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San Domenico

Treasurehouse of Art

San Domenico

San Domenico was built in 1251 to house the relics of St Dominic, founder of the Order of Preaching Friars, the Dominicans. Dominic had arrived in Bologna in 1218, and was so impressed by the scholarship of the university city, that he built a convent by a small church on this site.

He died here in 1221 and was buried in a simple wooden coffin in the church floor (as was the custom then: holy bodies had to be hidden away to foil relic thieves). As the Dominicans' popularity soared, a bigger church was built to house the saint's tomb; Pope Innocent IV consecrated it in 1251, and although the exterior and interior have been frequently remodelled (the façade was only added in 1910), it is still one of the great treasure-houses of art in Bologna.

Chapel of St Dominic

Inside, the narrow Baroque nave only accentuates the effect of a church that is nearly as long as San Petronio. The main attraction is the big chapel of St Dominic in the right aisle, originally Gothic but rebuilt and enlarged in the 17th century by Floriano Ambrosini to contain all the pilgrims who came to worship beside the saint's relics, installed in the spectacular, and at the time revolutionary Arca di San Domenico, completed for the most part in 1261.

Arco di San Domenico

Many hands contributed to this sculptural ensemble, notably Nicolò Pisano, who had just completed the magnificent pulpit in the Baptistry in Pisa and was deemed by the Dominicans to be the only man up to the task. Assisted by his followers (which included the young Arnolfo da Cambio, architect of Florence's cathedral), he executed the sarcophagus and the beautiful reliefs of the saint’s life.

Two centuries later Niccolò dell’Arca (Niccolò da Bari, who gained his name and fame from this work) added the cover of the sarcophagus and the statues of Bologna’s eight patron saints; Nicolò died before the group was finished, leaving the rest to the 20-year-old Michelangelo, who had to leave Florence during the political turbulence that followed the death of his patron Lorenzo de’ Medici. During 1494, when Savonarola, a Dominican who had started his career in this very monastery, was gaining power in Florence, Michelangelo was here sculpting the figures of SS. Petronius and Proculus.

Some of the biggest names of the Bolognese school decorated the walls with early-Baroque extravaganzas, including Mastelletta, Alessandro Tiarini (St Dominic resuscitating a child) and Leonello Spada (a rather chilling Burning of the heretical books). Above all this is a ceiling fresco by Guido Reni, the Apotheosis of St Dominic (1615).

Chapel of the Rosary

Across the nave from the Arca is the large chapel of the Rosary, dedicated to the Virgin of the Rosary, who was credited with ending the plague in 1630. Floriano Ambrosini designed the altar, under ceiling frescoes in quadratura by Angelo Michele Colonna and Agostino Mitelli.

For the Scenes of the Mystery of the Rosary on the walls the Dominicans again paid top dollar: Ludovico Carracci (Annunciation, Visitation, Scourging and Christ falling under the Cross), Bartolomeo Cesi (Nativity, Christ in the garden, the Crowning with Thorns, the Crucifixion and Pentecost), Denis Calvaert (Presentation of Jesus in the Temple), Lavinia Fontana (Jesus among the Doctors and the Coronation of the Virgin), Guido Reni (Resurrection), and Domenichino (Assumption of the Blessed Virgin). A young Mozart played the organ here in 1769, and it holds the tomb of Guido Reni.

Transepts and Altar

The right transept holds a St Thomas Aquinas by Guercino, but in the nearest chapel don't miss The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, one of the last works by Florentine Filippino Lippi

The left transept has three chapels. In one, the grave of King Enzo of Sardinia, bastard son of Emperor Frederick II and the last of the House of Hohenstaufen (d. 1272) is marked by an 18th-century marble monument.

The Crucifixion (1250) in the middle chapel of St Michael the Archangel is the masterpiece of Giunta Pisano, as well as the first signed work by an Italian artist ('Cuius docta manus me pixit Junta Pisanus'–'painted by the hand of Giunta Pisano'). One of the most notable paintings of trecento Italy, still powerfully stylized and influenced by Byzantine art, it was the first to make a move towards realism, showing Christ suffering on the Cross (unlike the serene figure in Byzantine and Romanesque art, as in the 12th century Crucifixion in San Pietro). Giunta's work would influence Cimabue's own more emotional, realistic art, creating the first spark of the Italian Renaissance.

Here too is the trecento tomb of Taddeo Pepoli, Bologna’s trecento boss (d. 1347), by an unknown Florentine artist, and a fresco of the same period of SS Thomas Aquinas and Benedict.

A triptych of the Adoration of the Magi by Bartolomeo Cesi is in the apse, along with one of the basilica's masterpieces: the 102 beautiful wooden intarsia choir stalls by the friar Damiano from Bergamo, with help from his brother Stefano (1528-51), with Old Testament scenes on the right, and New Testament Scenes on the left. During the Renaissance they were known as the 'Eighth Wonder of the World' and were greatly admired by Emperor Charles V during his visit.

Intarsia by Fra Damiano from Bergano

San Domenico Museum

To the right of the altar is the entrance to the Museo di San Domenico, with a good deal of church clutter in its two rooms. But there are also as a number of fine works relocated from the church and monastery, including a bust of St Dominic by Niccolò dell’Arca, more fine marquetry by Fra Damiano (The Story of San Girolamo); the Madonna of the Velvet of Lippo di Dalmasio and a St Raymond by Ludovico Carracci. There's a finger of St Louis in an elaborate gold Gothic reliquary, a gift to the church from French King Philip IV after the canonization of his father.

Ghisilardi Chapel and tombs

Left of the façade, the Ghisilardi Chapel was designed by the Sienese architect Baldassarre Peruzzi, who was in Bologna to plan a façade for San Petronio that was never built. While he was there, he was commissioned to build this chapel. Inspired by writing of Vitruvius and his experience among the antiquities of Rome, Peruzzi created an elegant chapel with Corinthian columns in the form of a Latin cross, in a reworking of classicism that wouldn't be seen again until the Venetian churches of Palladio. Alfonso Lombardi sculpted the figure of Christ.

Outside, in Piazza San Domenico, are two tombs of noted doctors of the Law, Egidio Foscherari (1289) and Rolandino de’Passageri (1310), similar to the tombs of the glossatori outside San Francesco.

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Piazza San Domenico

Hours Church Mon-Fri 9am–12noon and 3.30–6pm, until 5pm on Sat; Sun 3.30-5pm only. Museum: Open by request Mon–Sat 9am–12noon and 3.30–6pm, Sun and hols 3–5pm.


+39 051 581 718

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Sailko, GNU Free Documentation License, Allan Parsons, Georges Jansoone, PD Art