The ancient Basilicas of Milan

An itinerary in the heart of the city to discover its ancient basilicas.

A trip to Milan cannot be considered complete without a visit to the Duomo. Imposing, rich in history, characterized by a Gothic style, partly mitigated by the white marble of Condoglia, and with endless anecdotes and curiosities.
Right from the beginning it was decided that the Duomo would be covered with white Condoglia marble owned by the Visconti family, who donated their materials to the Fabbrica del Duomo, which took care of the construction and still today manages every kind of maintenance the church needs.

There are 145 spires that enrich it. Their construction began in the XVIII century and was finished in 1858. A vastness of structures, with the highest, erected in 1774, which houses the famous Madonnina four metres high and covered with gold sheets.
The Duomo is the building with the most decorative statues ever built: there are 3400 statues, 135 gargoyles and 70 other figures.
Among the statues it is possible to admire one quite similar to the Statue of Liberty.

Scholars believe it was taken as an example for the construction of that in the United States. There is also a pigeon statue, which pays homage to those who are the true inhabitants of the cathedral, and also a dinosaur. On the main terrace there are two boxers intent on fighting. One of them is Primo Carnera, the first Italian to win the title of the Massimi Weights.
Once you have surpassed the magnificence of the façade of the Duomo of Milan, you will be enchanted by the bronze portals, decorated in high relief. Double portal for the central side and then one for each other. On them you can read the story of the life of the Virgin Mary, the life of Saint Ambrose, the Edict of Constantine and the history of Milan.

Among the many curiosities of the Duomo there is a bronze line that starts from the entrance. Following it, you will notice several tiles adored by the signs of the zodiac. On the left wall you can see a calendar. On the right wall there is a precise hole, designed to let sunlight through. The sun in fact illuminates the signs of the zodiac from time to time, depending on the month of the year.
The church has five naves. It has large spaces and a very high ceiling, which in part distances itself from the general narrow style of Gothic churches.

Lots of stained-glass windows, with single scenes that fit into a larger story, if observed in sequence. It is impossible not to dwell particularly on the one dedicated to the Last Judgement.
The Duomo boasts many curiosities to discover. One of the most fascinating is certainly that of the gigantic sack firmly anchored to the arch. You have to go to the bottom of the church to appreciate it. Its contents are unknown but it has been believed for centuries that it is the sack of the Last Judgement. It will only fall on the day of the end of the world.
Observing the altar, in the centre of the apse, you can see a red light. This indicates the exact spot where one of the nails of Christ’s cross is kept. At the entrance there is a sundial on the floor: it is so precise that it is still used today to set the clocks of the city.

Ambrose was bishop of the city, by will of the emperor Flavio Valentiniano, from 374 until his death in 397.
As soon as he was appointed bishop he donated his goods to the poor and lived an ascetic life, as well as studying.
With Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome he was one of the Doctors of the Church: he was a great telologist and divulger of Catholic doctrine.
The construction of the basilica took place between 379 and 386, when during his episcopate, Saint Ambrose dedicated the basilica to Christian martyrs.

The church then acquired its present appearance at the end of 1099, when it was completely restored following the impulses of Romanesque architecture.
Very poor materials were used for its construction: mainly bricks, stone and white plaster.
The Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, is one of the most important and characteristic examples of Romanesque architecture in Italy: it has a simple rectangular plan, formed by a central nave which is divided into four bays where three of them have a ribbed cross vault while the last one is covered by a dome. Then there are two side aisles, each of which is composed of eight smaller bays. The aisles end with three apses, the major one in the centre and the smaller ones on the sides.
In front of the Basilica there is the quadriportico, an external courtyard whose perimeter, surmounted by porticos, has the same dimensions as the main body of the Church. This place had a religious function, a place of prayer and purification necessary to access the actual heart of the building and a civil function, where most of the municipal events took place. Basilica and quadriportico are directly connected thanks to the presence of the gabled façade which in turn is formed by two loggias placed one above the other.

