Following in the footsteps of Saint Dominic means going back to the origins of the Order of St Dominic in the Emilia-Romagna region, from where it spread to other parts of Italy thanks to one of the most important roads of the time: the Via Emilia.
The history of Emilia-Romagna’s monasteries can be divided into two periods. The first, which began in 1218, covers the 13th and 14th centuries, when Saint Dominic and his followers founded the first monasteries, whereas the second includes any monastery founded by local lords or communities between the 15th and 16th centuries. That being said, this itinerary will only take you to the churches and monasteries that were founded by Saint Dominic himself or by his first followers, starting from the ones in Bologna.
According to his biography, as soon as Pope Honorius III approved the Dominican Order, St Dominic moved to the vibrant and cultured city of Bologna, best known for its University. Here, he established what was to become one of the largest Dominican centres in the world (today known as Basilica of San Domenico) and, shortly before his death, he held the first two General Chapters of the Order. The Basilica of San Domenico, which was built over a pre-existing building dedicated to St Nicholas, houses many precious works of art, including the Ark of Saint Dominic, a marble sarcophagus made by sculptor Niccolò dell'Arca and containing the remains of Saint Dominic. In addition to being a tourist attraction and a major pilgrimage destination, the Basilica also plays an active role in the social and cultural development of the local community, promoting dialogue and mutual understanding with a rich programme of conferences and events of national and international acclaim.
The Dominican Order soon spread to all major cities in the Emilia-Romagna region, where over the span of 50 years they built many churches and monasteries, each of them well worth a visit. In 1223, for instance, Friar Bonviso founded the Monastery of San Giovanni in Canale in the city of Piacenza. In the same year, a community of Dominican friars settled in the city of Faenza (where a few years later they eventually built the church of Sant'Andrea). Historical evidence suggests that Reggio Emilia has had a Dominican community since 1235, whereas in Modena it was Dominican Bishop Alberto Boschetti who gave the Order a monastery in 1243. The community of Dominican friars of Parma dates back to 1246, whereas the Church of San Nicolò in Imola became the seat of the Order in 1245. The Dominican Church of San Giacomo Apostolo was founded in Forlì in 1230. The Order spread to Cesena in 1250 and to Ravenna in 1253. In 1254 it reached Rimini, where Friar Giovanni was given the church of San Cataldo, and finally, twenty years later, Ferrara, where the Monastery of San Domenico was founded in 1274.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the itinerary touches on every major city of Emilia-Romagna, from Piacenza to Rimini, since the Dominicans would travel from town to town, preaching the word of God, to convert heretics, especially the Cathars and Albigensians, and prevent the spread of heresy among the middle and upper classes of northern Italy. Saint Dominic believed that heretics were to be converted without resorting to violence; unfortunately, they were eventually wiped out during the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade.