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Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore

Foto Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore -  Churches / Religious buildings  Roman Milan
Foto Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore -  Churches / Religious buildings  Roman Milan
Foto Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore -  Churches / Religious buildings  Roman Milan
Foto Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore -  Churches / Religious buildings  Roman Milan
Foto Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore -  Churches / Religious buildings  Roman Milan
Foto Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore -  Churches / Religious buildings  Roman Milan
Foto Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore -  Churches / Religious buildings  Roman Milan
Foto Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore -  Churches / Religious buildings  Roman Milan
Foto Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore -  Churches / Religious buildings  Roman Milan
Foto Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore -  Churches / Religious buildings  Roman Milan
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Milan - Churches / Religious buildings  Roman Milan: Basilica of San Lorenzo MaggioreMostly represented styles: Roman - Paleochristian - Romanesque - Renaissance

The Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore is one of the oldest and most important sacred buildings in Milan. At its construction, the basilica was the largest centrally planned building in the West.
It consists of a central core, with central symmetry and crowned by four towers, from which three satellite buildings radiate, also with central symmetry: to the north the chapel of St. Sixtus, to the east that of St. Ippolitus and to the south that of St. Aquilinus.

Despite its great historical importance, it is not known exactly when the basilica was built. In this regard, it is only possible to list the various theories:

  • According to some scholars, the Basilica of San Lorenzo was built in the Constantinian era or in anticipation of the Council of Milan in 355 which ended with the victory of the Aryans and the election of Aussentius as bishop of Milan. It would therefore have been an Arian basilica.

  • According to others, San Lorenzo would have been built as a palatine basilica under the emperor Theodosius, so at the end of the fourth century and would have been an Orthodox basilica. The Chapel of Sant'Aquilino was instead built by Galla Placidia in the fifth century. In this case (and in the first) the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore could coincide with the "Portian" Basilica that the Aryans, towards the end of the fourth century, asked to be left in their use.

  • A new theory provides that the basilica coincides with the Portian Basilica, which was built by the will of the emperor Gratian immediately after the election as bishop of Ambrose in 375 and that the emperor donated it to the Aryans precisely to compensate the intransigence of Ambrose and to preserve the peace between the two Christian factions.

  • According to other scholars, the basilica was instead built in the fifth century and therefore could not be identified with the Basilica Portiana.

The fact that a veil of oblivion was spread over its construction date, however, suggests that it was erected by the then losing Aryan faction.

What is ascertained is that the area on which the basilica was built consisted of a mound of debris and waste material belonging to the state property located in a marshy area outside the city walls. This type of land, not very suitable for large constructions, led to the need to first create solid stone foundations over four meters deep.

The three centrally symmetrical bodies associated with the basilica were erected at different times:

  • The Chapel of Sant'Ippolito is likely to have been built even before the actual basilica.

  • The Chapel of Sant'Aquilino was built shortly after the basilica.
    Its apse, on the other hand, is from the late Renaissance.

  • The Chapel of San Sisto dates back to a more recent period.

What the church looked like in its original version, in particular as regards the dome, is unknown. This is because the basilica underwent various collapses and damage already in remote times and the repair works have greatly changed its appearance. In 1071 and 1075 there were two fires, in 1103 the roof collapsed and in 1124 there was the fire of Porta Giovia which also caused damage to the basilica. In the Romanesque period a new dome was therefore created, of which we can get an idea through ancient drawings and paintings that have come down to us. Nothing is known instead about the structure of the original Roman building, although late antique descriptions attest that the interior must have been decorated with glittering marble and mosaics.
In 1573 there was a new collapse of the dome, which was then replaced by the current one based on a design by Martino Bassi. The reconstruction preserved the remaining structures as much as possible, a sign of the prestige that the building has always enjoyed.
In the years 1623-1625 the rectory was added, that is the two wings of the complex that laterally close the space in front of the church.
Only in 1894 was the large neoclassical portico in front of the facade completed. Its construction is due to the architect Cesare Nava, even if its construction had already been started by Martino Bassi.
Originally the basilica was preceded by a large quadrilateral arcaded atrium. Of this structure are only 16 Roman columns (known today as "Colonne di San Lorenzo"), which were located in front of the western wall to give greater solemnity to the complex, still present today.

