Milan, 13 December 2016
A week or so ago, I had an appointment just off Milan’s corso Garibaldi, to discuss a possible presentation that I could make on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and how companies could incorporate them into their CSR programmes. Since I had grossly overestimated the time it would take for me to walk there, I found myself at the meeting place with half an hour to spare. Looking around for some way to kill time, I spied a venerable-looking church across the road and decided to go and have a peek, to see what hidden treasures it might contain (every church in Italy beyond a certain age – 250 years, say – contains treasures to be discovered).
The church in question was the Basilica di San Simpliciano. As its title of basilica suggests, this is a very venerable church indeed. It was one of four basilicas wanted by the great Saint Ambrose, Doctor of the Church and bishop of Milan from 374 to his death in 397 AD.
Ambrose planned to have one such basilica on each of the four main roads leading out of Roman Milan.
The church was completed by his successor, Saint Simpliciano, who also had himself buried here; his bones have been venerated ever since, lying under the main altar but now clothed and masked – a skeleton is not quite the thing anymore.
Unfortunately, very little of this original church remains. I say unfortunately because I happen to be very fond of early Christian mosaics. I’m sure the church’s interior would have been covered in mosaics like the one whose photo I give above, itself a mosaic shard which has survived because tucked away in an obscure corner of an even more venerable Milanese church, the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. Cluniac Benedictines took over San Simpliciano in the 800s, and by the 1200s they had completely renovated the church in the styles then all the rage, Romanesque with a little bit of early Gothic. These styles have stamped themselves on the church’s exterior appearance.
Unfortunately, hardly anything remains of this period’s internal decorations. One imagines that the walls would all have been frescoed; all that is left is this hand raised in benediction, tucked away in some obscure corner of the church.
Thereafter, with each passing artistic phase various alterations were made, in the process destroying the harmony of the whole. Here, for instance, a side chapel in the Baroque mode was added.
To all this was added more obvious vandalism. The church and the adjoining cloisters were turned into barracks by the occupying troops of Revolutionary France; no doubt the church was turned into stables for the troops’ horses (a fate common to many churches, it would seem). I’m sure the French soldiers would have taken pleasure in destroying the church’s decorations, much as ISIS troops have taken pleasure in sledgehammering and dynamiting every non-Islamic work of art that has fallen under their control, and much as Mao’s Revolutionary Guards took pleasure in smashing anything they could lay their hands on from Old China. But bad as all this was, the nadir for San Simpliciano was the 1820s, when some artist who will remain unnamed stuccoed over everything and painted scenes of a painfully sucrose sentimentality – one side chapel in this style has been kept.
After the Second World War, it was decided that there was nothing left to do but to strip more or less everything away, down to the brickwork. This has given the church a certain rough simplicity, very pleasing to the eye (to mine at least).
We have to remember, though, that this is a very modern style. None of the original builders or later fiddlers would have dreamed of maintaining such a naked simplicity. Churches were built to demonstrate the glory of God, and naked brickwork definitely didn’t make the cut.
All this I learned from some posters tucked away in a corner (so tucked away that I nearly missed them). I knew none of this on entering the church. What immediately struck me instead was the fresco in the apse behind the main altar.
Even though it was much obscured by the 1820s main altar (something that was already fiercely criticized when the Artist who will Remain Unnamed installed it), its brilliant blues and reds amid all that raw brick jumped out at me and beckoned me to come closer. Which I did, threading a passage between the main altar and the outer walls of the church. The view was well worth the threading.
It is a fresco (I later learned from the posters) from 1508 celebrating the Incoronation of the Virgin Mary, painted by il Bergognone (or, to give him his full name and title, Ambrogio da Fossano detto il Bergognone). We see Mary, meek and mild, being solemnly crowned by her son Jesus, God the Son, in a ceremony presided over by God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, within a rainbowed arc of seraphims, cherubims and angels
and with saints and others laypersons (no doubt donors and other Very Important Persons) looking on.
Thank goodness it was placed high off the ground, otherwise those French revolutionary soldiers would no doubt have destroyed it. With my heart well warmed by its beauty, and my mind well primed by the posters, I hurried back to my meeting, arriving a little breathless but just on time.
I have to say, Bergognone is not a painter that I am at all familiar with. In writing this post, I have mugged up on him a little. He was active primarily in Lombardy, and although works of his have leaked out to many major museums in the western world the bulk of his output is still to be found in and around Milan. Since Saint Ambrose initiated my description of San Simpliciano, let me throw in here a painting Bergognone made of that saint
which hangs in Pavia’s monastery complex, the Certosa.
Bergognone was particularly active in the Certosa di Pavia. My wife tells me we have visited it, but I have no memory of doing so (a situation which is becoming alarmingly common). I think I will add it to my ever lengthening list of places around Milan which we will go and visit, once Spring beckons us forth like hibernating bears from the apartment.
Photos: mine, except the following
Saint Ambrose mosaic: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sant%27Ambrogio
San Simpliciano exterior: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_di_San_Simpliciano
San Simpliciano interior: https://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g187849-d1899819-i87445764-Basilica_di_San_Simpliciano-Milan_Lombardy.html
San Simpliciano Bergognone fresco overview: http://www.italiamedievale.org/sito_acim/contributi/simpliciano.html
Bergognone’s Sant’Ambrogio: https://forum.termometropolitico.it/274962-7-dicembre-s-ambrogio-vescovo-e-dottore-della-chiesa.html
Certosa di Pavia: http://www.pavialcentro.it/monumentos/monastero-della-certosa-di-pavia