Neptune, the Roman God of the Sea has been proudly exposing his buttocks et al. to the people of Bologna for over four hundred years. The Bolognese have never seemed concerned by his presence on top of the city’s Fontana del Nettuno; their have neither been worried by his lack of self-consciousness nor by his polytheism even though Bologna, like the rest of Italy has generally been anti-polytheistic i.e. Catholic, for as long as the fountain has existed.
Italy has been comfortable showcasing sculptures of ancients Gods and polytheistic cultures in its cities – and particularly its capital – for several centuries, but it is no surprise that these muses are not found and celebrated inside any of its Catholic churches… except, it would seem, in Bologna. The city’s Basilica di San Petronio has a large collection of objects inspired by the worlds of ancient Rome, Egypt and Greece. The array of artefacts displayed (2015) behind its altar are all copies but are just as symbolic of the ancient civilisations they represent. Although I thoroughly enjoyed perusing the collection, I couldn’t help but ponder on the fact that a church strictly worshipping just one God was proudly displaying objects that contradictorily celebrated pre-Christian cultures known to worship many Gods. This fact was made even more unusual when compared to the Basilica’s less adulating representation of a fellow one-God religion: Giovanni da Modena’s fresco of Dante’s Inferno apparently portrays the Islamic prophet Mohammed being tortured in hell. This fresco has continuously generated condemnation from Islamic communities worldwide, and has even made the Basilica a target for Islamic-terrorists twice in the past fifteen years.
This is not the only oddity associated with the Basilica. Although it is one of the largest churches in the world, the Basilica was initially designed in the fourteenth century to be absolute largest. Nearly one hundred and seventy years into its construction – it was destined to be a long build – Pope Pius IV decided he didn’t want it to be the largest church in the world after all, preferring St Peter’s in Rome to hold the accolade instead. One would think that after 170 years of construction the Bolognese Basilica may have been close to completion anyway, but it is clear from its appearance even to this day that it was far from finished when His Holiness halted any further construction to it.
Even though it is only half the size it would have been, the Basilica’s interior is still impressive in scale, if not so much in decoration.
Most notably, the ceilings are almost completely bare of any mosaics or paintings, apart from the presence of a small, round sun-like symbol above the left hand aisle of the church.
The sun-like symbol is actually the surround to the aperture of a huge camera obscura used as a sundial within the Basilica, devised by a seventeenth century mathematician called Gian Domenico Cassini. In the middle of the sun symbol is a hole that allows midday sunlight to shine through the roof and down onto a carefully calculated meridian line running the length of the floor along the left hand side aisle. As long as it’s not cloudy nor anything obstructing the hole in the roof, the sundial not only accurately tells the time of noon every day of the year, but also suggests what day of the year it is in the Gregorian calendar. More importantly, it was used by the Papacy in the Middle Ages to determine the date for Easter Sunday calculated from the occurrence of the first full moon after the vernal (March-time) equinox.
The sundial can still accurately pinpoint the date and remains one of the largest working astronomical pieces of equipment in the world. Unfortunately, I was unable to witness the beam of noon-day light on the meridian line during my visit, but the sight of the line alone was just as impressive.
As Cassini was also an astrologist, he used the signs of the Zodiac to mark out the solar calendar along his meridian line.
The Basilica di San Petronio is open daily from 7.45am to 2pm and then again from 3pm until 6pm. Entrance is free. However, to take photographs of the meridian line and Dante’s Inferno, a small fee is required. Tickets can be bought by the entrance to the Basilica. The vigilant but friendly staff spend most of their time directing photographers over to the desk.
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