Milan – The Church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro

This church is renowned for the Faux Choir in painted stucco by Donato Bramante

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The Church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro is a parish church in Milan. Construction of the church began in the late fifteenth century at the request of Duke Gian Galeazzo Sforza and was later continued by Ludovico il Moro as part of an ambitious program to renew the arts in the duchy. This program included calling artists from all over Italy to the Milanese court. The building was designed according to new Renaissance forms imported into the duchy by Donato Bramante. The church, built by incorporating the older sacellum of San Satiro from which it took its name, is famous for hosting the so-called Bramante Choir, a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance perspective painting.

The oldest part of the complex was founded in the ninth century at the behest of Anspert, Bishop of Milan, as a small church dedicated to St. Satyrus, St. Sylvester, and St. Ambrose. The exact year of the foundation dates back to 876, according to the medieval historian Filippo di Castelseprio, 868 according to what is reported by Serviliano Lattuada in his Description of Milan, and 869 according to the Historia Patriae of the Milanese historian Tristano Calco. The presence of this little church is mentioned in documents dated 972, 1087, and 1103, which confirm the jurisdiction of the Benedictine monks of Sant’Ambrogio over the small place of worship and the annexed xenodochium.

The presence of a separate church from the sacellum on the site of the present-day Santa Maria presso San Satiro is more uncertain. This building is confirmed by a document describing the consecration of a church imparted by Ariberto da Intimiano in that area in 1036. However, this church does not appear in a document dated 1466 listing the city’s churches of that time. The miraculous event that saw the image of the Virgin with Child, placed outside the sacellum, bleed after being stabbed by an unbalanced young man named Massazio da Vigolzone, dates back to 1242. The image remained on display on an altar outside the sacellum until the construction of a temple to house the work was decided about two centuries later.

After the land was purchased in 1474, work on the construction of the new church began in 1478 at the request of Duke Gian Galeazzo Sforza and his regent mother Bona di Savoia, with the dual objective of consolidating Marian worship and beautifying the city with a monumental edifice. The hiring of the Urbino architect Donato Bramante took place only between 1480 and 1482, while the first commission for the internal decoration went to the Paduan school sculptor Agostino Fonduli in 1483, when the masonry structure had already been completed. In 1486, work began on the decoration of the vault, while in the same year, Giovanni Antonio Amadeo was hired to complete the facade, which saw only the plinth completed and was never finished. An interesting hypothesis, derived from some projects in the Ashburnham codex, suggests the presence of Leonardo da Vinci in the restoration works of the sacellum of San Satiro, carried out between 1492 and 1499. However, Leonardo’s designs were never executed in favor of Bramante’s solution. The work on the external decoration of the church was finally completed in 1518.

The chronology of the church’s work after the early years of the sixteenth century is less exhaustive than that of the early years. However, in 1569, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo noted during a pastoral visit that the church had fifteen “chapels,” a term that at the time could also indicate the simple presence of a small altar decorated with a painting, mostly now lost. With the work of Cardinal Borromeo and the advent of the new artistic cycle linked to the Counter-Reformation, the church gradually lost importance and consideration in the city’s artistic heritage, to the point that the building does not appear in any of the numerous depictions of city buildings in the following two centuries.

The church, therefore, did not undergo particular interventions, with the exception of the removal of a series of precarious statues by Fonduli on the dome’s cornice until the nineteenth century, when it underwent three restorations that added the high altar and the fresco of the Bramante Choir’s lunette. Also, in the nineteenth century, the architect Giuseppe Vandoni rebuilt the sacristy entrance, the baptismal font, and the facade. Simultaneously with the renovation of the facade, proposals were presented for the renovation of the narrow space in front of the church. Among the various projects presented, that of Vandoni was chosen again, which provided for the erection of a square porticoed courtyard. However, it was not possible to reach an agreement with the owners of the surrounding buildings, so the architect settled for simply enlarging the space into an irregular polygonal courtyard. The entire complex was subjected to a deep restoration between 1939 and 1942, which had the merit of restoring the original plan and internal masonry structure of the sacellum of San Satiro, whose ancient appearance had been distorted by the heavy interventions during its history.