Bologna … Basilica di San Petronio: the stalwart Christian House of God that appears to celebrate polytheism and doubles as a huge sundial

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.

Bologna's sultry medieval Fontana del Nettuno in Piazza del Nettuno. The smaller drinking fountain in front of it is nineteenth century

Bologna’s sultry medieval Fontana del Nettuno in Piazza del Nettuno. The smaller drinking fountain in front of it is nineteenth century

The people of Bologna unfazed by Neptune's fine physique and non-Christian deity

The people of Bologna unfazed by Neptune’s fine physique and non-Christian deity

Bologna Fontana del Nettuno, Neptune's fountain, some front

The cheek of it!

The cheek of it!

This figure (and what a figure!) is one of four buxom sirens representing the four continents known to sixteenth century Europeans. Water does spout out from her nipples, but thankfully not from anywhere else

This figure (and what a figure!) is one of four buxom sirens representing the four continents known to sixteenth century Europeans. Water does spout out from her nipples, but thankfully not from anywhere else

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.

Some of the Ancient Egyptian pottery on display inside the Basilica di San Petronio

Some of the Ancient Egyptian pottery on display inside the Basilica di San Petronio

Certainly not the Virgin Mary, this statue of an Egyptian winged sphinx is on display inside the Basilica di San Petronio, Bologna

Certainly not the Virgin Mary, this statue of an Egyptian winged sphinx is on display inside the Basilica di San Petronio, Bologna

A copy of a double headed Egyptian drinking vessel with the head of a duck and a ram

A copy of a double headed Egyptian drinking vessel with the head of a duck and a ram

The display continues inside the Basilica with copies of ancient Roman pottery depicting characters from Roman mythology

The display continues inside the Basilica with copies of ancient Roman pottery depicting characters from Roman mythology

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.

How it could have looked: a model of the original design for Bologna's Basilica di San Petronio

How it could have looked: a model of the original design for Bologna’s Basilica di San Petronio

How it ended up: the incomplete façade of the Basilica after Pope Pius IV halted construction in 1561

How it ended up: the incomplete façade of the Basilica after Pope Pius IV halted construction in 1561

A 3-D section model of the original external and internal designs for the Basilica

A 3-D section model of the original external and internal designs for the Basilica

The model shows the two side wings planned to turn the Basilica into the largest in the world. This is the design of the wing that would have been built onto the left hand side of the Basilica

The model shows the two side wings planned to turn the Basilica into the largest in the world. This is the design of the wing that would have been built onto the left hand side of the Basilica

... and this is the sight of the left hand side of the Basilica today along Via dell'Archiginnasio, the consequence being this odd looking angular half-window (right) where the wing would have begun

… and this is the sight of the left hand side of the Basilica today along Via dell’Archiginnasio, the consequence being this odd looking angular half-window (right) where the wing would have begun

The bell tower on the right hand side of the Basilica was completed but the right wing planned next to it was barely started

The bell tower on the right hand side of the Basilica was completed but the right wing planned next to it was barely started

The exterior back of the Basilica; was that opening covered with a red drape going to be a window or a door? I certainly hope it's not being used as a fire escape today

The exterior back of the Basilica; was that opening covered with a red drape going to be a window or a door? I certainly hope it’s not being used as a fire escape today

Bologna Basilica di San Petronio, side windows incomplete

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.

The rather sparse looking interior of the Basilica

The rather sparse looking interior of the Basilica

Bologna Basilica di San Petronio, altar canope

Maybe the lack of intricate interior decoration is due to the belief that the devil is in the detail

Maybe the lack of intricate interior decoration is due to the belief that the devil is in the detail

Bologna Basilica di San Petronio, interior unfinished detail

One chapel does appear to have been finished containing Giovanni da Modena's Dante's Inferno. The controversial scene of hell is on the left hand side interior wall

One chapel does appear to have been finished, containing Giovanni da Modena’s Dante’s Inferno. The controversial scene of hell is on the left hand side interior wall

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.

A sun-like symbol, the only apparent decoration on the basilica's ceilings

A sun-like symbol, the only apparent decoration on the basilica’s ceilings

This however, is more than just a decorative detail

This however, is more than just a decorative detail

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.

Cassini's meridian line partially under protective glass, running along the floor of the Basilica with the aperture hole in the ceiling above (top right). Sadly, the sun beams were more 4pm than noon-time

Cassini’s meridian line partially under protective glass, running along the floor of the Basilica with the aperture hole in the ceiling above (top right). Sadly, the sun beams were more 4pm than noon-time

Bologna Basilica di San Petronio, Cassini's meridian line, Cancer and section of line

Bologna Basilica di San Petronio, Cassini's meridian line, Winter Solstice and line

As Cassini was also an astrologist, he used the signs of the Zodiac to mark out the solar calendar along his meridian line.

The Cancerian crab used to mark out the months of June and July along the meridian line

The Cancerian crab used to mark out the months of June and July along the meridian line

If the beam of noon-day sun light hits the Sagittarian side of this marble marking (left) then it has happened late in the month of November. If it hits the Aquarian side of the marking then a tall, dark figure is going to appear this week signaling love and travel opportunities

If the beam of noon-day sun light hits the Sagittarian side of this marble marking (left) then it has happened late in the month of November. If it hits the Aquarian side of the marking then a tall, dark figure is going to appear this week signaling love and travel opportunities

Useful information

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.

TLT x


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