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Visit Santo Stefano church, Bologna

The Santo Stefano complex is a group of interlinked churches and religious buildings in the centre of Bologna in north-east Italy, on Piazza Santa Stefano

Discover the Santo Stefano complex in Bologna

Italy This Way review: the Santo Stefano complex is a fascinating and atmospheric place to visit, and much more extensive than you would expect when you first see the churches - there are several churches from different historical periods here as well as a courtyard and several interesting frescoes and other works of art, and a visit is recommended

Because of the extensive redevelopment and the way the churches are interlinked it is quite difficult during a visit to Santo Stefano to know which part of the complex you are in! For most visitors, simply seeing the rooms and courtyard of the complex is sufficient without the need for a detailed understanding of each part of history...

History of the development of the Santo Stefano complex in Bologna

It is possible, although not supported by available evidence, that there was a temple in this location dedicated to the Egyptian god Isis before the 5th century. The first Christian church was built here in the 4th - 5th century, commanded by the Bishop Petronius.

This small church was added to and extended many times over the following centuries: the picture above shows the development of the complex (anti-clockwise from the top) in the 1st century (as a temple), 5th century (the first church, incorporating the temple), 8th century, 9th century, 12th century and 19th century.

The principal parts of the Santo Stefano complex include:

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Built in the 5th century on the site of a natural spring and the site of the Isis Temple this is the oldest part of the structure, although it was substantially rebuilt in the 11th century because of damage following invasion of the territory by the Hungarians. It was given this name because Bishop Petronius wanted the first church to be based on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

In the form of a polygonal basilica, this church still retains several columns thought to be from the original Temple of Isis. The structure in the middle once held the remains of Saint Petronius, and pilgrims crawled through a small access to pray before the bones.

 
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Church of the Holy Crucifix and the crypt

This church was added in the 8th century and is the first you reach during your visit. It is a simple layout, with one nave and a presbytery above the crypt, and includes an 18th century statue of the Lamentation of Christ. The crypt has five naves and has some remains of frescoes from the 15th and 16th century.

Church of Saints Vitalis and Agricola

With ancient origins this is actually the oldest church in the Santa Stefano comples but was rebuilt after the 12th century. It is named for a Roman master, Vitalis, and his servant Agricola: they were among the first people in the town to be executed for being Christians.

It was a pilgrim destination for a while after it was claimed the remains of Saint Peter were here, but the story was fabricated and the church was closed for several decades by order of the Pope as a punishment for the false claim.

In the church you can see medieval sarcophagi that once held the remains of Vitalis and Agricola and a fragment of Roman mosaic on the floor.

Church of the Trinity

This church was added in the 13th century, and substantially altered several times, including during renovations in the 19th century. Inside the church you can see a substantial series of statues representing the Adoration fo the Magi, also thought to be from the 13th century.

Pilate's Courtyard

In the courtyard, with arches along the edges,  you can see a statue of a rooster from the 14th century and some tombstones.

Further buildings, not churches, were added around the edges of the Santo Stefano complex in the following centuries.

Courtyard in the Santo Stefano complex

Attractions nearby

See the Bologna guide for lots more attractions to visit in this interesting city.

You can find more local travel ideas in the Emilia-Romagna guide.

See also: 

Photos of Santo Stefano church, Bologna

Click any picture to start the gallery

  • cloister-1
  • cloister-2
  • courtyard
  • fresco (1)
  • fresco (2)
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  • history
  • interior (1)
  • interior (2)
  • interior (3)
  • interior (5)
  • painting
  • piazza
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  • santa-stefano-complex (20)
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Map of Santo Stefano church, Bologna and places to visit

 
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