Basilica of San Domenico

The church of San Domenico with column of St Dominic

The Basilica of San Domenico is one of the major churches in Bologna, Italy. The remains of Saint Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), are buried inside the exquisite shrine Arca di San Domenico, made by Nicola Pisano and his workshop, Arnolfo di Cambio and with later additions by Niccolò dell'Arca and the young Michelangelo.


Dominic Guzman, on arriving in Bologna in January 1218, was impressed by the vitality of the city and quickly recognized the importance of this university town to his evangelizing mission. A convent was established at the Mascarella church by the Blessed Reginald of Orleans. As this convent soon became too small for their increasing number, the preaching Brothers moved in 1219 to the small church of San Nicolò of the Vineyards at the outskirts of Bologna. St. Dominic settled in this church and held here the first two General Chapters of the order (1220 and 1221). Saint Dominic died in this church on 6 August 1221. He was buried behind the altar of San Nicolò.

Between 1219 and 1243 the Dominicans bought all surrounding plots of land around the church. After the death of Saint Dominic, the church of San Nicolò was expanded and a new monastic complex was built between 1228 and 1240. The apsidal area of the church was demolished and the nave was extended and grew into the Basilica of Saint-Dominic, This church became the prototype of many other Dominican churches throughout the world.

The big basilica was divided in two parts:

Both churches were divided by a ramp. The church was consecrated by Pope Innocent IV on 17 October 1251. On this occasion the crucifix by Giunta Pisano was shown for the first time to the faithful.

The remains of the saint were moved in 1233 from its place behind the altar to a simple marble sarcophagus, situated on the floor in the right aisle of the church for the faithful. Since most of the pilgrims, who came in great numbers to see the grave, were not able to see this shrine, hidden by so many people standing in front of it, the need was felt for a new shrine. In 1267 the remains of Saint Dominic were then moved from the simple sarcophagus into the new shrine, decorated with the main episodes from the life of the Saint by Nicola Pisano. Work would continue on this shrine for almost five centuries.

The church was enlarged and the two sections were modified in many ways in the course of the next centuries. New side chapels were built, the majority in the 15th century. A Roman-Gothic bell tower was added in 1313 (recently restored). The dividing wall between the two churches was finally demolished in the beginning of the 17th century. The choir was at the same time moved behind the altar. Between 1728 and 1732 the interior of the church was completely renewed by the architect Carlo Francesco Dotti, sponsored by the Dominican pope Benedict XIII, into its present-day Baroque style.

Early on the church began receiving many works of art from the faithful. This has grown into the present-day vast collection of exceptional art treasures created by some the greatest Italian artists, including Giunta Pisano, Nicola Pisano, Arnolfo di Cambio, Niccolò dell'Arca, Michelangelo, Iacopo da Bologna, Guido Reni, Guercino and Filippino Lippi.

Square and façade

In front, tomb of Rolandino de’ Passeggeri; behind : the tomb of Egidio Foscarari.

The square in front of the church is paved with pebbles, as it was in medieval times. The square was used by the faithful to listen to the sermon from the preacher from the pulpit on the left corner of the church. It was also the original cemetery.

The column in the middle of the square is a brickwork column with the bronze statue of St Dominic (1627) and on the back of the square a column in marble, bricks and copper of the Madonna of the Rosary, after a design by Guido Reni (1632), commemorating the end of the plague in the city.

Behind the first column stands the tomb of Rolandino de’ Passeggeri by Giovanni (1305) and on the left, adjoining a house, the tomb of Egidio Foscarari (1289), enriched with an ancient Byzantine marble arch with relief works from the 9th century.

The Romanesque façade dates from 1240 and was restored in 1910 by the architect Raffaele Faccioli. In the center is a large, embroidered rose window. The lunette above the portal contains a copy (1921) of St Dominic blessing Bologna by Lucia Casalini-Torelli (1677–1762).

