La basilique de San Petronio
The political context
In the 14th century, Bologna's wealthy bourgeoisie had developed a deep political awareness and unity, and was also in strong economic and commercial competition with Milan and Florence, two very powerful poles at the time. For Bologna it was not possible to impose its power with weapons and swords, its supremacy had to be shown through architectural works of great difficulty. Thanks to this strong "competition" we owe the construction of the Basilica of San Petronio: Bologna did not want to remain impassive towards the two cities that had already begun the construction of their cathedral (Florence had already been building for more than a century, Milan a few years earlier) and decided, through its administrative council, to start work as soon as possible.
Built without the Pope's blessing
As we can see, the Basilica of San Petronio would have been built by civic and not ecclesiastical will like the cathedrals of Milan and Florence. It has been a brave decision, especially in a century when papal influence dominated not only political decisions, but also the daily lives of all citizens.
According to the logic of the Church, this decision was a insidious attack from the city to bypass ecclesiastical power. The city administrators justified themselves by saying that this monument would also be a symbol of religious faith, which would benefit the papacy too in terms of political influence.
The conclusion of the project
What began as an attempt to compete with Florence and Milan became an ideal of freedom, autonomy and independence and the Church tried to interrupt the construction work several times.
The climax reached its peek in 1562, when Pope Pio IV decided to purchase most of the land around the Basilica. Thanks to this astute move, the local administrators' ambitious project to create a cathedral in the shape of a Latin cross (and thus a religious symbol) was made impossible and was never completed. The Pope therefore considered his exclusive right to erect religious monuments to be unaffected, and the civic community remained in possession of the largest civic cathedral in Italy. From that day Basilica of San Petronio became a symbol of Bologna's independence from everyone, even the Pope.