: Also known, as said, as "Saint Lawrence Columns", it consists of sixteen columns 7.6 meters high and represents what remains of the late antique four-sided portico that was in front of the basilica. A similar structure can still be found today in front of the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio. The colonnade was rediscovered in 1071, when a fire destroyed the building in front of the basilica in which it had been incorporated.
The columns that constitute it are recycled material from older Roman buildings.
It should be noted, however, that the colonnade was raised in medieval times, between the eleventh and twelfth centuries, by placing it on top of a newly created plinth. Some parts of the architrave at the top also date back to that period.
The statue in the center of the churchyard represents the emperor Constantine I. It is a bronze monument cast in 1937 on the model of the ancient original of the 4th century kept in the church of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome.
The overall structure of the basilica can only be appreciated by looking at it from behind, since from the front it is completely hidden by the portico and the rectory. But also from behind the large number of secondary structures and their heterogeneity make it difficult to understand the general structure.
Looking carefully, however, it is possible to see how the main part of the basilica is substantially made up of a square body, with a large exedra on each side, so as to make the base of the central body seem almost circular. Furthermore on each corner there is a square tower, which seems to almost crush, holding it together, the basal part of the central body.
The upper part of it is instead made up of the large late Renaissance tambour and dome. The octagonal structure of the tambour is underlined by the corner pilasters, which also have a reinforcement function and to which a pinnacle corresponds at the apex. Each side of the tambour is equipped with a large rectangular window enriched by an alternately curved or triangular tympanum and two Ionic pilasters on each side. The dome culminates with a high lantern that recalls the structure of the dome on a smaller scale.
The four towers, which were originally equal, are now all different from each other, due to the changes made over the centuries. In particular, the front left tower is lower than the others.
(Fig. 1) The current facade of the basilica was only completed in 1894, based on the design by Cesare Nava approved two years earlier. It is dominated by the large pronaos with three arches and is marked by high pilasters with Ionic volute capitals.
Of the two anterior towers, the one on the left is cut off (probably because it was damaged during the collapse of 1573), while the right one was already transformed into a bell tower in the Romanesque period by adding a belfry with triple lancet windows.
The interior of the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore appears circular at first sight. In reality it is a square space of 24 x 24 meters, with a large semicircular exedra on each side to occupy almost the entire width of the wall and diagonal connections between them. These connections were added by Martino Bassi in order to allow the new dome to rest on a more solid base. The aesthetic effect is to transform a square space into an irregular octagonal one. It should be noted that within the spaces created by the oblique connections the cruciform pillars of the original square plan and the towers are still perfectly recognizable.
The exedras, covered by hemispherical caps marked by ribs, open to the ground on the ambulatory and upstairs to the women's gallery. Their walls are equipped with large windows on both levels which guarantee a good diffused illumination.
The symmetry between the four exedras is not complete: those on the sides as you enter have polygonal columns on the ground floor supporting arches and on the upper floor cruciform pillars, the other two have columns on the ground floor supporting an architrave and on the upper floor small columns supporting arches. This asymmetry was introduced by Bassi to suggest a preferential axis, as per the dictates of the Counter-Reformation.
The original grated capitals of the large pillars that support the exedras and which are located immediately below the marked broken frame that runs around the whole central body right into the exedras, are also owed to Cesare Bassi.
High altar
It is located within a raised area placed in front of the eastern exedra. Made in the seventeenth century in polychrome marble, in the center of the large retable, between two pairs of columns and within a rich gilded frame, it houses a fresco of a Nursing Virgin which was originally located on the wall surrounding the chapel of San Sisto and which was venerated because it was considered miraculous. At the apex of the retable there is a large triangular tympanum in turn surmounted by two angels holding a crown. Two other angels are placed on either side of the retable. The four angels are attributed to the seventeenth-century sculptor Carlo Garavaglia.
(Fig. 2) Placed in a semicircle behind the altar is the seventeenth century choir on two rows made of solid walnut wood to a design by Siro Zanelli. In the center there is a large niche with a wooden statue of the Virgin with Child between Saints Lawrence and Aquilinus. The benches are separated by putti holding up capitals.
Also noteworthy is the presbyterial bench placed to the right of the altar. It too is made of solid carved wood and is richly decorated in style with the choir.
To the right of the altar, at the level of the women's gallery there is a precious organ built by Pietro Bernasconi in 1884 and recently restored. The organ is enclosed by a wooden case structured like a serliana surmounted by a triangular tympanum above which there are two musician angels.

