San Michele in Bosco is mainly known for the panoramic view over Bologna, and rightly so because it is one of the best you can get of the city, from the so-called piazzale (plaza), the area in front of the church.
But San Michele in Bosco also refers to the architectural complex comprising both the church and nearby former monastery that stand on the plaza; it is one of the oldest religious settlements built in Bologna.
On this hill (132m) known as San Michele in Bosco a small religious community already existed in the 12th century. It was wiped out during the Great Plague of 1348.
As was typical for shrines on remote sites or mountain tops, the church was dedicated to San Michele Arcangelo (Saint Michael), protector of border areas. In documents dating from the 14th century, the name already included de busco (of woods) for the wooded area that surrounded it.
In 1364, the area was entrusted to the monastic order of the Olivetans. They erected religious buildings which were destroyed and rebuilt a few times during the numerous wars and battles that took place in the Middle Ages between independent cities fighting for power (Bologna was one of them, it was a Comune). Being high up, the hill was in an important strategic position and the site was often used as a fortress to defend the town.
Toward the mid-1500s, in the heart of the Renaissance period, a new building replaced the rudimentary church built in the previous century. The new church was attributed to the urbanist and architect from Ferrara Biagio Rossetti, the man responsible for the urbanist modernization of his hometown, the so-called Addizione Erculea, now a Unesco World Heritage site (go see Ferrara by the way).
It was during this time that the monastery, which was terminated after the church, reached its artistic splendor with the construction of the octagonal cloister frescoed by renowned Bolognese painter Ludovico Carracci and his pupils (part of the frescoes unfortunately have been lost); the beautiful door with the rich frieze on the epistyle by architect and painter Baldassarre Peruzzi, who had worked in Rome with Raphael and Bramante; and three paintings by the Renaissance artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari, made in 1539 for the refectory, one of which was dispersed and the other two transferred to the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Bologna; today only one copy remains on site.
The construction of the church and monastery thus fueled a vast artistic production that continued for almost four centuries, even attracting artists of a certain caliber.
The complex, throughout the centuries, served different purposes: during the Napoleonic era, when Napoleon suppressed all monastic orders, it was used first as a military barrack and then as a prison. It later became the villa for the Papal Legate (representative for the Pope) and later still the residence of the King of Italy when in Bologna.
The Olivetan monks returned to officiate in their church in 1933. Some still inhabit a part of the monastery.
During the 19th century, the San Michele in Bosco hill was opened to the public. A park along the side of the hill was created and it quickly became a favorite walk of the Bolognesi.
At the end of the 19th century, the Monastery was turned into a hospital, the Orthopedic Institute Rizzoli, today one of the best orthopedic hospitals in the world. But that’s another story and you can hear it on my Intro to Bologna’s Hills tour (see note below).
Did you know?
You’d be able to see even more of the city if, after World War II, the eastern part of the hill, by then completely deforested, hadn’t been reforested with a thick bush of evergreen trees. But we like it that way.
San Michele in Bosco can be reached in 15 minutes on foot from Bologna’s city center or by bus n. 30 (but my suggestion is to walk – you won’t appreciate the change in pace and atmosphere otherwise).
*I run a tour that starts at Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s main square, and passes by San Michele in Bosco, before continuing into the hills. I call it INTRO TO BOLOGNA’S HILLS, because I consider it a great introduction to Bologna’s beautiful colli bolognesi, their views, one of their nicest parks, historic sites such as San Michele in Bosco and an old hermitage place, and more. Check it out here.
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