as well as marble flooring. 

This length of portico has beautiful columns and ceilings as well as marble flooring. 

There are 38 kilometers (nearly 24 miles) of porticos in the historic center of Bologna, beneath which are a variety of shops, markets, cafes, and restaurants.

Under the portico along Via Ugo Bassi. 

Under the portico along Via Ugo Bassi. 

A pretty flower market under the portico. 

A pretty flower market under the portico. 

The charming cafe Gamerini sits under a pretty stretch of portico along Via Ugo Bassi and Via S. Gervasio

The charming cafe Gamerini sits under a pretty stretch of portico along Via Ugo Bassi and Via S. Gervasio

A morning coffee or an afternoon tea at a cafe sotto il portico (beneath the portico) is a real treat!

Outside of the historic center is perhaps the most remarkable of all the porticos - the world's longest covered walkway, which leads to the Santuario di San Luca. This four-kilometer (roughly 2.5 miles) uphill portico has a total of 666 arches. It begins with a gentle rise from the Porta Saragozza and becomes progressively steeper as it climbs the hill toward the church. A massive and costly undertaking when it was built (late 1600s - mid 1700s), the arches were funded privately, many by families who built small shrines or chapels along the walkway (most now destroyed, only a few remain). Completing this walk really is a pilgrimage - and beautiful views and a lovely church await at the top (it's also possible to drive to the Santuario or take a tourist bus).

The all uphill portico leading to the Santuario di San Luca, Bologna. 

The all uphill portico leading to the Santuario di San Luca, Bologna. 

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The Santuario end of the portal is un'ascesa ripida (a steep climb)!  

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Bologna is a beautiful city, full of architectural, cultural, historic, and artistic interest. It's also a very walkable city - made all the more pleasant when strolling underneath i portici di Bologna.

                                                          -post by JMB