On the left side of the façade is the Lodovico Ghisilardi chapel in Renaissance style.It was built as an example of Vitruvian classicism by the architect Baldassarre Peruzzi around 1530.


St. Dominic's chapel
St Dominic's Glory by Guido Reni; St. Dominic's chapel.
Rosary Chapel
Altar in the Rosary Chapel
Crucifixion by Giunta Pisano


The church consists of a central nave, two lateral aisles, several side chapels, a transept, a choir and an apse. The interior was completely renewed in Baroque style with refined elegance and well-balanced proportions by the architect Carlo Francesco Dotti (1678–1759). In the lunettes above the Ionic columns along the nave we can see 10 paintings, depicting episodes (true and untrue) in the history of the church. The first two are by Giuseppe Pedretti (1696–1778), the others by Vittorio Bigari (1692–1776).

Chapels on the right side

Chapels on the left side

Young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played on the organ in this chapel, while he was studying with padre Giovanni Battista Martini in 1769.

Right transept

There is a small chapel on the right side of the altar with a painting by the Baroque artist Bartolomeo Cesi and a canvas by Guercino St. Thomas Aquinas writing the Holy Sacrament (1662)

Left transept

The choir

Left side of the choir

This monumental choir was moved behind the high altar in the 17th century. The original altar was a masterpiece decorated with basreliefs and nine sculptures by Giovanni di Balduccio (1330), a pupil of Giovanni Pisano. Now only the statue of St Peter the Martyr still exists and is on display in the City Museum. The present high altar was made by Alfonso Torreggiani (died 1764). In the middle of the golden altar-piece at the back of the apse, is the Adoration of the Magi by Bartolomeo Cesi, flanked by paintings (on its left side) of Saint Nicholas of Bari and (on its right side) of Saint Dominic. Below is the Miracle of the Bread by Vincenzo Spisanelli.

The 102 wooden choir stalls are an exquisite example of Renaissance carving by the Dominican friar Damiano da Bergamo. (1528–1530). Between 1541 and 1549 they were inlaid with intaglia by the same artist, using a series of drawings from a book by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, and carved by his brother Stefano da Bergamo. The work was finished by brother Bernardino da Bologna. These decorations display scenes from the Old Testament (on the right side) and from the New Testament (on the left side). Because of its extraordinary artistic value, this remarkable marquetry work was considered by its contemporaries as the eight wonder of the world. It is also noted in the Vite (IV,94) by Giorgio Vasari

The museum

The church's small museum houses many important works of art and a wide collection of precious reliquaries, chalices and monstrances.

The Story of San Girolomo, intarsia by fra Damiano da Bergamo.

A small selection :

Convent and library (Biblioteca di San Domenico)

The square-shaped convent next door is also worth visiting for its cloisters (14th, 15th and 16th centuries) with various tombstones and memorial tablets in its walls. The chapter room displays a precious fresco of Saint Dominic from the 14th century. It is the oldest known image of the saint. On the ground floor of the old dormitory is St Dominic’s cell, so called because it is an original cell from his time and possibly the cell (or a similarly one) where he died. Some original letters of introduction and his canonization bull of 9 July 1234 are here on display. At the front of the library is a fresco Madonna with benedictory Child (by an unknown artist).

The three-aisled Renaissance library, the Biblioteca of San Domenico, planned like a basilica and built by Gaspare Nadi, dates back to 1469 and contains many precious books.[1] Part of the library complex is now the seat of the faculty of philosophy and theology, run by the Dominicans. Another part is used as a conference room with a wooden-paneled coffer ceiling. At its end hangs the Baroque painting Ecstasy of St. Thomas Aquinas by Marcantonio Franceschini.

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Other burials

References and sources

  1. Konstantinos Staikos (2012), History of the Library in Western Civilization: From Petrarch to Michelangelo, New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, ISBN 9781584561828

Coordinates: 44°29′22″N 11°20′40″E / 44.4895°N 11.3445°E / 44.4895; 11.3445

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