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Busto Arsizio (Varese): Sanctuary of Saint Mary at the Square

Foto Sanctuary of Saint Mary at the Square
Foto Sanctuary of Saint Mary at the Square
Foto Sanctuary of Saint Mary at the Square
Foto Sanctuary of Saint Mary at the Square
Foto Sanctuary of Saint Mary at the Square
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Places  of historical value  of artistic value around Milan (Italy): Sanctuary of Saint Mary at the SquareThe Sanctuary of Saint Mary of the Square (whose correct name is actually Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Help) is another pearl of the Renaissance little known to the general public, and both as a time period and as a general setting it can be combined with the Basilica of San Magno in Legnano, although it is actually much smaller than it.
The original dedication of the church was to the Assumption. It became the Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Help ("Madonna dell'Aiuto") starting from the middle of the sixteenth century, with reference to the cessation of a plague by the intercession of the Virgin.

The site occupied by the present Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Piazza was already occupied by religious buildings starting from the tenth century, perhaps from even much earlier: originally a chapel, then a small church in Romanesque style. The latter had to coincide, as a position, with the presbytery of the present church. Of it is a round piece in white marble depicting, carved in bas-relief, a bust of the Virgin with Child. Today it is set in the vault of the presbytery.

In the light of the increased economic importance obtained by Busto Arsizio at the beginning of the sixteenth century it was decided to build a new church. The initiative was taken by the School pf the Poors, a group of lay brotherhoods that provided assistance. It is not excluded that Galeazzo Visconti, feudal lord of Busto, supported the construction with the aim of transforming the new church into his own mausoleum.
Work began in 1517 under the guidance of Antonio da Lonate, who probably followed a drawing by Donato Bramante. Tommaso Rodari took over from Lonate in 1520, making important additions: in particular the loggias around the tiburium and the double-curved roof.
The wall structure was finished in just five years, while the pictorial decoration took more time. The frescoes in the dome date back to 1531, the polyptych of the Assunta, donated by Donato Prandoni is from 1541. Other decorations were carried out by local artists until 1565 and the cycle of statues at the base of the dome was finished only in 1602.

In 1605 the door facing the square was closed and two side doors were opened beside the western door.
With the works of the years 1874-1877, under the direction of Carlo Maciachini, the situation prior to 1605 was restored. The portal towards the square was reopened and the two secondary portals that had been added were removed and placed in the Church of Santa Croce, which unfortunately no longer exists.

Initially the bell tower of the medieval church was maintained. However, it collapsed in 1578 and was then rebuilt in 1581. Between 1886 and 1889 Carlo Maciachini doubled its height, trying to reproduce (in a not too successful way) in the additional part the stylistic elements of the church. The tower was also equipped with a clock and five bells. The bell tower has always served also as civic tower, so much so that the clock and part of the bells are still owned by the city.

The building has enjoyed countless restoration works and renovations, starting in 1569, when the lantern had to be rebuilt, after being struck by lightning.

The Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Piazza is built according to the architectural canons dear to Bramante, one of the most influential architects of the early Renaissance, and shows a general structure very similar to that of the Basilica of San Magno in Legnano. Also in this case we have a rectangular base, which on the inside is faceted to give an octagon, on which is placed a hemispherical dome, resting on the octagonal base and externally surrounded by a tiburium, also octagonal. The reasons why such an approach was so dear to Bramante and so popular in the early Renaissance are both aesthetic and symbolic. On the one hand, the interior space of a radially symmetrical church is more difficult to perceive in its real dimensions and the interior space thus tends to appear wider than it actually is. On the other side the square, the sphere and the octagon were given symbolic meanings: the circle corresponded to God, the square to to the human being and the octagon to the resurrection of Christ.

The outside is therefore made up first of all of a square body symmetrical on all four sides. Each side is divided vertically into three parts by pilasters. On two sides, between the two central pilasters, there is a portal, richly decorated but at the same time very sober. The decoration consists in fact of geometric shapes defined in relief and through the use of materials of different color. A type of decoration typical of the early Renaissance.
On both portals are inscribed in Latin couplets of the humanist Gian Alberto Bossi.
Above the portal towards the square are then placed copies of the two statues of the annunciation (attributed to Tomaso Rodari) whose originals have been moved to the inner side.
Each side includes three oculi: one in the central part, higher up (and larger above the two portals), and two in the lateral parts, a little lower. On one side, however, the central oculus is blind, while on another side a lateral oculus is blind.
Just below the upper edge, a terracotta frame runs on all four sides.
Above the square base the octagonal tiburium is inserted. It is embellished by the presence, on each side, of a small loggia delimited by the pillars of the octagon and marked by three small columns. These rest on a balustrade and support four small arches. The external surfaces of the corner pillars take up the decoration of the portals. Each side of the tiburium also includes an oculus in the center.
Another element characterizing the exterior of the building is represented by the double-curved roof, a solution adopted because it allowed to elegantly connect the roof with the loggias and at the same time not to interfere with the inner dome.
At the apex there is a tall lantern in turn equipped with a second small lantern. Finally, on the eight corners there are small spiers, still Gothic elements but that are perfectly in style here.

The interior is dominated by the octagonal element, because, also in this like in the Basilica of San Magno, the pillars of each side are connected at the top diagonally with those of the adjacent sides. Above there is the octagonal drum and above it the hemispherical dome. Below, on the other hand, in correspondence with the diagonal sides, there are quarters of spherical domes which connect the two central parts of the sides in contact. The lateral parts of the square basis are instead made to correspond, internally, with shallow chapels.
The interior, in fact, does not respect the radial symmetry, as the presbytery breaks it up.
Entering, we first notice the contrast between the lower part, consisting of the walls, painted in white and basically devoid of decorations, and the upper part, starting from the attachment of the arches, totally decorated.
All the arches inside, large and small, are highlighted through a dark red color that determines the first visual impact, also because the same color is also present at the level of the two cornices that run along the entire internal perimeter. The same color is also recalled by the vault of the presbytery.
The upper part appears somehow rooted in the lower part through the beautiful grotesque decorations which extend vertically along all pilasters on the inner faces of the pillars that delimit the octagon.
The pictorial decorations of the interior of the sanctuary are due to artists belonging to the Crespi family.

The interior space is dominated by the large hemispherical dome (Fig. 2), composed of eight segments, separated by ribs, which rise up to the lantern. Each segment includes 33 coffers, which gradually become smaller going upwards and which have a golden star in the center representing the starry sky.
The lower part of the dome, the one just above the drum, has large frescoes depicting pagan sibyls and prophets of the Old Testament whose name is shown on scrolls (as known in the Renaissance there was the habit to interpret also some sibyls as heralds of the Messiah). On each side of the octagon there are two figures with an oculus in the middle.
Other depictions of biblical characters in the form of terracotta medallions are then present between the arches and the upper cornice. In this case, pagan characters and female bible figures alternate.
The dome is separated from the upper cornice by the drum, a high band in which there are 32 niches occupied by as many wooden statues of the late sixteenth century. They were made by Fabrizio De Magistris and depict saints and blesseds. In 1602 they were painted in white with gold touches to make them look like marble.
It should be noted that the band of the statues mimics, as a general structure, that of the base, with arches, rounds and decorated vertical separation areas.

As for the lower part of the interior, it includes eight small, shallow chapels, placed in pairs in the four small apses at the corners, three walls, two of which are occupied by entrance doors, and the presbytery.
The small vaults of the four apses on the corners are all entirely frescoed. Only one, however, still shows the original Renaissance frescoes, the south-east one, in which Giovan Battista della Cerva, a pupil of Gaudenzio Ferrari, represented in 1542 a group of musician angels.
The other vaults instead house frescoes by Luigi Cavenaghi painted during the restoration works in 1876, evidently replacing the original ones that were lost.

The polyptych of the Assumption
(Fig. 3) Originally it was located on the back wall of the presbytery. During the restorations of the years 1939-1943 it was moved to its present position, on the left wall. The work was completed by Gaudenzio Ferrari and collaborators in 1540 on behalf of Donato Prandoni, who donated it to the Church of Santa Maria. It represents the most important work of art of the sanctuary and was built as a testimony of devotion to the Virgin Mary, in opposition to the emerging Protestant cult.
The central panel depicts the assumption of Mary, carried in the sky by a crown of angels (two of which place the crown on her head) while below, the apostles observe the scene amazed and admired. In the four side panels the saints at that time most venerated in Busto Arsizio are depicted: on the lower left St. John the Baptist, on the lower right St. Michael the Archangel, on the upper left St. Bernardino of Busto and on the right upstairs St. Francis.
In the apical panel, finally, the Almighty who looks down towards Mary who is rising into the sky, with open arms in a welcoming gesture.
At the base three panels depicting three scenes of the gospel: on the left the Nativity of Mary, in the center the presentation at the temple, on the right the Holy Family. The scenes are embellished and enlivened by various details from everyday life of the time when the polyptych was created.
All the elements of separation are carved and gilded to give a rich decoration with vegetable theme.

The presbytery has entirely frescoed side walls. On the left one Giovanni Battista della Cerva painted the Adoration of the Magi, on the right the Adoration of the Shepherds. On the pilasters at the entrance two of the figures of the Annunciation are represented. The angel on the right pilaster and the musician angel on the right wall are perhaps the most successful figures, characterized by a truly remarkable sweetness and vitality.
The coverage is barrel-shaped, characterized by an alternation of circular and lozenge geometric shapes with at their center golden vegetable elements (except the already mentioned round and a representation of the lamb).

Above the altar (modern, built in 1971) there is a sixteenth-century carved and gilt wooden retable with an architectural structure decorated with gilt plant elements and golden vine shoots (Fig. 4). In the center there is a large niche in which is placed the wooden statue of the Virgin of the Help ("Madonna dell'Aiuto"), the statue to which the miracle of having stopped the plague is attributed. It is assumed that the statue was carved at the beginning of the seventeenth century by Fabrizio de Magistris, the author of the statues of the drum.
The statue depicts a crowned Madonna enthroned with Child. It is substantially tricolor: the color of the skin and then only dark blue and gold. The robe of the Virgin is in its blue part dotted with stars.
The statue is characterized by the difference in attitude of the two represented characters: the Virgin has an attitude of hieratic nobility, placed exactly in the center, with a straight forward gaze and with the back of the seat that looks almost like a ruff. The Child on her knees, on the contrary, seems to be caught in the act of wriggling away from his mother to reach out to the observer.
On the sides of the retable there are two marble angels of the sixteenth century.

Other noteworthy works in the sanctuary are among others:

  • The altarpiece in the chapel to the right of the presbytery is a Last Supper by Gaudenzio Ferrari from 1541.

  • The altarpiece in the chapel to the left of the presbytery (Fig. 5) is a Madonna with Child and the Saints Michael and Paul, copy from Paolo Lomazzo of the beginning of the sixteenth century. Note the remains of frescoes on the wall, unfortunately no longer legible.

  • Right wall, to the left of the entrance: triptych Madonna with Child, St. John the Baptist and St. Rocco, perhaps by Francesco Melzi, a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, early sixteenth century

  • Right wall, to the right of the entrance: Annunciation, torn fresco of 1664

  • Left wall, to the left of the polyptych of the Assumption: Madonna with Child, the saints Gervaso, Protaso, Caterina, Giustina and four nuns (by Giacomo Raiboldini, known as Il Francia, 1554).

  • The lamp that hangs in front of the main altar, composed of three wooden cherubs with golden robe and wings that support a crown, from the sixteenth century and attributed to Annibale Fontana.

  • In the sacristy there is the painting Madonna adoring the Child, whose attribution is uncertain between Giovanni Bellini, Antonio de Saliba and Bernardino Luini.

A curiosity: in the workers' village of Crespi d'Adda, built at the end of the nineteenth century, also an almost perfect copy of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Piazza was included.

Categories: Places of historical value of artistic value

Piazza Santa Maria - 21052 Busto Arsizio (VA)
Further pictures of Santuario di Santa Maria di Piazza in the section Photography
Busto Arsizio (Varese, Italy): Fresco of an angel in the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Piazza
Busto Arsizio (Varese, Italy): Adoration of the Magi in the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Piazza
Busto Arsizio (Varese, Italy): Interior of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Piazza looking toward the presbytery
Busto Arsizio (Varese, Italy): Adoration of the shepards in the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Piazza
Busto Arsizio (Varese, Italy): Detail of the base of the dome above the presbytery in the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Piazza
Busto Arsizio (Varese, Italy): Main portal of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Piazza
Busto Arsizio (Varese, Italy): Base of a section of the dome of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Piazza
Busto Arsizio (Varese, Italy): Northern internal wall of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Piazza
Busto Arsizio (Varese, Italy): Madonna and Child with the Saints Michael and Paul in the Sanctuary of Saint Mary at the Square
Busto Arsizio (Varese, Italy): Statue of the Virgin of the Help in the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Piazza
Busto Arsizio (Varese, Italy): Interior of the dome of the the Sanctuary of Saint Mary at the Square
Busto Arsizio (Varese, Italy): Statues at the base of the tiburium of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Piazza
Busto Arsizio (Varese, Italy): Western internal wall of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Piazza
Busto Arsizio (Varese, Italy): Interior of the apse of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Piazza