Bologna’s most storied religious site is actually seven churches, a stone maze of medieval apses, romantic porticos and courtyards awash in legend. Petronius, the fifth century bishop of Bologna, allegedly founded the church on the remains of a Roman temple to the earth goddess Isis. He was originally laid to rest in the Church of the Sepulcher, and pregnant Bolognese women would at one time circle his tomb 33 times, once for every year of Christ’s life, stopping at every turn to crawl through a low door to say a prayer before the saint’s remains (his body has been since been reunited with his head in the basilica di San Petronio). The mothers-to-be moved on to the Church of the Trinity to pray before a fresco depicting a very pregnant Madonna stroking her belly. The Church of Vitale and Agricola is devoted to two other popular Bolognese saints and the city’s first Christian martyrs, the fourth-century nobleman Agricola and his devoted slave; a cross near the tomb is said to be the one Agricola was holding when he was crucified, though it dates from much later—just as a marble basin in the Cortile di Pilato (Courtyard of Pilate) alleged to be the one in which Pontius Pilate washed his hands after condemning Christ to death actually dates to the 8th century; a statue atop a nearby column pays homage to the rooster who crowed three times when Peter denied knowing Jesus. It’s said that Dante used to sit in the lovely, two-tier Romanesque cloister and reflect during his exile in Bologna and found inspiration for the hellish scenes of the “Divine Comedy” in the ghastly depictions on the capitals atop the pillars, carved with luridly grotesque imagery of swiveling heads and men being crushed beneath boulders.
- Frommer's Staff