Tuesday, October 04, 2016

St Petronius of Bologna

Long before St Francis of Assisi was canonized in 1228, the city of Bologna kept the day which is now his feast on the general calendar, October 4, as the feast of St Petronius. He was born in the later part of the 4th century into a noble Roman family, and his father had held important offices in the imperial government. He was elected the 8th bishop of Bologna in about 432, and died around 18 years later; very little else is known of him. A medieval hagiographical life, composed on the occasion of the finding of his relics in 1141, supplies a great many legendary stories about him of the sort that have given something of a bad odor to the word “legendary.” Several of these stories are concerned with his role in obtaining various privileges for Bologna from his “relative”, the Emperor Theodosius II, among them, the establishment of the university which boasts of being the oldest in Europe. (More accurate history would place the foundation over six centuries later.)

This statue of St Petronius on the Palazzo Comunale (city hall) in Piazza Maggiore was originally of Pope Gregory XIII (1571-85), after whom the Gregorian Calendar is named. A native of Bologna, he had studied law, both canon and civil (the famous “laurea utriusque”) at the university, which came into existence originally in the later 11th century specifically as a studium of canon law. During the Napoleonic invasion of Italy, the French government ordered the destruction of all public statues of the Popes; the Bolognesi hastily erected the inscription over the statue “St Petronius, Protector and Father” to save it, and wound up never changing it back.
A statue of St Petronius at an intersection fairly close to the Piazza Maggiore, between the famous towers (the Garisenda on the left, and the Asinelli on the right), which are the two best-known landmarks and symbols of the city. They are the most prominent of the 24 medieval towers that survive in Bologna, which saw the construction of over a hundred of them in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Garisenda was already leaning heavily by 1351, when it was cut down from almost 197 feet to 157½, but still declines 4 degrees off the perpendicular, slightly more than the more famous leaning tower of Pisa. 
In the mid 13th-century, the city began to honor him as its principal patron, and in 1390, an enormous basilica titled to him was begun in the central piazza of the city. It is now the 6th largest church in Europe, far larger even than Bologna’s own cathedral. There are several famous churches in Italy which went for long periods with an unfinished façade, most notably among them, the cathedrals of Florence and Milan; St Petronius’ remains incomplete to this very day. (When I was last in Bologna and took these pictures, there was a lot of scaffolding on the façade, so I nicked this photo of an old postcard from Wikimedia instead.)
Each the church’s six bays is about 62 feet long, for a total length of 433 feet; the building is about 197 feet wide, and over 145 high at the vault of the central nave, making it the largest brick Gothic church in the world.

The baldachin was constructed in the mid-16th century by Jacopo Vignola, who succeeded Michelangelo as the chief architect of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome in 1564.

The organ on the right side of the sanctuary (still commonly referred to as the organ “in cornu epistolae”) was built from 1471-75, and is the oldest functioning pipe organ in Italy.

The chapel which preserves the relics of St Petronius’ head.
The very impressive relic chapel.
The basilica also preserves the four crosses seen below, which according to tradition, were set up on ancient Roman columns by either St Ambrose or St Petronius outside the city walls, each near one of the gates; they were moved into the church in 1798, when both the walls and the small chapels that housed the crosses were destroyed. The first one seen below was dedicated to the Apostles, the second to the Holy Virgins, the third to all the Saints, and the fourth to the Martyrs. The attribution of the crosses to St Ambrose, whose see was the metropolitan see of all of northern Italy in the 4th century, including the territory of Bologna, fits nicely with the fact that Ambrose built in Milan churches at the four ends of the city which were similarly dedicated to the various orders of Saints, as a ring of protection around the city.

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