Milan, 1 April 2019
Many, many years ago – it must have been the Easter of 1976 – I visited my wife-to-be in Milan during the Spring holidays. After the dark, cold Scottish winter we had just endured in Edinburgh, the tepid spring temperatures in Milan were a godsend. On my first day there, my wife(-to-be) took me on a walk around the district. We rounded a corner and I found myself confronted with this:
It was even more striking closer up: a froth of tender green partially masking the ruddy red of brick in the walls of a venerable-looking church topped off with a very fine dome.
I took these two pictures from the same spots a week or so ago. Nothing much seems to have changed in the intervening 40+ years.
It was a vision – after that cold, dark winter – of the coming of spring that has remained with me ever since. I put my eventual decision to “pivot” away from grey, rainy, cold UK towards sunny, warm Italy down to that first spring visit to Milan and in particular to this vision of tender green on brick red.
A walk around the back of the church through a little park made the church look even more interesting.
I have always been very fond of this seemingly higgledy-piggledy pile of venerable-looking buildings, all in that warm red brick so common in this part of the world. Over the intervening 40-odd years, whenever I’ve been in Milan I have always tried to find a moment to come back to this spot to admire the view.
The church is just as interesting on the front side. There, the first thing that meets the eye is a row of very worn Roman columns.
They enclose one side of the piazza in front of the church, a piazza which is as orderly as the back of the church is disorderly. Facing the columns, the church’s facade rises up to the church’s imposing dome, adopting the clean lines of classical-looking architecture.
The canon houses on the other two sides of the piazza continue this projection of orderliness, balance, and harmony.
As a finishing touch, in the centre of the piazza stands a statue of a Roman emperor, calmly gazing down on passing visitors.
Meanwhile, in the near distance those same visitors can make out one of Milan’s few remaining gates in its Medieval walls, the Porta Ticinese.
This church is the Basilica of San Lorenzo. It is a very ancient church; the latest archaeological digs put its foundation at the end of the 4th-beginning of the 5th Centuries. Its history is not nearly as orderly as the piazza in front would have us believe; the disorderliness of the back is a better metaphor for its passage through the centuries.
Like many ancient churches in the lands of the old Roman Empire, the church was built atop a Roman temple. This aerial view of what Roman Milan probably looked like has been put together by some clever fellow.
San Lorenzo was built over that square grey temple close to the amphitheatre which readers can see in the bottom left corner. This is a close-up of what the clever fellow thinks that temple might have looked like.
My guess is that the columns now standing guard over the piazza in front of the church were reused from this temple. But it’s just a guess; no-one seems to know for sure where they came from. What is sure is that stones from the nearby amphitheatre were dragged over for use in the foundations of the church.
That reuse of stone and columns strongly suggests that this was an imperial basilica – you needed imperial permission to mine old public buildings for their stone. It’s further believed that the basilica was built close to an imperial palace – at this time Milan was the imperial capital of the Western Roman Empire – as a counterweight to the four basilicas which St. Ambrose, the powerful bishop of Milan, had been busily building in Milan (and which still exist today, although in much modified form).
We don’t know for sure what the first church looked like, although archaeological excavations and the sparse written records have helped the experts form an opinion. Based on this, some other clever fellow has come up with this cut-away drawing of what the first church might have looked like.
Very little remains of this complex today: the four towers (two are visible in this drawing), the two octagonal side chapels, and the recycled Roman columns at the front. What also remains is the ghostly outline of the central part of the church, a very striking space composed of a large square with each side having a shallow apse, and with a wide circular deambulatory corridor around that central space.
Anyone who visits many churches, either for religious reasons or – like me – to admire their art and architecture, cannot but be struck by the uniqueness of this space. Very few old Christian churches have this kind of floor plan.
The drawing above doesn’t give any indication of the decoration of the church, but if this was indeed an imperial basilica then the interior would have been richly decorated with mosaics. If we had been lucky, if San Lorenzo had passed through the centuries relatively unscathed, we might have been able to admire something as glorious as the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna.
But it was not to be. Almost all of San Lorenzo’s mosaics are gone, swept away by water leakage, poor maintenance, rebuilding after fires or structural failures, and changing tastes. What little is left is tucked away in one of the old octagonal side chapels, the chapel of St. Aquilinus. The best conserved mosaic is this one, depicting Christ among the Philosophers.
A much more damaged mosaic is tucked away in another corner of the chapel. Experts believe this to have shown the Christ-Sun in his chariot (presumably borrowing from the classical representation of Apollo in his chariot moving the sun through the sky) – one can still see the horses’ legs against a golden background.
Two fires and an earthquake did it for the first church of San Lorenzo, with the central dome probably collapsing. Major rebuilding programmes took place in the 12th and 13th Centuries to rebuild the dome in “modern” style. While the basic plan of the church was left untouched, various other things were added: a few more side chapels and no doubt other things here and there. No-one seems to have committed to paint or paper this newer version of the church. The best we have is some miniatures painted by Cristoforo de Predis in a book of 1476, Leggendario libro della fine del mondo. They show Milan as background to scenes drawn from the New Testament. This one in particular, which depicts Jesus returning to Nazareth where he is presented with a paralyzed man, has Milan standing in for Nazareth. The paralyzed man is being brought out of the Porta Ticinese, which has the old medieval walls attached to it as well as the defensive moat in front of it (now a busy ring road), while in the background we see the church of San Lorenzo with its fine new dome.
