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Basilica of San Simpliciano

Foto Basilica of San Simpliciano  -  Churches / Religious buildings
Foto Basilica of San Simpliciano  -  Churches / Religious buildings
Foto Basilica of San Simpliciano  -  Churches / Religious buildings
Foto Basilica of San Simpliciano  -  Churches / Religious buildings
Foto Basilica of San Simpliciano  -  Churches / Religious buildings
Foto Basilica of San Simpliciano  -  Churches / Religious buildings
Foto Basilica of San Simpliciano  -  Churches / Religious buildings
Foto Basilica of San Simpliciano  -  Churches / Religious buildings
Foto Basilica of San Simpliciano  -  Churches / Religious buildings
Foto Basilica of San Simpliciano  -  Churches / Religious buildings
Show an other treasure of art and history in Milan:
Milan - Churches / Religious buildings: Basilica of San Simpliciano Mostly represented styles: Roman - Paleochristian - Romanesque - Baroque

The Basilica of San Simpliciano is a monument of extraordinary historical and artistic value and has a very complex history. Yet it is little known to the general public, certainly much less than in particular the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, despite its importance over the centuries is similar. Perhaps because of Simplicianus, successor, but also master of Ambrogio, as well as confidant of Saint Augustine, no text has arrived to us.

The Basilica of San Simpliciano is one of the oldest churches in Milan. Together with the basilicas of San Dionigi (no longer existing), Sant'Ambrogio and of San Nazaro it is one of the four basilicas that the Bishop Ambrose wanted to be erected in the fourth century outside the city walls, approximately at the four cardinal points, almost as a protective bulwark for the city. Initially dedicated to Mary and to the saints Virgins (Basilica Virginum), after the death of Ambrose it welcomed the relics of the martyrs Sisinius, Martirius and Alexander, slaughtered during the preaching in Anaunia (the current Non Valley), sent from San Vigilio, bishop of Trento, as a gift to St. Simplicianus, successor of Ambrose. After this last one was buried in it, the basilica was dedicated to him (according to some experts, the change of dedication took place only in the Longobard epoch).

Over the centuries the building, originally placed at a pagan cemetery, underwent many important changes. Until not long ago it was thought that nothing was left of the original early Christian construction and that the present church could be considered in all respects Romanesque.
Starting from 1944 it was instead realized that the early Christian structure was still perfectly present and that this allowed to ideally reconstruct the original aspect to a great extent.

The church was supposed to be very similar at the time of Ambrose to the Basilica of Trier, with a single large high hall (56 meters long excluding the apse, more than 21 meters wide and over 19 meters high from the original floor, 2 meters lower than the current one, to the ceiling of wooden beams), very bright, with a wide transept and thin walls formed by a double row of arches, in which large windows were opened, and a wooden trussed ceiling. It also had a portico (cunicola) that ran all around it, starting from the façade up to the transept. As a dimension, the building therefore coincided approximately with the current one, if not for a larger apse.
Knowing where to look, it is still easy today to recognize, especially from the outside, the original arches, in which, however, the original windows were walled in Romanesque times and replaced by smaller windows.
In fact, the Basilica of San Simpliciano can be seen as one of the best preserved buildings of the early Christian epoch, not only of Milan but of the whole Mediterranean basin.

Next to the basilica a sacellum (also called martyrium) was built, if not simultaneously shortly thereafter. It is still present today, in correspondence with the northern arm of the transept. It was intended to house the remains of persons particularly deserving to be remembered. It has a structure similar to a church in miniature, with a Latin cross plan and barrel roof. Originally it was separated from the basilica, but it was connected to it during the Renaissance period.
It is thought that it was intended in particular to host the remains of the aforementioned martyrs of the Non Valley, and perhaps it also housed those of San Simpliciano.
For a long time it was then used as a sacristy.

