History of the Church of Mt. Carmel

The church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel originated as the “noble chapel to the castle”, beside the extensive walled spaces where militias trained for war and bloody battles. It is not hard to imagine how the church and the cloisters of the Carmelites-the Order having arrived in Milan in around 1250-found themselves involved in unusual forms of assistance and help: tending the wounded, shielding outlaws and promoting pacification, counselling and mediation.

Thus, Carmine started life as an aristocratic church, initially under the Visconti and then, with the Sforza family. It received devotion, worship and honours from some of the leading Milanese families. Held in high regard by the Visconti family, including the Archbishop, Giovanni Visconti, it was Duke Gian Galeazzo who issued the decree allowing the Carmelites to establish themselves on a property bequeathed to them in 1354, in the parish of San Carpoforo by Martino de Capelli; the wording of the bequest was “so that my body can be entombed in the new chapel which is being constructed in the church, that is, in the church of the friars of Holy Mary of Mt. Carmel in Milan. Duke FilippoVisconti, too, was a patron. The church was supported and financed by the Sforza family, by Francesco Sforza, his sons and heirs Galeazzo Maria, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, Gian Galeazzo Maria and lastly, by Ludovico il Moro as well as counsellors, chamberlains and knights of the court which included members of the Simonetta, da Corte and Lampugnani families. In the following years, the Carmine church was dear to many patrician Milanese families who gradually became linked to the successive French, Spanish and Austrian “masters”, rulers of the city.

This wealthy congregation which enriched the church with tombs and noble chapels, source of reliable annual income, was increased from the beginning by several confraternities which included the well-known and powerful School of the Scapular; in the earliest period of the church, up until 1391, it vied for pre-eminence with the no less flourishing “Archconfraternity of the Devotees of the Purification”. This confraternity took its name from the designation of the church, originally dedicated to the Annunciation-as attested by the two bas reliefs on either side of the main entrance- and which it held for several decades before definitely becoming the church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel; after a period of decline, the confraternity was reconstituted in 1511 and established in the chapel of the Purification in the Carmine church.

A Bustling Area

The confraternities had their fixed places in processions, after the nobility, and celebrated the patron saints of the church. Morigi mentions that “the cloth weavers celebrated in the Carmine Church” on the feast of St. Agatha, perhaps convened there by the Confraternity of the Scapular.

The nobles and confraternities certainly provided for the needs of the church but it was mostly the common people-those with a more genuine and simple faith who assembled there for services, bringing their burden of sacrifices, trusting and enduring hope and real gratitude-who consistently gave the little they had, conditioned as they were by the chequered affairs of the powerful.

The quarters around Carmine were crowded and busy with numerous shops and workshops: wine shops, gilders, cloth printers, drapers, barbers, clogmakers, greengrocers, apothecaries, farriers, weavers, washerwomen, blacksmiths and carters. Here and there, above all, in the vast square in front of the church, nearby and near San Carpoforo, elegant dwellings testified to the presence of leading families, such as the Cusanis and austere palaces housed noble colleges such as that of the Jesuits in the former residence of the Umiliati (a religious order) or the Brera Palace; there were painters, notaries and writers as well, and, during the1800s, musicians, composers and singers.

Of all this, little remains nowadays: banks, offices, shops and art galleries have moved in and depopulated the old quarters. Albeit at the expense of another three churches-San Carpoforo, San Protaso in campo intus and Sant’Eusebio-closed down in previous centuries, the parish of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel now numbers fewer than five thousand faithful. However, one characteristic still remains and links the church with its unusual origins: that of being next door to the Headquarters of the 3rd Army Corps. Thus, the age-old proximity of church and army barracks-with tones of great respect and occasional friendly collaboration-still goes on today.

Design and Style

Despite flaws in some of the refurbishing and refinishing, the Carmine Church has kept its fascination The visitor is welcomed into its solemn and vast spaciousness of extreme clarity and exemplary coherency. The austere volume is surprisingly harmonious despite the three naves marked by wide Gothic arches and separated in the centre by the double rows of six massive columns with rustic capitals.