The interior decorations were of course also renovated, this time in the “modern” fresco style. Again, if we had been lucky, we might have found ourselves today gazing on something as glorious as the interior of the Collegiata in San Gimignano:
But no. As time went by, these frescoes were also attacked by their enemies: water, fumes from candles, neglect, structural damage, and changes in taste. In the final indignity, someone decided to whitewash over what was left of them to make nice white walls. In the last fifty years or so, modern conservationists have scraped away the whitewash and have revealed some scraps of the frescoes that adorned the church:
Of the first generation of frescoes, we have a Descent from the Cross
St. Helena, holding that same Cross, which she is purported to have found in Jerusalem
The Virgin and the Christ child, enthroned
Later frescoes were added, or substituted the earlier ones, like this Last Supper from the early 16th Century.
Things were definitely not helped by the dome collapsing again in 1573. Once more it was rebuilt, and that is the dome which I admired 40 odd years ago and which we still admire today. But one can imagine that the collapse of the dome brought down a lot of the interior decoration with it and putting it back up again put paid to a good deal more.
Meanwhile, things were changing around the church. At the beginning, the church had been outside the city, but when the city expanded its walls in the Middle Ages, it had been brought within the city boundaries. With the greater protection this afforded, people had decided to build houses all around San Lorenzo. These pressed right up to the church’s walls. In fact, in the front of the church, houses had invaded the space between the church’s front doors and the old Roman columns so that these were now completely isolated from the church, as this painting from about 1815 shows.An exception was the back of the church. There, the ground was marshy, being low-lying and the point where several streams and canals met. As a result, an open no-man’s land was left there, which during normal times was used by the city’s tanners. As anyone knows who has been anywhere near a tannery, the smell in the neighbourhood must have been overpowering, so it was not a place that the good folk would have wanted to live. Tanning was still going on here in the 1830s, as this painting from 1833 attests – note the skins stretched out to dry in the foreground.
To make matters worse, it was on this no-man’s land that until the mid 1800s the city’s authorities carried out their executions, and of course executions included all the hideous tortures that the poor bastards were subjected to before being allowed to die. This print shows vividly what could await those being executed in this space – San Lorenzo stands as a mute witness in the background.
Definitely not an area for the good folk to have their houses! And so the area behind the church was what we might politely call a lower-class neighbourhood, or impolitely call a slum. In the late 1800s, the city authorities decided it was time to spruce up the area. So the no-man’s land was upgraded to a piazza, piazza Vetra, houses were built along its edges and buildings were built in the piazza to house weekly markets. This one, for instance, was built in 1866 for the weekly market in dairy products. We see behind San Lorenzo looking on benignly.
In the first three decades of the 1900s, the city authorities cleaned up the area further. In 1911, as this postcard shows, there were still houses located between the old Roman columns and the front door of the church.
In the 1920s, the city fathers decided to give San Lorenzo back its piazza, and by the 1930s the houses were all gone. In keeping with the period’s desire to stress Italy’s glorious Roman past, a copy of a bronze Roman statue of the Emperor Constantine was placed in the re-formed piazza; no doubt Constantine was chosen because he was the co-author of the Edict of Milan which proclaimed religious toleration throughout the Roman Empire and which led to Christianity becoming the official religion of the Empire.
The city authorities were also busy behind the church clearing the slums but what really did it for that area were the Anglo-American bombings of Milan in 1943 and 1944. The church itself was unscathed but whole swathes of housing were destroyed.
The damage was so extensive that the authorities decided to simply clear away the rubble and create a park. This is what the complex looked like by 1960.
Nothing has really changed since except that the tram lines have been shifted to the other side of the columns.
What of the interior? Did grand paintings and sculptures take the place of the frescoes which disappeared? I’m afraid not. Walking around the church, one rather gets the feeling of being in the church’s attic: various pieces plopped down here and there, many of dubious artistic value. Here are some pictures to show what I mean, from the good
(a Pietà in polychrome terracotta from the late 18th Century)
(a baptism of Christ; the author is not given, nor is the date, but from the style I would guess late 16th Century)
to the bad
(I don’t know why so many Catholic churches insist on having these horribly sucrose statues of the Virgin Mary; the church has a few more statues of this type dotted around)
to the downright ugly
(it took me a few minutes to figure out that this carved wooden statue was meant to be Pope John XXIII).
I must confess to a certain melancholy when I walk around the interior of San Lorenzo. What splendours we could have had, if only the church could have slipped through the ages unscathed! I console myself with not quite a splendour but at least something lively and fun to look at, murals that have been recently painted on the walls surrounding one of the canon houses.
I’m not really sure what the artist is trying to tell us, but they bring a smile to my lips whenever I see them.