Church of San Maurizio

Corso Magenta 15 • M1/M2 Cadorna
Info: tel. 0286450011. Admission free.

Open: Tues-Sun 9.00-12.00, 14.00-17.30, Mon closed.

This church, alongside the Archeological Museum, occupies a  portion of an ancient Benedictine convent known as Monastero Maggiore, which is composed by an ample hall  belonging to the claustral area, and a smaller sanctuary for the public.

Both contain a complete cycle of frescoes dating to the 16th century, with work by various Lombard painters, above all Bernardino Luini, and his sons Aurelio and Giovan Pietro. The quality of the painting in many of the frescoes and the bright colour makes the visit very worthwhile.

A pageant of frescoes at San Maurizio
The stern stone façade dating to the early 16th century is pure Renaissance but with a markedly Venetian appearance. Inside, the church is frescoed from floor to ceiling with a lovely cycle of paintings, realized over a period of about 70 years from 1510 on. Bernardino Luini is not exactly a name that rings a bell, but, using the difficult fresco technique, he created a sequence of breathtakingly beautiful scenes. Just look at the left-hand panels on the screen dividing the church into an area for the congregation, and an area behind for the nuns who were allowed no contact with the outside world: at the top, there is the dramatic scene of Maurizio about to be beheaded. The saint is kneeling close to the picture plane, implying that his head, once severed, will fall out into the spectator’s space in the church. Underneath, the donor, the person who paid for much of the decoration, Alessandro Bentivoglio, is beautifully portrayed, kneeling in front of St. Stephen (shown pointing to the stones with which he was martyred), St. Benedict and John the Baptist. On the other side, Alessandro’s wife Ippolita, in sumptuous white gown, is supported by three female saints, amongst whom Catherine, with her wheel. And so it goes on, on both sides of the screen: restoration is still continuing, and has revealed superb colour and above all a remarkable sense of unity. Bernardino died in about 1530, but work was continued by his sons Aurelio and Giovan Pietro; other artists were also involved.

Right alongside the church is the Archeology Museum, installed in what remains of the monastic premises. On the basement floor, one can see a massive section of Ancient Roman walling: this is in fact part of the foundations of the city walls, but they have been toppled over. According to tradition, this is part of the destruction wrought by Milan’s enemies in distant 1162. Back on the ground floor, the inner cloister looks onto a garden in which part of the brick Roman walls survive, along with a 24-sided tower. The cloister itself was in part demolished by the 1943 air-raids, as you can see from the truncated row of arches. For another tantalizing glance of what Milan once was, walk down Via Luini, and on the right you will see a square tower, apparently the church’s belltower. In fact it was once part of the Roman “circus” or horse-racing circuit, a gigantic construction that extended to 180 metres south of where San Maurizio is now.