It is presumed that the transition to the current Romanesque structure was preceded by an early-medieval intermediate phase, in which the hall was marked by a double series of light quadrangular pillars on which flat pilasters were set, in support of a trussed roof. This first transformation took place at the beginning of the seventh century, when Milan was under the dominion of the Lombards. It is possible that in the seventh century the Basilica of San Simpliciano was for a certain period the cathedral of Milan.
Also the settlement of the Benedictine monks in San Simpliciano, whose monastery associated with the basilica was founded in the 8th century, would date back to the Longobard epoch. Under the Benedictines the complex of San Simpliciano became an important cultural center, so much that two of the few early medieval codes arrived to us in Milan were created in the monastery of San Simpliciano.
Between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries the monastic complex enjoyed great prestige, so much that civil power benefited it by granting it privileges and the religious gave it indulgences and protections. The monastery came to possess extensive land, not only in Milan and directly around the city, but even in remote areas such as near Como and Treviglio.
Milano - Basilica of San Simpliciano - Planimetria
The renovation of the basilica according to the canons of Romanesque style popular at that time probably occurred precisely on the thrust of the great prestige acquired and took place between the eleventh and second half of the twelfth century.
It included the reduction of the number of pillars (halving?) and the reinforcement of the remaining ones, the walling up of the windows (in order to reinforce the perimeter walls), the creation of the vaulted ceiling (square vaults in the central nave, rectangular in the side ones), the construction of the tiburium, a new apse, smaller than the early Christian one, and a new façade.
In the Romanesque epoch the interior of the church had to be largely if not entirely frescoed. Unfortunately, there are very few of these frescoes left. In particular, fragments of various sizes were recovered in the space behind the left cantoria and in the first right chapel.
The basilica in its new guise was reconsecrated in 1246, and in the same year the basilica and monastery managed to escape the control of the archbishop of Milan to pass under the direct authority of the Pope.

With the transition to the fifteenth century and to the incipient renaissance the interference of politics on the complex of San Simpliciano began, and therefore also its first period of decline, at least cultural.
In 1440 the Visconti succeeded in imposing as abbot Leonardo del Maino, one of their men, in reality not even a friar, and he began the period of the abbots "de facto", who held the office, but in reality were strangers to the monastic life.
In spite of this it was Leonardo del Maino who started in 1441 the construction of the first cloister (finished in 1450), called Small Cloister (Cloisters of San Simpliciano), also thanks to the fact that he had obtained the complete exemption from all tributes for the monastery.
In the fifteenth century also some of the chapels that overlooked the side aisles were built. They all have a very similar depth and structure, with a continuous roof covering them all, because for their construction the foundations, and perhaps even some residual structures, of the original cubicles that ran around the church were used.
In 1499 the de facto abbot Giovanni Alimento Negri left, on his deathbed after being stabbed by a servant, a great legacy to the monastery, to be used for the decoration of the apse and cloister. Both works were entrusted to Ambrogio da Fossano also known as the Bergognone, who carried them out in the first decade of the sixteenth century. Unfortunately the cloister decorations went almost completely lost.

In 1517 the church and the convent passed to the Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino. The change led to a spiritual rebirth that also manifested itself through numerous modifications and improvements made to the basilica. In particular, the floor was raised in order to bring it to the street level, further lateral chapels were built, the arches were reinforced, various small devotional altars that had accumulated over the centuries were eliminated and the façade was modified by opening new windows.
Then, in 1563, the construction of the second cloister, the Grand Cloister or Cloister of the Two Columns was started, presumably on a project by Vincenzo Seregni.
In 1552 the imperial governor Ferrante Gonzaga ordered that the bell tower be lowered by 25 meters because he feared it was used to spy inside the Sforza Castle. It is because of this that the bell tower looks so stocky.
In the sixteenth century also the new choir was built, placed against the walls of the apse. To obtain the necessary space, the altar had first to be replaced with a new one placed more in front. The change of altar was associated by San Carlo in 1582 to a procession through Milan of the remains of San Simpliciano and of the other saints (to be placed in the new altar) that attracted, it seems, hundreds of thousands of people.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Chapel of the Rosary was built, located in the left transept and richly decorated in rococo style. Unfortunately this led to the loss of part of the original early Christian walls.

The nineteenth century saw the definitive decline of the monastery, both for the progressive reduction of the number of monks, and for the growing hostility of the civil authorities.
In 1798 it was finally suppressed. The monastery lost its religious function, while the basilica became a parish church.

In 1840 the parish priest decided to install a new altar, the current one, and the design of the architect Giulio Aluisetti was chosen. The structure is not devoid of aesthetic value, but it is decidedly oversized, so as to disturb the view on the Bergognone fresco, on the choir and on the entire apse.
Unfortunately, after the placement of the new altar, the parish priest of the time decided to entrust to Giulio Aluisetti also the restoration of the basilica.
The Aluisetti felt entitled to make changes of all kinds, in order to make the church more homogeneous stylistically and more in line the new altar he had created.
In this way he completely changed the style and even the structure of the church, causing, among other things, the irreversible loss of the last medieval frescoes on the vaults.

