Work of the Week: Basilica of San Petronio, Bologna Italy

Welcome to a new Work of the Week post! This week, the "work" is actually an architectural structure.  One of my major areas of study was architecture, specifically cathedral and basilica structures. I find them to be fascinating and beautiful-- I hope you feel the same!

Many people are familiar with (or have at least seen pictures of) the Florence Cathedral, or Il Duomo di Firenze.  This Gothic Cathedral is well known for its massive dome (a harbinger of the Renaissance period not started until 1421), but the cathedral structure itself was begun in 1296, overseen by Arolfino di Cambio.  Sadly, di Cambio died only six years into the project so never saw the project even come close to completion.  Despite his death, his plan for the structure remained basically unchanged, which is remarkable as this period was marked by the multitude of opinions and potential drama while building large religious or cultural structures.
Florence Cathedral 
An interesting anecdote about the dome is that Brunelleschi, the architect who made the proposal for the dome structure, was unsure how to go about vaulting such a massive structure. He went to commissioners and artists to seek advice, and one prominent proposal was to fill the entire octagonal drum (the base of the dome) with dirt mixed with gold coins, place a resting dome on top of the dirt, and then encourage random people to clear out the dirt with the promise that they would find gold coins mixed in with it.  Not a very smart plan, but still an interesting story!
Florence Cathedral 
I begin with the Florence Cathedral because it is connected to the lesser known Basilica of San Petronio that is our focus today. Bologna is a much smaller city in Italy in comparison to Florence, but wanted to assert its presence as a viable, powerful, and autonomous locale.  The best way to do this during the 14th century was by presenting impressive architectural ability, and that is exactly what the city of Bologna tried to do. 

This structure was begun almost exactly one hundred years after the start of the Florence Cathedral (during the Gothic period it often took two centuries or more to complete a cathedral structure).  In an attempt to be at a similar level as Florence, and seeing the impressive work of the florentines, the plans for San Petronino were incredibly ambitious and can be said in today's modern language as an attempt to "one up" the florentines.

Setting out to build an unbelievably large structure in a relatively small town, impressively, within the first fifteen years of building, the entirety of the main arcade (basically the long portion of the cross shape that cathedrals make)was completed. However, after 1405, construction came to reach a long pause. From 1405 on, the construction moved at a snails pace, and the structure was never completed.

This forever incomplete example of late gothic architecture is a perfect example of the big aspirations 14th century individuals had in their cathedral construction; the city of Bologna really knew how to dream BIG!
Today- Still incomplete facade of the structure 
Exposed brickwork never covered 
Fortunately for us, a wooden model of one of the original plans for the structure survives today, so we can compare how far the structure made it against what it was "meant" to be.
Wooden Model of Original San Petronio Plan

Compare this wooden model with the above image. In the wooden model, the bottom section of the long leg of the cross shape is all that was ever constructed (although never finished as it is still mostly "naked" brick).
The cross section (side chapels), or the short leg of the cross that forms the "t shape" was never begun, the dome on top of the crossing was never begun, and the four towers were never begun.  Just to be entirely clear because I know architecture terms can be confusing, I circled in the below image all that was ever partially completed.
Circled shows what exists today
What is remarkable  about this Basilica is the sheer ambition behind it.  It is actually said that the architect in the later, early 16th century plan wanted to make this structure even larger and grander than St. Peter's in Rome.

It is also interesting and unique because the impotence to this structure was not the church wanting to build a cathedral structure, but the town and the townspeople themselves wanting a gothic cathedral for their hometown.  The structure was property of the city, not in the hands of the church, until 1929, and consecrated in 1954.

I hope you enjoyed this post! I hope it wasn't too confusing and that you had a great weekend!!


1 comment:

  1. Interesting story...thanks for sharing it. There are plenty of modern day examples where our civic planning eyes are bigger than our stomaches.