My Night With Marco

The Basilica of Santo Stefano in Bologna, Italy, is more than a church. Depending on your state of mind, it can be a place of worship, a time machine or a Halloween fright house. On the day of my visit, I was prepared to find one more example of Italian religious architecture and supposed that there would be some historical relics that might interest me. What I didn’t anticipate was a supernatural, life changing encounter.

I was much younger at the time and a student at the city's university, the oldest in Europe. A year earlier, my parents and I had come to a mutually beneficial arrangement. They promised me a generous allowance to continue my education on one condition, get it somewhere else, preferably overseas. They were weary of explaining to country club friends why their twenty-four year old son wasn't gainfully employed and "Kenneth is studying abroad," sounded so much more urbane. Whatever their reasoning, I jumped at the chance.

My class load in Bologna was light, only Italian History and Language, which gave me more time to concentrate on the usual extracurricular interests of my generation. After an extended Friday session of sex, booze, rock & roll and a restless, psychedelic sleep, I decided to take my over-served and abused body out for a walk to clear the cobwebs from my head. I remember the day distinctly. Although it was late September, the weather was stifling hot and humid in a country where air conditioning was still a luxury.

I left my room and headed toward the Piazza di Santo Stefano, a square where there were several cafes, restaurants and an old church with the same name as the piazza. Along the way, I passed the Due Torri, two slender towers dating from the twelfth century, the skyscrapers of their day. The taller one is the height of a thirty story building. I'd been told the view from the top was spectacular, but I had no desire to find out for myself. No elevator, no Kenneth.

The piazza itself is not really a square but more of a triangle, with Santo Stefano at the far end, an indoor mall on the left side and the cafes on the other. I stopped at one for a double espresso and something sugary. While sitting there, wiping the sweat from my forehead, I realized that the church facing me was probably the coolest place in town, temperature wise. So, in the interest of comfort, I paid, pushed my chair back and wandered over.

The facade of Santo Stefano is similar to thousands of others in the country, except for a lectern attached to the left side of the entrance. There is the mandatory bell tower towards the rear of the building, but the church, as seen from the front, is nowhere near the size of the major cathedrals. I entered through the main portal and was greeted by a waft of air, at least ten degrees cooler than outside and perfumed with incense. I decided to sit in one of the rear pews for a few moments to enjoy it and give me a chance to inspect the interior.

The Stations of the Cross were hung on the walls as in all Catholic churches. Many of the other paintings and statues, although invaluable, were quite similar to those found elsewhere. After the first few hundred Madonnas, a certain numbness seems to set in. However, I am not a connoisseur of art, so accept my opinion for what it's worth. At that point, I failed to see what made the church so unique and such a tourist attraction.

There were a few tables and easels along the left wall close to the front. After some time, I stood up and walked over to check them out. They displayed a number of pamphlets and charts which explained the history of the church. I learned there was more than one place of worship on the site. The original was built over a Roman temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, in the fifth century. Over time, it was expanded and renovated, like adding rooms to a house. In addition to the current consecrated one, there were six older churches, thus earning its other Italian name, Sette Chiesi.  There was also a  crypt containing the remains of two venerated Bolognese martyrs, St. Vitale and St. Agricola, which I elected not to explore, since tombs and cemeteries give me the creeps.

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