Dedicated to the fifth-century bishop Petronius, who became Bologna’s patron saint, the Basilica di San Petronio dominates Piazza Maggiore in the heart of the city. One of the largest churches in the world and a soaring example of Gothic grandeur, the basilica Is a highlight of any Bologna city tour.
Construction of the Basilica di San Petronio began in 1390, but renovations to enlarge the building were interrupted in the 1500s when its size threatened to overshadow St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The basilica’s façade was unfortunately left unfinished, but the interiors are beautifully realized, including the Cappella dei Magi, with sumptuous frescoes by Giovanni da Modena, rich stained glass, elegant carved marble, and the astronomer Cassini’s brass meridian line embedded in the floor of the eastern aisle. Visitors also enjoy panoramic views over the city from the terrace on the church roof, and stroll through the basilica’s museum to see precious artifacts, illuminated manuscripts, and vestments belonging to the church.
Basilica di San Petronio is the most important church in Bologna, and a highlight of any city walking or bike tour, along with attractions like Piazza Maggiore, the Two Towers, and the churches of Santo Stefano and San Domenico. Some travelers visit as part of a multi-day trip from Rome.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Bologna tours on foot or by bike are mostly outdoors, so be sure to dress for the weather and wear comfortable shoes.
- Large bags and backpacks are not allowed in the church.
- Photography without flash is allowed inside, though not in the Cappella dei Magi.
- The basilica is wheelchair accessible, but the rooftop terrace is not.
- Visitors are required to wear modest attire that covers shoulders and knees.
How to Get There
The Basilica di San Petronio is located on Piazza Maggiore, the main square in the center of Bologna. The square is an easy walk from the Bologna Centrale train station and most of the major attractions in the city center.
When to Get There
Bologna is known for its extreme weather, with wet winters and hot summers. The basilica interiors offer a welcome respite from the elements in both winter and summer, though the church does close at midday on weekdays.
San Petronio’s Controversial Chapel
Giovanni da Modena’s 15th-century fresco cycle depicting heaven and hell is the most famous work of art in the Basilica of San Petronio, in part because of its near-pristine state and in part because it shows the prophet Muhammad being devoured by demons, an image that is considered sacrilegious by many of the Islamic faith.