Inside the Basilica characteristic is the mosaic in the central apse, made between the 5th and 9th century and restored several times due to damage suffered during the Second World War: seated in the centre is Christ. Facing Jesus are the two saints Gervasius and Protase, over whom the archangels Michael and Gabriel fly. At the end is narrated an episode of the life of Saint Ambrose. The whole work has been called “Vision of St. Ambrose“, because according to tradition the patron saint of the church saw the funeral of St. Martin in Tours in a dream.

Initially the remains of the saint were contained in the altar, while today they are preserved in the crypt, built in the 10th century during the restoration work in the apse area to house the relics of Saints Ambrose, Gervasius and Protase which are still venerated today.

The Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is inextricably linked to Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco, the Last Supper, which is kept inside the refectory.
The church was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1980 because it is one of the greatest testimonies of Renaissance art, supported by the presence of the exceptional work of Da Vinci.
The perfect architecture of the church and Leonardo’s Last Supper in the refectory are therefore the symbols of Renaissance Milan that heralds a new era in European art history.

The church has seven square chapels on both sides, made by Solari with the exception of the last one on the left, dedicated to the Virgin of Graces.
The convent, articulated around three kiosks, consists of the north side of the church, while on the other three sides runs a portico of columns with Gothic capitals with smooth leaves.
The portico overlooks the ancient Cappella delle Grazie, the Chapter and Locutorio rooms and the library, the work of Solari.
The south side is occupied by the refectory, containing the famous Cenacolo Vinciano.
Also known as the Last Supper, the Cenacolo Vinciano considered among the most famous and important works of the artist and is the only wall painting by Leonardo Da Vinci visible today.
The painting is based on the Gospel of John, in which Jesus announces that he will be betrayed by one of his apostles.
Inside a room, Leonardo set the long dinner table in the foreground, with the isolated figure of Christ in the centre, with his arms outstretched almost pyramid-shaped.
Around Christ the apostles are arranged in four groups of three, different but symmetrically balanced.
The technique adopted by Leonardo da Vinci in drawing up the fresco commissioned to him by Ludovico il Moro is “tempera”, to give free rein to his creativity, a technique which, however, did not withstand the changing climatic conditions, creating considerable problems for the fresco.
In 1943, the Anglo-American bombers struck the church and the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie: the refectory was razed to the ground, a few walls were saved, including that of the Cenacolo, which was specially reinforced with sandbags and is still today a symbol of the devotion of Milanese Catholics.

The Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore is the oldest church in Milan and has the following origins in the days when the city was the capital of the Western Roman Empire.
It was built around the 4th century, when Milan was the capital of the Western Roman Empire: the early Christian structure has been rebuilt and modified several times over the centuries, but it still retains its original structure.

Inside, you can admire a beautiful courtyard, some statues of the emperor Constantine and a sarcophagus in the chapel said to contain the remains of Galla Placidia.
Erected between the end of the 4th century and the beginning of the 5th, the later reconstructions only modified the roof and the front.
The church has a single central square-plan hall with sides enlivened by deep apses screened by columns and, on the upper floor, by loggias with a practicable ambulatory (corridor between colonnades). The corners of the complex are underlined by four towers. In correspondence of the
apsidal openings develop three polygonal mausoleums: the Chapels of Sant Ippolito, San Aquilino, San Sisto. It is thought that the Chapel of St. Hippolytus was even built before the construction of the
basilica; it has a Greek cross plan with, in the corners, columns in African marble with composite and Corinthian capitals (2nd century).
Behind the basilica is the Basilicas Park, designed in 1934, which connects it with the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio.
In front of the Basilica, there are the Colonne di San Lorenzo, one of the meeting points of the Milanese nights before or after the bobbin among the many clubs in the surroundings.
These are sixteen marble columns with Corinthian capitals dating back to the 1st and 2nd century and coming from a unidentified temple that were brought to the site probably in the 4th century and reassembled to form the quadriporticus, disappeared, that once led to the basilica.
In the middle of the churchyard, between the columns and the basilica,
stands the Statue of Emperor Constantine (copy of the original one preserved in St. John Lateran in Rome).

The Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio built in the 4th century was rebuilt in the 19th century and is one of the oldest churches in Milan.
Originally it contained the relics of the Three Kings that were stolen and brought to Cologne by Frederick Barbarossa. During the XIII century it became the main seat of the Dominican Order in Milan.
The interior has three naves.
Excavations carried out in the 19th century have revealed the existence of an older building of worship, whose apse, the only early Christian testimony that has survived, is under the choir of the present building.

The basilica had great importance in the religious life of the city, as evidenced by the spread of the legend of St. Barnabas the apostle who baptised the first Christians here, the burial of Bishop Eugene and the memory of the relics of the Three Kings, according to tradition placed in a sarcophagus of imperial donation.
In the centuries following the foundation numerous chapels were added to the Romanesque layout, on the right side only.
The best known are the Brivio Chapel (1484) which contains a Renaissance sepulchre and a triptych by Bergognone. The Portinari Chapel, built from 1462 onwards and commissioned by Pigello Portinari, bears witness to the presence of Florentine art in Milan. Inside, the upper parts of the walls were frescoed by the artist Vincenzo Foppa between 1466 and 1468 and in 1871 the frescoes, restored in 1915, reappeared.

The Church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro, with the sacellum of San Satiro dating back to medieval times, is one of Milan’s attractions. Its neo-Renaissance style facade, the rose window, the 9th century bell tower in Romanesque style or the dome with circular blind rose windows amaze the visitor, but you have to enter to admire, behind the altar, the large space formed by a regular apse well completed by columns and decorations: proceeding towards the altar, you realize that you cannot pass, because there is just under a metre of space: the apse does not exist, it is actually an optical illusion.

This perspective deception is the work of Donato Bramante, who faced the reduced space of the church to create the false apse which measures 97 centimetres instead of the 9.70 metres envisaged in the original project: the diocese did not have the permits to build a larger church, and Bramante, challenging the limitations, created the perfect illusion. The fake perspective fugue of San Satiro is considered the forerunner of all the examples of trompe l’oeil that came later: in its perfection the work also highlights the influence of Piero della Francesca and Donatello’s research in the field of illusionistic representation.
The main body is divided into three naves, of which the lateral ones are narrower than the central one: on cruciform pillars with Corinthian capitals is set the majestic sequence of the arches in the middle that separate the naves, surmounted by a fine moulded frame; on the roof of the main nave we can see the succession of barrel vaults decorated with false lacunars, while the lateral naves are covered with cross vaults. Above the intersection of nave and transept there is a solemn hemispherical dome set on pendentives, decorated with gold and blue lacunars and illuminated by a small lantern. In the rounds of the pendentives are painted the Evangelists, while on the decorative band at the base of the dome there are terracotta rounds with Prophets’ heads.

Outside, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore looks like an ordinary church; on entering, you come across one of the most beautiful treasures of Milan.
San Maurizio is very particular in its structure, which is striking for its originality. It was in fact the church of the ex Monastero Maggiore, the largest and oldest women’s monastery in Milan: it was started in 1503 not only for the citizens but also for the cloistered nuns, who, however, could not come into contact with the public.

This is the reason for the division of the church into two halves: the public part (towards the street), is separated by a partition from the so-called Nuns’ Choir, reserved only for nuns.
But the show is given above all by the decoration. On the walls and on the ceiling, it is a riot of paintings, stuccoes, frescoes that cover every space, both in the public part and in the Nun’s Choir. The author is Bernardino Luini, who worked with his school from 1522 to 1529, portraying stories of saints, parables, episodes from the life of Christ and the Bible, so beautiful and unique that Vittorio Sgarbi called it “the Sistine Chapel of Milan“.
Art historians especially note the frescoes on the partition, including the martyrdom of St. Maurice and St. Sigismund, which offers St. Maurice the model of the church. The less prepared, on the other hand, are struck by other rather original scenes, such as the figure on the back that seems to look elsewhere, in the public part of the church, and the large fresco of Noah’s ark – complete with unicorns! – in the Nuns’ Choir. The details to discover are almost endless – one would spend hours looking for them, between the starry sky under the choir and the painful Deposition above a small entrance door.

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