The Sanctuary of Santa Maria alla Fontana: a place hidden among Milan’s skyscrapers

Santa Maria alla Fontana
Cloister of Santa Maria alla Fontana, Milan

Although Milan is now increasingly caught up in that urban renewal that is clearly changing its morphology, one area where this redevelopment is more noticeable is undoubtedly the Isola district. Between mirrored skyscrapers, the Bosco Verticale [Vertical Forest] and other unusual buildings, here modern architecture interacts very closely with the most characteristic districts, like the famous railing houses, and buildings from Milan’s historical past, creating interesting stylistic combinations between the various architectures.

Between the hustle and bustle and comings and goings on the streets in the district, there is also the Sanctuary of Santa Maria alla Fontana, whose name “alla Fontana” refers to a fountain inside the sanctuary and dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Perhaps because the church is set back from the sidewalk, or because of its modest-looking brick exterior, this artistic treasure trove is not very well known and definitely deserves more attention, both from the Milanese themselves and passing tourists.

The story of the construction of the complex began right after this fountain worked a miraculous healing: in 1507 the French governor Charles II of Amboise, after having used water from the fountain, made a promise to the Virgin to consecrate a sanctuary in that place, should he have been healed. That same date is also recalled today by a plaque inside the church stating that September 29, 1507 was the date on which the first stone was laid.
Other names of the caliber of Leonardo da Vinci and Giovanni Antonio Amadeo, both proposed as architects for the design of the church, took part in events regarding the Sanctuary, closely connected to the Milan of the 16th century.

Umbrella vault of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria alla Fontana, Milan

The uniqueness, like the magic that surrounds the actual Sanctuary, also lies in its shielded entrance, since one can only enter the lower level, where it is located, by going around the church to the right.
Descending a staircase, you are welcomed into one of the two cloisters that adjoin the central core of the Sanctuary, where the fountain is kept. This locus amoenus, where peace and astonishment reign, invites you to let yourself go into deep contemplation. It is quite hard to believe that the traffic and noise of the city are only a flight of stairs away. Once inside the cloister, the sound of the incessant gushing of the fountain inside the sacellum will invite you to go in.

In the intimacy of this sacred space, the other sense that comes alive after your hearing is your sight. On the walls and vaulted ceiling is a variety of fresco decorations, made between 1600 and 1700 in different painting campaigns, including some attributed to the school of Bernardino Luini. A grotesque decoration also appears on the vaulted ceiling of the former sacristy, as well as the figures of the twelve apostles inside the twelve segments of an umbrella vault with the God the Father, Blessing, in the center.

The fountain was closed in the 19th century after a fire. Today the water that spouts from the eleven spigots comes from the city aqueduct, but in no way does this mitigate that mysticism and devotion of the wonderworking of water, the thaumaturgy of the past.

Water nozzles of the source of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria alla Fontana, Milan

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FrescosLombardyMilanReligious architectureRenaissance