The walls of the central body furthermore house some tombs and works of art:

  • On the left of the entrance portal to the Chapel of St. Aquilinus there is a valuable Deposition by a Lombard master of the thirteenth century.

  • Tomb of Robbiani: It is located on the right wall of the southeast tower, inside a niche whose arch is supported by two small columns and equipped on the upper part with a floral-themed decoration and two pinnacles. The sepulcher is tripartite, with the family crest with three lilies in the center.
    In the lunette there is a fresco, probably from the end of the fourteenth century, of considerable artistic value and depicting in the center a Madonna enthroned with Child with the two patrons on either side accompanied by the two patron saints. Who are the two characters of the Robbiani family represented is not known with certainty. To complete the decoration, the blessing Christ and two coats of arms in the under-arch.

  • Funeral monument of Giovanni del Conte: It is located on the north wall of the tower at the bottom left and was built between 1556 and 1558 by Vincenzo Seregni and Marco d'Agrate. Giovanni del Conte, who died in 1522, was a councilor of the Visconti. The burial consists of an archetectonic structure with two columns on the sides and two pilasters in the center between which there is a niche with a statue of the Virgin and Child. On the top of the tympanum there is an announcing angel, with two putti on either side.
    The deceased is depicted semi-reclining on a triclinium.

  • On the wall of the ambulatory, next to the entrance to the chapel of St. Sixtus, there is a fresco from the early sixteenth century which reproduces the Last Supper in a somewhat rough way. The fresco was rediscovered during nineteenth-century restorations.

  • In front of it there is a terracotta statue of the Pietà made in the third quarter of the eighteenth century.

  • On the north wall of the front left tower there is the curious fresco of the Pietà with San Martino and offerer. Made in the mid-sixteenth century, it is characterized by the simultaneous presence of two subjects: San Martino and the Pietà. The client is depicted at the bottom left.

  • On the western facade of the right bottom corner pillar there are two frescoes from the early thirteenth century: below St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, and above a Virgin with Child, called Virgin of the Chair ("Madonna della Seggiola"). The upper fresco is attributed to the Master of San Abondio in Como.

