Via Clavature, 10


The history of the monumental complex of S. Maria della Vita begins in 1260, when the Minorite friar Raniero Barcobini Fasani left Perugia and made for northern Italy with a group of followers. As they travelled from town to town they urged the opposite Christian factions to make peace. By the time they reached Bologna they had 20.000 people in tow. Here they founded the confraternity of the Battuti Bianchi (flagellant friars). Together with the citizens of Bologna, including Bonaparte Ghisilieri and the tertiary nun Sister Dolce, they founded a hospital in the city centre, where they housed and cared for pilgrims and the sick.
The hospital and confraternity were active since 1275. The little church next to the hospital soon became its official place of worship and was styled “the church of the Vita”. This was the core of the complex dedicated to S.Maria della Vita. With the Napoleonic reforms of 1796-97 the confraternity’s assets were expropriated and became public property. In 1801 the Ospedale della Vita, which had moved to Via Riva Reno in 1725, was merged with the Ospedale della Morte and other small hospitals. In 1814 this complex became the Ospedale Maggiore, one of the city’s largest hospitals. Today the shrine and all its appurtenances belong to the Azienda USL (health authority) of Bologna. In 1997, as Holy Year 2000 approached, a project was approved to reclaim the shrine. It was decided to convert it into a museum devoted to the history of health care and welfare in the city. With the opening of the oratory of the Battuti it became a place of worship as well as a conference centre and exhibition venue. The church’s reopening to the public in 1999 gave the city an important cultural hub with a twofold value, as a religious centre and an artistic and cultural facility. Today the monumental complex, enriched with beautiful artworks over the centuries and comprising the shrine, museum and oratory, is included in the Genus Bononiae itinerary under an agreement between the Fondazione Carisbo, the Azienda USL of Bologna and the Archiepiscopal Curia.

The shrine

The shrine is a church built on an elliptical plan surmounted by a striking dome designed by Antonio Galli Bibiena. Next to the main chapel, it contains the famous Lamentation over the Dead Christ, the sculptural group of seven life-size terracotta figures. With dramatic and intense realism they depict the grief of the Virgin, the three Marys, St John the Apostle and Joseph of Arimathea as they mourn the dead Christ laid within the sepulchre. Originally polychrome, the group was made in 1463 by Niccolò dell’Arca, so called because he sculpted the sepulchral ark or sarcophagus of St Dominic, in the church of Bologna dedicated to the saint. (It was commissioned to Niccolò after he had completed the Lamentation.) He endowed the figures fashioned in terracotta, usually regarded as an inferior material, with an original expressive power. Their realismsuggests Niccolò may have taken as his model the suffering faces and bodies of the patients and their families in the adjacent hospital. Particularly evident in the three Marys, this quality led Carlo Cesare Malvasia to call them “endlessly weeping Madonnas”, while Gabriele D’Annunzio described their expressiveness as “a screamset in stone”.
The Lamentation over the Dead Christ has always drawn pilgrims and visitors and is considered by many scholars the most important terracotta sculpture of the Italian Renaissance. Next to the sculptural group there are two large paintings: a Madonna in Glory with St Francis of Assisi and other Figures, attributed to Jacopo Calvi, known as Sordino (1740-1815), and St Ursula Before the Tyrant by Denis Calvaert (1540-1619), which is cited by Carlo Cesare Malvasia in his book Felsina pittrice. Flemish by birth and naturalised a citizen of Bologna, Calvaert played a leading role in the city’s artis artistic life in the 16th and 17th centuries. He founded a famous school of painting whose pupils included Guido Reni, Domenichino and Francesco Albani.

The oratory

Next to the shrine is the oratory, the original premises of the confraternity, its Baroque splendour still intact. It received its present form at the beginning of the 17th century with the rebuilding of an earlier 15th-century structure. It has a rectangular plan, with the altar on the short side facing east and conceived as a chapel, slightly raised and distinct from the longitudinal body of the building.
On the wall opposite the altar, raised and set in a deep niche, is the work which, together with Niccolò dell’Arca’s Lamentation, has made the complex of S. Maria della Vita famous.
It is the Death of the Virgin by Alfonso Lombardi (1522), considered one of his major achievements. The sculptural group consists of fifteen terracotta statues slightly larger than life-size. It represents an episode from the apocryphal gospels and recounted in Jacopo da Voragine’s Golden Legend.
During the Virgin’s funeral procession, organized by the apostles, the Jew Ananias sought to throw the coffin to the ground in contempt of the Virgin. An avenging angel swooped down from heaven with drawn sword and hurled Ananias to the ground, threatening to cut off his hands in punishment for sin. Raised up by the apostles, he confessed his error and was converted to
Christianity. The Death of the Virgin has always been admired, with a fame that extends beyond local art history, for the dramatic complexity of the sculptural group, the sense of movement pervading the whole scene and the individual figures, its dramatic tension and the expressiveness of the faces. The many outstanding works in the Oratory include the Madonna and Child with the Blessed Raniero and Saints Peter, Paul and Jerome by Giovanni Francesco Bezzi called Nosadella. At the sides of the Oratory are four stucco statues by Alessandro Algardi (1595-1654) and his school, depicting St Petronius, St Francis, St Dominic and St Proculus, the city’s four patron saints.
Also on the premises of the Oratory, once the site of the Ospedale della Vita, is the Museo della Sanità e dell’Assistenza (museum of health and welfare), which contains objects and vestments associated with the history of the shrine and confraternity. It also has a collection of apothecary’s jars belonging to the old hospital, and two masterpieces of Bolognese neoclassical painting: The Continence of Scipio and Coriolanus and his Mother by Gaetano Gandolfi (1734-1802).

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