In 1870 the architect Maciacchini renovated the façade instead, with an intervention that was not strictly conservative, but certainly more measured and respectful of one of the Aluisetti. In accordance with the fashion of the time, he provided for recreating the supposed Romanesque appearance of the façade, replacing the windows then present with those seen today, that is, two mullioned windows juxtaposed above the central door and triforas, a little lower, above the side entrances. The latter were equipped with portals modeled on the style of the central one.
Inside, moreover, the Maciachini arranged the Chapel of the Sacred Heart in Gothic style, while the painter Zalli frescoed the first chapel of the left, baptistery from the sixteenth century.

The works that made it possible to repair many of the arbitrary modifications of the Aluisetti and to have the basilica recover its real appearance, allowing it to be read all the changes over the centuries, began after the Second World War and ended only recently.

Externally the Basilica of San Simpliciano, completely in exposed brick if not for a small part of the facade covered with marble slabs, is stuck between the houses on the left side, so that the observer can see only the façade and the right side.
Looking carefully it is possible to recognize the traces of the many changes that took place over the centuries, with the shapes of arches of different kind and sizes, starting from the larger ones, arranged on two levels, of the original Roman building, equipped as mentioned with large windows.
It should be noted that the tiburium barely protrudes from the shape of the building and is only visible from a distance.

We have just said about the façade. Its most interesting element is undoubtedly represented by the central central portal (Fig. 9), original romanesque, unlike the lateral ones.
It is slightly protruding and consists of two beams of seven columns, different in shape and color, placed in a fairly deep conch, with the corresponding arches that join them. The arches are separated from the columns by a marble decoration comprising seven small figures on each side, unfortunately all beheaded except one. It is not clear what these figures represent. According to someone, those on the right would be the wise virgins of the Gospel and those on the left the clergy and the Milanese people who bring gifts, grateful for the victory over Barbarossa.
The two capitals at the outer ends depict two eagles on the left, and two lions biting each other on the right.
The lunette was originally frescoed, but the fresco was completely lost. Some traces of the original pictorial decorations have remained on the band that separates the lunette from the arches and on which some heads of saints are still recognizable. The lines of the portal are broken by four protruding protomes (representing perhaps lions), placed one at the apex, smaller, two larger in the lunette and one on one of the left columns.
The four leafy capitals that originally supported the supporting structure of the portico that ran around the façade and the two sides of the building are also of great value.

The tiburium is octagonal and in proportion significantly smaller than the tiburia that will be built later in the Renaissance (consider, for example, that of the Basilica of Santa Maria delle Grazie or also that of the Church of Santa Maria della Passione). It is also of simpler structure, comprising a simple series of thin columns with capitals, which support small round arches in front of a compact brick blind wall. At the top a simple sloping roof.

The Basilica of San Simpliciano is often presented as a clear example of Romanesque architecture, but if, as seen, it is certainly not Romanesque on the outside, also inside there are many elements that are anything but Romanesque, due to the much older origins of the building.
Romanesque is the structure with three naves separated by mighty pillars, partly in stone and partly in brick and from which the original capitals were unfortunately removed. However, it is by no means Romanesque the great height of the naves, which in this sense seem to prefigure the Gothic, especially since many of the arches are already pointed in gothic style. All the connecting lines between the sails of the vaults are underlined by terracotta curbs.
Another peculiarity of the church is represented by the fact that the arches of the vaults of the side aisles are inserted on the pillars at the same height as those of the central nave (which is much wider than the lateral ones, but only slightly higher). A church with this structure is called a hall church or, from the German, Hallenkirche.
It should also be noted that the vaults was built significantly lower than the original truss covering. In this way, their realization led to the closure of the original large windows.

Another element characterizing the structure of the basilica is the transept with two naves. It should be noted that the tiburium corresponds, as a width, to only one of the two aisles of the transept, the one closer to the apse.
It should be noted that in the span of the right arm of the transept (Fig. 4) the stuccoes and decorations on the vaults added by Aluisetti have not been removed, to maintain a testimony of also that part of the church's history.