Lateral chapels
Going counterclockwise starting from the entrance you have:
Chapel of St. John the Baptist: (Fig. 4) It is of late construction. It was used as a baptistery in 1567 under Carlo Borromeo. It has a square plan and a domed ceiling with a lantern.
The altar houses a 16th century altarpiece depicting the Baptism of Jesus attributed to Carlo Urbino da Crema in collaboration with Bernardino Campi.
Chapel of St. Aquilinus: (Fig. 6) It is thought that it was built shortly after the main body of the basilica and that it was put in direct communication with it through the forceps atrium only at a later time, in the fifth century. The most credible hypothesis is that it was designed as a mausoleum. According to tradition, it was Galla Placidia who had it built and for this reason it is also called the "Reginae Chapel".
The first dedication of a chapel was to St. Genesius and only in the fifteenth century was it dedicated to St. Aquilinus.
The entrance hall basically consists of a square room with two large lateral exedras, above which three windows open on each side. The vault is a barrel vault.
Originally, the internal walls had to be completely or almost completely covered with mosaic decorations divided into two registers (Fig. 7), of which today unfortunately only a few fragments remain. These were life-size representations of human figures inserted within a two-level architectural framework. In the upper one the apostles were represented, in the lower one some scholars think there were the patriarchs of Israel, others prophets.
Externally, the chapel of St. Aquilinus consists of an octagonal structure in exposed brick masonry divided on three levels: the lower one, corresponding to the height of the niches inside, the intermediate one, corresponding to the women's gallery that runs all around the chapel, and the upper one, corresponding to the dome, or its tiburium.
The framing of the entrance door to the chapel is made up of slabs of Carrara marble, recycled material from a Roman building probably from the second half of the first century. The slabs are decorated with bas-reliefs depicting plant motifs, animals, cherubs, fruit baskets. The decorations are divided into three bands. This portal constitutes a precious testimony of Roman Milan.
Above the entrance there are frescoes which in the first decades of the fourteenth century took the place of the original mosaics. In particular, on the left there is a Crucifixion with Mary unconscious and supported by the Pious Women.
The actual chapel is now bare. The rich original decoration, with mosaics and precious marbles, must have already been lost in the sixteenth century, when the pictorial decorations visible today in most of the niches were created.
The lunette above the entrance inside the chapel houses a sixteenth-century pietà characterized by an almost black background.
- The niche immediately on the right as you enter houses a sarcophagus that tradition would like to be of Galla Placidia. In the vault of the niche there is a fresco depicting the Penitent Mary Magdalene.
- The niche immediately to the left of the entrance houses another sarcophagus which tradition would like to contain the remains of St. Aquilinus. The gravestone above the sarcophagus, however, is that of Antonio del Conte, archpriest of the basilica from 1340 to 1347. In the vault there is a fresco depicting St. Jerome penitent in the desert.
- The third niche on the right is the one whose mosaics have been best preserved, in fact that of the vault is almost intact. It depicts Christ teacher among the apostles. It should be noted that Jesus is depicted according to early Christian iconography, ie as a beardless young man with an authoritative aspect, and not with a beard like it would have become habitual only from the Middle Ages onwards.
- The third niche on the left also preserves, in the vault, a part of the original mosaics, although in a worse state of conservation. The mosaic depicts a mountain landscape with shepherds, horses and cattle.
On the wall of the niche there is instead a cycle of frescoes from the Lombard school of the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century depicting Stories of the Passion.
- The niche opposite the entrance was replaced in the sixteenth century, at the behest of Carlo Borromeo, by a small chapel intended to house the remains of St. Aquilinus Martyr. The decoration of the vault was made by Gabriele Bossi and Giuseppe Galberio starting from 1570. It includes eight segments, framed by bands containing grotesque decorations and depicting the evangelists and the fathers of the Church. In the center a cartouche with the dedication to the saint and the symbols of martyrdom. In the lunettes, on the other hand, are depicted prophets and musician angels.
On the back wall is depicted the Finding of the body of St. Aquilinus painted in 1560 by Carlo Urbino.
The altar on which is the silver urn (from the Baroque period and protected by a rock crystal reliquary) containing the remains of the saint is characterized by a frontal in scagliola and marble inlays with spirals.
The women's galleries wind along the entire perimeter of the chapel at a height of 8 meters and are reachable by stairs inserted into the thickness of the walls. Their roof still has the remains of frescoes that recall the original polychrome marble decoration of the walls.
Finally, it is possible to access the underground to visit the foundations in which it is possible to recognize a lot of recovered material.
