Bologna’s San Petronio Basilica, a striking architectural marvel, houses an artwork that has been a beacon of controversy.

Amidst its ornate chapels and magnificent frescoes is a 15th-century painting by Giovanni da Modena that has attracted not just art enthusiasts but also the watchful eyes of security forces.

The contentious fresco is inspired by Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, specifically poem XXVIII, where the Islamic Prophet Muhammad is depicted in a harrowing scene in hell. He’s shown being tormented, aligning with Dante’s portrayal of him as a “maimed person”. In the vivid artwork, Muhammad is unsettlingly presented with his entrails hanging out, symbolizing religious schism.

Such a portrayal has provoked ire among many in the Muslim community. The Muslim union in Italy termed it blasphemous. Moreover, extremist groups have taken their anger a step further. The basilica has been the target of multiple thwarted terrorist attempts since the 2000s. In 2002, an Al-Qaeda affiliate was detained in the UK on suspicions of orchestrating an attack on the basilica. Another plot linked to ISIS emerged in 2014.

With such escalating threats, security around the basilica has been significantly ramped up. Since 2015, it has been under relentless surveillance by the national army.

However, any decision regarding the artwork doesn’t rest with Italy. The basilica falls under the jurisdiction of Vatican City. Thus, only the Church can decide on its fate.

As it stands, the debate simmers on, and the painting remains one of the most heavily guarded pieces of art in the world!

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