The compartment underneath the left organ is directly connected to the sacellum (Fig. 2). In fact this is a structure of dimensions comparable to those of a small church. The internal surfaces are almost completely bare, with walls and vaulted ceilings with exposed bricks. Large windows on one side and two windows and an oculus in the apse make its interior brighter than that of the basilica. To be noted that the floor is much lower than that of the church, having evidently retained its original level.

The presbytery is dominated by the nineteenth-century main altar in neoclassical style, on which stands a large circular temple made up of columns on which there is a semi-spherical dome and inside of which there is a large statue of Christ. Another smaller statue of Christ is placed at the apex of the dome.
The structure is so large that the base is accessible and contains a small circular space.
Also worthy of note are the two side statues. They were made by Alessandro Puttinati and depict Sant'Ambrogio and San Carlo praying on their knees.
Above the main altar there is the tiburium, whose internal surface is in exposed brick and without any decoration, apart from four statues of the evangelists placed at the corners of the base.

The lower part of the walls of the semicircular apse (Fig. 3) is occupied by the chorus. Built in 1588 by the de'Conte brothers on design by Giuseppe Meda, it includes two orders of stalls. The higher, richer stalls are separated by carved wood columns with Corinthian capitals and on each back there is an inscription in gold with a Latin maxim linked to the monastic life.
The apsidal basin is instead occupied by the fresco, Coronation of the Virgin, made in 1508 by Ambrogio da Fossano, also known the Bergognone. The large fresco (about 70 square meters, one of the largest in Milan) is characterized by a style that is reminiscent of both Florentine naturalism and Byzantine idealism. The result is very special and the alternation of bright and intense colors creates an almost psychedelic effect, somehow very modern.
At the center dominates the figure of the Eternal Father (more than four meters tall), depicted standing with open arms, almost to embrace and protect Jesus and Mary, depicted kneeling in front of him while the first places the crown on the head of the second. God the Father is surrounded by nine angelic choirs that form a large almond, progressively brighter and with ever-fading figures towards the center.
On the contrary, the figures of the three most external rows are well defined and represent musician angels. At the bottom, instead, at the base of the vault, two groups of saints, prophets, monks, men of letters but also of people, symmetrically disposed shown while contemplating the event.
The fresco enjoyed many restoration works, the most recent at the end of the last century.

The chapels are relatively less important in the Basilica of San Simpliciano than in many other Milanese churches.

  • Very interesting is the first room on the right entering (Fig. 7), in fact not a real chapel but a separate room closed by a gate. On its back wall there are some of the few remaining late medieval frescoes. In particular, an Annunciation can be recognized at the top and a Madonna with child enthroned among saints below. These frescoes are from the fourteenth century.

  • The first right chapel is dedicated to the Sacred Heart and was restored by Maciacchini. It is open only during the Christmas period, because it hosts a nativity scene. The frescoes depicting the four evangelists on the walls were painted by Emilio Cavenaghi.

  • The second right chapel is dedicated to San Mauro. On the walls frescoes of 1891 by Alessandro Brambilla depicting episodes from the life of the saint. The seventeenth-century altarpiece "Miracle of San Mauro" is by Gerolamo Chignoli.

  • The third right chapel (Fig. 6) is dedicated to St. Benedict and is in clear rococo style. The walls are decorated with trompe l'oeil scenes painted by Francesco Porro at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The altarpiece was painted in 1619 by Enea Selmeggia and depicts the miracle of the resurrection of a child by the saint.
    On the walls there are two frescos inside two fake black marble frames, representing on the left San Carlo who gives communion to St. Louis (by Giovan Angelo Borroni), on the right the Glory of St. Louis by Antonio Pietro Magatti.

  • Altar of the Immaculate: on the bottom of the right aisle of the right arm of the transept. On the sides of it there are late nineteenth century by Alessandro Brambilla representations of the of two biblical episodes: on the left Debora who is about to hit Sisara, on the right Judith who has cut off the head to Holofernes.

  • First left chapel: It has been a baptistery since the sixteenth century. The interior decorations date back to the end of the nineteenth century and were made by the painter Zalli di Varallo.

  • Second left chapel: Dedicated to San Gaetano.

  • Third chapel on the left: Chapel of the Crucifix.

  • Chapel of the Virgin of the Rosary (Fig. 5) It is located at the bottom of the left aisle of the left arm of the transept. It is the largest among the chapels of the basilica and the last to be built. Its depth, much greater than that of the other chapels, makes it structurally more like a small church. It was built at the beginning of the eighteenth century in a typically rococo style. It posses on single nave divided into two spans of different depth with cross vaults and embellished with frescoes and decorations in gilded stucco and fake marble. The green background is interrupted by the gilding of the stuccos and by fake views, in the center of the vaults, on skies populated by angels and putti in flight. Each central scene is then surrounded by medallions with inside representations of small putti with soft and graceful features. The decorations of the vault are by Giovanni Antonio Cucchi and date back to the thirties of the eighteenth century.
    The retable of the altar houses a painted wooden sculpture, perhaps from the sixteenth century, depicting the Crowned Virgin sitting with the crowned child in her arms. The Mother's feet rest on clouds from which two cherubs peer.
    The chapel was originally dedicated to the Holy Crucifix. The change of dedication seems to have occurred in the nineteenth century, and in conjunction with it were also replaced the large frescoes on the walls with the current ones, made in neoclassical style by Enrico Francioli in 1864. The fresco on the right depicts San Domenico who wins the heresies of the Albigenses with the power of prayer, the one by left Pius V and high priests who ask for the intercession of Mary to obtain a victory at Lepanto.

  • The right aisle of the left arm of the transept houses the eighteenth-century Via Crucis of the Milanese painter Federico Ferrerio from the demolished Church of Santa Maria del Giardino.

Other focal points of the basilica are:

  • On the sides of the presbytery are the two cantorias. It should be noted that the right one houses a real organ, from the end of the nineteenth century, while the one on the left houses a fake organ, installed only for aesthetic reasons. The front walls of the bases of the cantorias were completely frescoed by Aurelio Luini in the sixteenth century. Inside niches separated by caryatids, all trompe l'oeil, are present, on the left, the saints Giustina and Scolastica (Fig. 8), on the right the saints Placido and Mauro. In the upper part a frieze populated by angels playing music. It should be noted that the figures on the side walls were added later and are of inferior artistic quality.

  • The room behind the left cantoria still houses some Gothic frescoes, in particular an Annunciation. Moreover, the capitals present in this room are the only originals left of the interior ones.

  • The main organ of the church, on the counter-façade (Fig. 10), is recent, from 1990, and was built using the German baroque organs as a model.

  • The great fresco "Christ among the disciples" by Francesco Terzi on the right wall between the altar and the choir.

  • The marble round placed in the middle of the left wall and depicting in bas-relief San Simpliciano blessing. It is attributed to Francesco Brambilla the Younger and is dated 1582.

  • The two large baroque elliptical pulpits in carved and gilded wood equipped with canopy placed on the pillars at the sides of the presbytery.

If you are interested in a guided tour of this monument send an email!

Categories: Churches / Religious buildings

Piazza San Simpliciano, 7, 20100 Milano
Further pictures of the Basilica of San Simpliciano in the section Photography
Milano: Tiburium of the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: The Basilica of San Simpliciano seen from a colonnade of the Small Cloister
Milano: Bell tower of the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Coronation of the Virgin in the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Interior of the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Late medieval frescoes in the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Altar and pulpits the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Base of the left choir loft in the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Right aisle of the left arm of the transept of the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Chapel of San Benedict in the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Romanesque vaults in the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Base of the right choir loft in the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Right arm of the transept of the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Left side of the base of the left choir loft in the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Arcades light and shadows in the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Four of the paintings of the baroque via crucis in the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Choir in the apse of the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Romanesque portal  of the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Ceiling of the Chapel of San Benedict in the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Apse of the Basilica of San Simpliciano at dusk
Milano: Right lateral nave of the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Retable of the altar in the chapel of St. Benedict in the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Vertical view of the interior of the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Interior of the tiburium of the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Basilica of San Simpliciano in the evening
Milano: Apse of the Basilica of san Simpliciano
Milano: Interior of the chapel of St. Benedict in the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Left choir loft and main altar of the Basilica of san Simpliciano
Milano: Basilica of San Simpliciano: Altar and aps
Milano: Transept of the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Walls and columns inside the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Altar and aps of the Basilica of San Simpliciano by night
Milano: Basilica of San Simpliciano by night: altar and aps
Milano: San Benedict Chapel inside the Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Basilica of San Simpliciano
Milano: Altar and aps of the Basilica of San Simpliciano