Chapel of the Holy Family: (Fig. 5) Built in 1573 it has dimensions and structure similar to the Chapel of St. John Baptist. The plan is therefore square and the ceiling consists of a dome illuminated by a lantern.
On the right wall there is a Supper of Emmaus thought to be of the first quarter of the seventeenth century. On the left there is a Fasting of San Carlo, a seventeenth-century copy of the painting painted by Daniele Crespi for the Church of Santa Maria della Passione.
The altarpiece, placed inside a Baroque retable decorated with plant motifs in relief, shows a Holy Family from the third quarter of the eighteenth century.
Chapel Cittadini: The chapel takes its name from a wealthy Milanese family of merchants who patronized it from the second quarter of the fifteenth century. Originally it included an eleventh-century hall with apse. When it was taken by the Cittadini they enlarged it on the right side giving it an L-shaped plan. The coat of arms of the Cittadini family is recognizable in one of the two keystones (the other depicts a Virgin with Child).
The older apse (Fig. 8) was originally completely decorated with a cycle of frescoes, most of which have been lost. A Majestatis Domini among the symbols of the four evangelists is still recognizable. Under the arch there are rounds with busts probably of saints. The velarium in the lower part of the wall is interesting, with hunting scenes (you can even recognize an elephant).
Those on the left wall are instead votive frescoes. We recognize a Virgin Enthroned (called Queen Virgin) of good artistic level, above an older St. John Baptist.
Above there is a Christ enthroned with the faithful of the fourteenth century in a still typically Gothic style.
The two canvases on the left are instead of 1650 and depict a Visitation and a Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.
On the wall of the new apse was placed a fifteenth-century relief triptych, depicting an Imago Pietatis between the Saints Lawrence and Stephen.
Chapel of St. Ippolitus: (Fig. 9) It was built at the same time as the central body of the basilica. Its original use is not clear: a chapel for liturgical celebrations, a conservation site for the remains of martyrs or a burial place of Bishop Aussentius and his Arian successors. However, it is certain that in 465 Bishop Eusebius was buried there.
Externally the chapel looks like an octagonal brick building, without any decoration. It has two very large windows on the two side walls as you enter, corresponding to the original structure, and a narrow single-lancet window from the Romanesque period on the wall opposite the entrance. Internally it has a Greek cross plan, consisting of a central square space covered by a hemispherical dome and four lateral spaces with a barrel vault. At the four corners of the central space there are four columns of African marble with Corinthian capitals.
Access is through a splendid wrought iron gate with gilded details.
Chapel of St. Sixtus: It was built at the end of the fifth century by Bishop Lawrence I with a dedication to Pope Sixtus II. Externally, its structure is almost identical to that of St. Ippolitus, with the difference that it is smaller and has an independent entrance from the outside.
Internally it reproduces the structure of the Chapel of St. Aquilinus, with an alternation of rectangular and hemispherical niches.
The current hemispherical vault dates from the seventeenth century and is entirely decorated with a large fresco by Johann Christoph Storer (Fig. 10). It was probably painted in the mid-seventeenth century and depicts the Glory of St. Sixtus together with Christ.
Baptismal chapel: It is accessed through a vestibule that opens to the right of the Chapel of the Holy Family and leads to the Sacristy. It houses a precious Baroque baptismal font in polychrome marble, gilded bronze and stucco. The vault is decorated with a fresco depicting the triumph of the Eucharistic Faith, from the second half of the eighteenth century and attributed to Pietro Maggi. Normally the baptismal chapel cannot be visited.
Sacristy: It was built in 1713 by Francesco Croce as Redemption Chapel. It has an elliptical shape, with eight windows. The vault is decorated with a fresco depicting the Coronation of the Virgin, from the second half of the eighteenth century. It houses various paintings of different ages and quality. It too is not normally open to the public.

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

Categories: Churches / Religious buildings Roman Milan

Corso di Porta Ticinese, 35, 20100 Milano
Further pictures of the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore in the section Photography
Milano: Tomb of Robbiani in the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore
Milano: Third left niche of the Aquilino Chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore
Milano: Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore by night
Milano: Back side of the complex of the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore
Milano: The cross on top of the dome of the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore
Milano: Central part of the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore
Milano: Upper part of the lantern of the dome of the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore
Milano: Detail of the interiors of the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore
Milano: Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore
Milano: Mosaics in the chapel of Sant Aquilino (Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore)