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Orta San Giulio (Novara, Italy): Basilica of San Giulio

Foto Basilica of San Giulio
Foto Basilica of San Giulio
Foto Basilica of San Giulio
Foto Basilica of San Giulio
Foto Basilica of San Giulio
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Places  of historical value  of artistic value around Milan (Italy): Basilica of San GiulioHISTORY
Legend has it that San Giulio, who arrived in the area with his brother Giuliano in the fourth century from the Egina island in the Aegean Sea, reached the island, at that time wild and infested with snakes, using his cloak as a boat and his pilgrim stick as oar. Arriving on the island he would have commanded the snakes to leave the island and then would have built the first original church.
In fact the first version of the church, much smaller than the current one, was erected by San Giulio in the fourth century, so that during the pavement reconstruction works, traces of a apse of the fourth century and of an early Christian church of a little later were found.
Over the centuries, countless changes and additions took place. During the sieges of Ottone I in the middle of the tenth century the church was almost completely destroyed, so much that the same Ottone I decided the reconstruction, during which the apse of the previous church was incorporated in the new building.
Between the eleventh and twelfth centuries the bell tower and the tiburium were added to the church.
Restorations and extensive alterations took place during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (with, in particular, the construction of the crypt at the end of the seventeenth century).

The Basilica of San Giulio externally looks like a typical Romanesque church. Its dimensions are in fact not very large. It is embedded in the complex of buildings that crowd the island, so that the façade is not visible from the landing place for boats, but only from the western shore of the lake. It is a salient façade, tripartite by pilasters, decorated with hanging arches under the roof and flanked by two small towers. The main entrance is protected by a pronao, above which there is a serliana. There are also other minor windows of various shapes and sizes.

The tiburium, located above the intersection of the main nave with the transept has an octagonal structure. Originally there was a blind three-light window on each side. In 1776, however, they were replaced (except one) with rectangular windows, of which three are true and four are false.

The mighty bell tower in Romanesque style, separated from the basilica and placed next to the left apse, was probably designed by Guglielmo da Volpiano and is divided into six floors and embellished with pilasters and hanging arches. The bells are found inside a compartment opened by three-light windows.

In the back it is possible to see the three semicircular apses. The central one is much larger than the lateral ones and is decorated, in correspondence with the roof, with blind arches.

The interior presents a harmonious fusion of Romanesque structure with Baroque decorations and residual gothic frescoes. The structure is a Latin cross, with three naves preceded by an internal narthex and divided by arches resting on pillars. The central nave has a barrel vault, the side aisles have four cross vaulted spans. The presbytery is raised and separated from the nave by marble balustrades.
The aisles are much lower than the main one, also because their upper part is occupied by the women's galleries. These are accessed by two spiral staircases placed inside the two small bell towers that delimit the facade.
The apex of the pilasters is enriched with Corinthian capitals in gilded stucco. Ample gildings are also present at the level of the two balconies at the head of the women's galleries, one of which acts as a cantoria while the other houses the organ.

In the left aisle, at the height of the fourth span, there is the chapel known as of the Crucifix, adorned with three polychrome wooden statues, presumably from the late 15th century century, depicting Christ on the Cross, the Virgin and Saint John.
The baptistery, a small chapel partly cut by the base by the spiral staircase, is located in the left aisle at the height of the first span. At the center of it there is the sixteenth century stone baptismal font.

The pictorial decoration of the basilica is of different ages. In the lateral naves there are still many Gothic frescoes, while the pictorial decoration of the ceilings of the other parts of the church is baroque.

  • The oldest fresco of the whole church is located on the pillar at the second span in the left aisle: it represents the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence placed on the fiery grill. It dates back to the second half of the fourteenth century.

  • The Madonna and Child and some patrons in the right arm of the transept date back to the first decades of the 15th century. Perhaps a little older the St. Bartholomew on the west side of the first pillar of the south row. All these frescoes appear to be made in a late Gothic style.

  • The frescoes of the De Campo workshop date back to the central decades of the fifteenth century: San Sebastiano and San Rocco in the room before the sacristy, St. Nicholas and the three maidens on the east front of the second pillar of the north row, Santa Caterina on the wall of the third span of the south aisle. Also these frescoes are in late Gothic style, but more up to date.

  • Then there is the cycle of frescoes dating back to 1486, still in late Gothic style, but already with various Renaissance elements. This cycle includes the wall frescoes of the third span of the south aisle (First register: Nativity. Second register: Saints Sebastiano, Rocco, Giacomo Maggiore, Caterina d'Alessandria, Biagio; Fig. 2), of the vault of the same span (Doctors of the Church, Fig. 3), of the half-pilasters (San Damiano, left, and San Cosma, right), of the dividing elements in front of the back wall Sant'Elia (left) and San Martino (right), of the two half-pillars of the arch between the span and the central nave (San Donnino, left, and San Cristoforo, right) and of the under-arch (Santa Dorotea and Santa Apollonia). The same painter made the frescoes on the wall of the second span of the south aisle (First register: Trinity with angels. Second register: Stories of San Giulio. Third register: Saints Elia, Giulio and Gaudenzio).

  • Frescoes of the second span of the southern aisle, made by Sperindio Cagnola, a pupil of Gaudenzio Ferrari, (or by a collaborator of him) in 1521. On the back wall there are the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen (first register) and the Virgin with the Child among the saints Sebastiano, Giacomo presenting the client, Giulio and Rocco (second register), on the vault the Doctors of the Church, on the half-pilars between the span and the central nave San Giulio embracing Sant'Audenzio (left) and the Saints Fermo and Apollonia (right), on the underarch some Prophets. The archivolts and the ribs of the vault are decorated with precious grotesque spirals.

  • The frescoes on the other ceilings are Baroque, made by Carlo Borsetti, probably with the help of the quadraturist Pietro Camaschella, in the first half of the eighteenth century. The central segment of the vault of the apse contains a Trinity, while the other segments, the ceiling of the transept, of the dome of the tiburium are occupied by angelic glories. The vault of the second span of the main nave is occupied by a Glory of San Giulio, that of the first by a Glory of Saints Elia, Demetrio, Filiberto and Audenzio.

  • Finally, the four evangelists in the spandrels of the dome and the trompes l'oeil frescoes of the tiburium and of the central nave date back to the 1770s, by Lorenzo Peracino.

The two arms of the transept contain the two side apses, much smaller than the central one. They form the two chapels of the Assunta (left side apse) and of the Rosary (right side apse).
In the right transept there is also, on the right pillar that divides the nave from the presbytery, a bas-relief depicting San Giulio sailing on its mantle towards the island infested with snakes.

The basilica contains numerous valuable paintings. In particular, but without any ambition of completeness: the back wall of the left arm of the transept is dominated by the large canvas by Giorgio Zanatta, San Giulio meets Sant'Audenzio, from 1688.
Still in the left arm of the transept The Death of the Yokel (1687), also by Giorgio Zanatta, the slightly later Rest During the Escape to Egypt, by Bonola, and a Holy Family by Giovanni Mauro Rosselli known as Fiamminghino. In the right arm of the transept there are the Miracle of the Wolf (1686) by Giorgio Bonola and six figures of Saints by Ambrogio Figino, while on the side walls of the central apse there are an Arrival of San Giulio to the Island and a Death of the Saint, of unknown author.
Various other canvases, as well as statues, are then collected in the sacristy, which also has the function of a real art gallery.

Central apse
The central apse is polygonal and much larger than the lateral ones. The lower part of its walls is occupied by the choir stalls in carved wood. Above them there are four low-arched niches in which the wooden reliquary busts of the saints buried on the island are exposed.
In the upper part of the back wall, in a niche inserted in a rich retable, a statue of blessing San Giulio.
The high altar in polychrome marble was made at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the brothers Cesare Fiori and Giovanni Battista Dominioni. The new high altar was built following the demolition of the previous one and the excavation of the presbytery, in order to recover the remains of San Giulio and to move them into a crypt built purposely under the presbytery.
The crypt was built in 1697 to a design by Giovanni Antonio Martelli. In it the remains of San Giulio are preserved, enclosed since 1749 in a crystal urn with silver friezes placed over a marble sarcophagus (Fig. 4). In addition, the altar of the crypt, also made by the Dominioni brothers, houses the remains of Saints Giulio, Demetrio, Filiberto and Elia.
The vaults of the crypt were decorated with gouache with the Glory of Saint Julius and various decorative motifs in 1772 by the brothers Carlo Giuseppe and Giovanni Biella.

The basilica's greatest treasure, however, is represented by the Romanesque ambo placed in front of the presbytery leaning against the first arch of the left lateral nave. It was carved at the beginning of the twelfth century, it is thought by masters of the Rhenish area, in local gray-green stone of the quarry of Oira. 3.5 meters high and about as wide, it includes a platform placed on four different columns. The decoration of the parapet, populated by large figures in relief, is of great value. From the left, in an anti-clockwise direction, the symbols of the evangelists are distinguished (ox, angel, winged lion and eagle) alternating with allegorical scenes representing the struggle between good and evil (deer attacked by a sagittarius centaur, victorious griffin on the crocodile-dragon). And then there is a mysterious and hieratic figure (on the front corner of the side facing the right aisle) on whose meaning it has long been speculated without arriving at any certain result.

A final peculiarity of the basilica is represented by the fact that on various frescoes there are numerous graffiti engraved between the beginning of the XVI and the end of the XVII century. It should be noted that these are not scribbles of casual visitors, in fact they are in good Latin, sometimes they are made with a particular writing, sometimes they talk about famous people or important events. Although they represent a damage from an artistic point of view, they constitute a valuable source of historical information.

Categories: Places of historical value of artistic value

Isola San Giulio, 28016 Orta San Giulio NO
Further pictures of Basilica of San Giulio in the section Photography
Orta San Giulio (Novara, Italy): The Basilica of San Giulio seen from Pella
Orta San Giulio (Novara, Italy): Apses of the Basilica of San Giulio
Orta San Giulio (Novara, Italy): Chapel of the third right span of the Basilica of San Giulio
Orta San Giulio (Novara, Italy): Platform of the ambo in the Basilica of San Giulio
Orta San Giulio (Novara, Italy): Doctors of the Church on the vault of the third right span of the Basilica of San Giulio
Orta San Giulio (Novara, Italy): Left arm of the transept of the Basilica of San Giulio
Orta San Giulio (Novara, Italy): Central nave of the Basilica of San Giulio
Orta San Giulio (Novara, Italy): Chapel of the second right span of the Basilica of San Giulio
Orta San Giulio (Novara, Italy): Apse and interior of the tiburium of of the Basilica of San Giulio
Orta San Giulio (Novara, Italy): Seraphim frescoe in the Basilica of San Giulio
Orta San Giulio (Novara, Italy): Pulpits and choirs in the Basilica of San Giulio