On the 20 th of July 1469 a contract was drawn up between sculptor Niccolò d’Apulia and the governing bodies of Bologna.

On the 20th of July 1469 a contract was drawn up between sculptor Niccolò d’Apulia and the governing bodies of Bologna – the riformatori, anziani, and the papal legate – for the enlargement and decoration of the Arca di San Domenico, one of Bologna’s most striking and important monuments. The arca holds the remains of St. Dominic, patron saint of the Dominicans, who established an important base for his order in Bologna in 1218 and died there in 1221. The city’s links to St. Dominic provided an opportunity for Bologna to assert itself as a place of spiritual significance, and the original sarcophagus was completed by Nicola Pisano in 1267 to honour the saint’s remains.

Though Bolognese rulers recognised the political and ecclesiastical currency of such a structure since the time of Nicola’s original creation, it was during the Quattrocento that the full potential of the arca as a civic monument was realised. As Wren Christian and Drogin (2010) recently restated, the civic potential of sculpture at least equalled that of architecture. It was remarked by seventeenth-century Dominican historian Giovanni Michele Piò that in the late 1400s, when princely magnifcenza was inextricably bound up with public commissions, the “devout Senate of Bologna, who were most ashamed that such a precious thing should be seen with a wooden cover” ordered “that from public moneys be made a sublime, and honourable covering of the finest white Carrara marble, to be adorned with the most beautiful statues and adornments.”

Niccolò, whose work earned him the surname “dell’Arca”, is today often overshadowed by Michelangelo, who completed three statues for the arca between 1494-5. However, Niccolò’s statues are emblematic of the civic role of the structure. The monumentality of his figures and the sheer scale of the upper zone makes a striking statement of civic pride, with the four saints on the front respectively referring to the four major pilgrim churches in the city. The exclusion of a statue of St. Peter to represent Bologna’s basilica also makes a forceful statement about fifteenth-century Bologna’s independence from papal rule.

At the back of the arcastands St. Agricola in the likeness of Giovanni II Bentivoglio, citizen-ruler of Bologna, who had earned the position of primus inter pares in emulation of Medici rule in Florence during the Quattrocento. Bentivoglio’s desired association with the Medici is effectively illustrated by such a grandiose public spectacle. The dress, pose, and activated form of Niccolò’s St. Agricola was later picked up by a young Michelangelo, whose “jogging” St. Proculus is often seen as anticipating his later David. The self-awareness in the gaze along with the novel manner of dress and striking arrangement of form, however, tells as much of the artist’s studies of local idioms as it does about his own “innate genius”.

Today, the arca is as popular a destination as it was in the Quattrocento, when important political and ecclesiastical visitors would be brought by Giovanni II Bentivoglio himself to admire its beauty.

Reference: Randi Klebenhoff, ‘Sacred Magnificence: Civic Intervention and the Arca of San Domenico in Bologna’, Renaissance Studies, 13, 3, 1999, 412-429.

Kathleen Wren Christian and David J. Drogin, eds., Patronage and Italian Renaissance Sculpture, Surrey & Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010.


View of the Arca di San Domenico, 1265-1495, marble, San Domenico, Bologna.

Michelangelo, St. Proculus, 1494-5, marble, San Domenico, Bologna. 

Michelangelo, St. Petronius, 1494-5, marble, San Domenico, Bologna. 

Niccolò dell’Arca, St. Florian, 1473-94, marble, San Domenico, Bologna. 

Niccolò dell’Arca, Giovanni II Bentivoglio as St. Agricola, 1473-94, marble, San Domenico, Bologna.

Basilica of San Domenico, Bologna.

(Images: Web Gallery of Art, Wikipedia Commons)


Further Reading: Barbara Dodsworth, The Arca of San Domenico, New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 1995.

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