The backdrop of the Piazza Santo Stefano is the basilica that gives it its name: an interweaving of seven religious buildings that are surprisingly interconnected. According to tradition, San Petronio, the Bishop of Bologna, had the idea of creating a basilica after the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
It was built on top of a temple dedicated to Isis. The buildings that make up the complex are all very old. Because of the numerous restorations in the first decades of the 20th century, the look of the complex has changed from the original “Seven Churches” to four. Despite this, it is still one of the most romantic and interesting monuments in the city.
You enter through the Church of the Crucifix. Of Lombard origin, it dates back to the 8th century. It has a single nave with a raised presbytery reached by a stair. Here is found the 14th century crucifix that gives the church its name. In the left nave you can admire a sculpture from the 18th century that depicts the “Lamentation over the Dead Christ”.
According to legend, the work was made using playing cards that had been confiscated during the years when gambling was prohibited. The church walls are covered with frescoes telling the story of the martyr St. Stefano. Under the presbytery stair is a splendid crypt. It is divided into five naves by a series of antique columns, each one different from the other. According to legend, one of these is the exact height of Jesus.
At the back, an urn on the altar holds the remains of St. Vitale and St. Agricola. On the left of the altar, a small fresco from the 15th century shows the "Madonna of the Snows”. While it is of little artistic merit, it is nonetheless striking. On the right of the entrance is a little statue of the Madonna Child.
A side door leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the oldest building in the entire complex. 12 columns surround the shrine which held relics of San Petronio that had been recovered here in 1141. The little door of the tomb used to be opened for one week year during which time it was possible to crawl inside and pay one’s respects to the saint’s remains.
According to a curious custom, pregnant women in Bologna would circle the sepulchre thirty-three times, one for each year of Christ’s life. After each turn, they would crawl into the small sepulchre to pray. At the end of the ritual, they would go to the nearby church of Martyrium to pray in front of a fresco of the pregnant Madonna. In 2000 the body of San Petronio was moved to the basilica that bears his name, reunited with his head which was already there. From that point on, the sepulchre was never opened again.
In the church there is also a natural spring that holds very high symbolic value: it represents the River Jordan, where Christ was baptized, an idea also reflected in the seven African marble columns reused in the sepulchre. Of course, in reality the spring already existed when the original temple on the site was dedicated to Isis.
A side door leads to the church dedicated to Vitale and Agricola. The two men were a master and servant who became Bologna martyrs when they lost their lives, in 305 AD, victims of Diocletian’s persecution.
The church had originally been dedicated to St. Peter: a sepulchre had been found on the site with the inscription "Symon" and so the rumour circulated that it was the tomb of the first apostle Simon who later came to be called Peter. Although the information had no historical foundation, it naturally managed to draw many pilgrims away from Rome.
This did not make the pope happy, and he reacted in a not very diplomatic way: he had the roof taken off and the church filled with dirt. Only after seventy years was it permitted to be restored to a place of worship, naturally under the condition that the name would be changed.
Inside you can admire the remains of the mosaic floor, while in the two small apses at the side you can find the two sarcophagi of Vitale and Agricola, decorated with reliefs of lions, deer, and peacocks. There is a cross on the wall of the right nave that has been identified as the one St. Agricola was holding when he was martyred (in reality it was much later). Another curious feature is the way the altar is pushed up against the back wall: before the Council of Trent in 1545, in fact, the celebrant had his back to the parishioners.
Returning to the darkness of the tomb, you pass into the light through the “Courtyard of Pilates”, so named in memory of the place where Jesus was sentenced. The courtyard is surrounded by a Romanesque portico. In the centre stands a stone basin: it came to be called “The Basin of Pilates”. It is a Lombard work from the 8th century with an inscription below the rim.
Yet another curious object is the stone rooster atop a column under the portico. Called “The Rooster of St. Peter”, it recalls the episode in the Passion when the apostle denied knowing Jesus, and the rooster crowed three times. On the wall nearby there are several tombstones, one with a real pair of scissors in the centre and apparently belonged to a tailor.
Santo Stefano obviously has many elements which symbolize the Passion of Christ. Another related element is that the distance between the courtyard and the church of San Giovanni in Monte, not far from the piazza, is reported to be same as the distance between the Sanhedrin and the Mount Calvary in Jerusalem.
From the courtyard you enter the Church of the Trinity or the Martyrium, also called “Santa Croce” or “Calvary”. Its origins are not certain: perhaps at the beginning it was used to hold the bodies of Vitale and Agricola (hence the name Martyrium). Later, under the Lombards, it was transformed into a baptistery.
In the last chapel there is a wood sculpture representing the Adoration of the Magi: it is a nativity scene made up of statues in the round and is the oldest of its kind in the world. It dates from 18th century and was created by an unknown Bologna sculptor. The colour was added a century later. The few surviving frescoes in the church date from the 1300s: one shows St. Ursula with her fellow martyrs, while the other depicts the pregnant Madonna tenderly stroking her belly. The latter is a favourite among pregnant Bolognese women.
The church leads directly out to the splendid Medieval Cloister. Built on two floors, the cloister is often used for exhibitions: The lower part dates from before 1000, while the upper part is a magnificent example of Roman-Gothic. Some of the column capitals depict horrifying images.
One shows a naked man being crushed by a boulder. Another shows a man with his head twisted around 180°. According to legend, when Dante Alighieri was staying in Bologna he loved to come to this courtyard to study and reflect. It may have been these capitals which inspired some of the methods of atonement he described in Purgatory.
The complex’s campanile is clearly visible from the cloister. It was built in the 18th century was built up even taller in the subsequent century.
From the cloister portico you enter the museum of Santo Stefano which houses precious religious objects and works of art from the seven churches. Here is kept a strange piece of cloth that, as legend goes, belonged to the Madonna: once a year it is carried in a procession through the city streets. On this occasion, custom holds that prostitutes are forbidden to be within view of any place the procession passes.