Small on the outside, big on the inside, Santa Maria presso San Satiro (Saint Mary near Saint Satyrus) is a Renaissance church located in the heart of Milan, in a narrow street just a few blocks away from Duomo Cathedral, one of the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals in the world and the most famous landmark in the city.
It houses the early medieval shrine to Satyrus (331-378), brother of Saint Ambrose (340-397), who has played a remarkable role in the history of the city.
He was a Roman Governor who miraculously became the Bishop of Milan in the year 374. His brother Satyrus unexpectedly died shortly after in the year 378 and was venerated by Ambrose himself.
The church is an astonishing act of visual deception.
Many popular architects and painters participated in creating the wonders of renaissance Italy, but it takes a special kind of talent to fit a big church on a really tiny plot.
Donato Bramante, the great Marche-born architect, was such a man.
The church lies on the site of a primitive worship place erected by the archbishop Anspertus in 879, dedicated to Saint Satyrus, confessor and brother of Saints Ambrose and Marcellina. The current church was instead built from 1472 to 1482 under commission from Duchess Bona di Savoia and Duke Gian Galeazzo Sforza of Milan, who commissioned a new church for his city.
His ambitions were great, but the location available to him was limited by the presence of the busy Via Falcone behind it.
And, in fact, many famous architects designing churches in those days had to deal with the extreme shortage of space.
It seems that the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro was half finished when Donato Bramante, who had designed it and was directing its construction, received a letter by the city administration, forbidding him from taking over the road behind the building.
For this reason the choir, the space behind the altar, had to be truncated, making the church awkwardly short, of only 90 cm.
Faced with such an obstacle, Bramante devised an ingenious solution, by painting an amazing optical illusion.
Bramante had designed a Latin cross structure with the apse in the upper arm, and the letter was forcing him to give up ten meters of room.
Far from being discouraged, he designed what is now considered a masterpiece of “architectura ficta”, in which, for the first time in history, as expert Filippo Camerota has explained in one of his books: “perspective stopped being a painting problem applied to architecture, and fully became architecture itself: ‘prospectiva aedificandi’.”
The tromp l’oeil apse, Camerota continues, became the center of its surrounding “spaces, both real and represented. The illusion of its extending as much as one of the arms in the transept restores the ‘static’ and composition balance of the dome, which would otherwise seem skewed, and thus recovers its role as a focal point“.
Trompe-l’œil, or architectural optical illusion was popular in late renaissance and baroque, but Bramante took the visual deception to an entirely new level.
Standing at the entrance of the building one has an impression of a much deeper space, extending further behind the altar than is physically possible. The optical illusion is also helped by the light conditions inside the building and such illusion, of course, quickly disappears as one steps aside from the main axis of the church.
But step back and the magic reappears.
Well…according to some sources, the designer was really Donato Bramante, who had recently moved from the Marche. However, recent documents prove that he actually had a minor role, with most of the work being attributable to Giovanni Antonio Amadeo, who designed the façade, but It is certain that Bramante is responsible for the sacristy perspective, one of the first examples of trompe-l’œil in history of art.
Bramante first introduced Renaissance architecture to Milan and eventually moved to Rome following the demise of Duke Ludovico Sforza.
Here he introduced the High Renaissance architectural style with his famous Tempietto, one of the most remarkable little structures ever built during this period in history.
He eventually ended up becoming the original designer of Saint Peter’s Basilica, one of most famous church in the world which ended up being completed by Michelangelo.
In any case, like religious belief itself, correctly seeing Bramante’s Santa Maria presso San Satiro church is all about perspective and faith.
And it’s worth a visit, as there aren’t many places like this in Milan: small, half-hidden, and ready to reveal themselves only to those who know how to discover them.