The fundamental colours are three in number: brick-red, in the best Milanese and Lombard tradition, grey-with the odd trace of ‘pink’, left by the brick-coloured plasterwork, added and later removed-of the Angera stone of the columns alternating with the terra cotta and the grey bases and low, wide Gothic capitals and, lastly, white, of the walls and vaults, now restored in place of the heavy, overlaid decoration of the 1700s and 1800s.

A decidedly Lombard spirit, with a vague Cistercian touch can be discerned in the pilasters supported by the capitals of the columns and connected with simple curves; the pilasters support the great pointed arches which divide the central nave, up to where it meets the transept, into three bays with sides double the length of the lateral ones. These smaller naves contribute to the effect of the great sanctity of the interior on the middle nave and crosspieces of the cruciform head.

The obvious inclination of the columns towards the facade testify to the incomplete nature of the structure: in fact, the church should have had another bay but work stopped after the third, perhaps due to lack of funds. It follows that the thrust of the arches behind, left without structures countering this, generated the anomalous lean which was only stabilised by the construction of the massive facade, work directed by Maciachini.

The original designer of this beautiful church and initial project for its construction was drawn up in 1400 by Bernardo da Venezia, at the height of his fame in that period; he was the ducal architect, already involved in a secondary position on the works for the Duomo of Milan as well as being engaged at Pavia. Here, the Duke, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, had entrusted him with the project and construction of the Certosa (harterhouse of the Carthusian Monastery), the church also entitled Carmine, similar to that in Milan and other buildings. In spite of not having completed the construction, he gave the church the characteristics that Pietro Antonio Solari, intervening in the re-construction sixty years later, was obliged to respect and integrate harmoniously by re-utilising the structures which had survived the collapse of 1446.

The columns and part of the vertical structures survived; Solari’s work was principally to reconstruct the arches and vaults, respecting Bernardo’s design, which he did perfectly, as can be seen through comparison with other churches designed by the Venetian architect. In fact, the keystones of the vaults all date to the Sforza era; they bear the insignia of Angelo Simonetta, Ducal Counsellor, who promoted the work, could well have financed much of it and who was entombed in the church in 1472. Thus, this phase of work definitely took place after 1457.

Noteworthy Features of The Church

Three interesting and lesser-known aspects of the church complex merit particular attention.

The first is the Baroque Chapel of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, to the right of the main altar. Originally dedicated to St. Apollonia, it was re-constructed to venerate devotion to the Holy Scapular, a devotion re-activated by the Confraternity or School of the Carmelite Scapular, founded by St. Simon Stock in 1251. It was members of the School who commissioned the work of re-construction, designed by the Milanese architect, Gerolamo Quadrio, in 1673. The chapel was rebuilt using a lavish variety of coloured and black marble facing with abundant decoration and broken-line framing, all in mature Baroque style. The Late Mannerist Aemilian artist, Camillo Procaccini, had previously depicted scenes of Old Testament prophecies and the life of Our Lady in eight big paintings and frescoed the dome, the spandrels of which were decorated by the painter, Stefano Legnano, also known as Legnanino; the sculptor, Giovanni Battista Maestri, known as Volpino, carved the beautiful statue of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, placed on the altar. The Chapel is a very special place, almost as if it were the inside of a jewel box, and, aesthetically quite a contrast to the architectural austerity of the church; however, it expresses the same devoted veneration of Our Lady, to whom the church is dedicated, in the style of the period.

The second remarkable feature of the Carmine complex is the sacristy, the so-called Sacrestia Artistica (Artistic Sacristy or Vestry); the black walnut wardrobes and altar were also designed by Gerolamo Quadrio and made magnificently by the master wood carver, Giovanni Quadrio (1692-1700). The altarpiece of Our Lady handing the Scapular to the Carmelites is outstanding in its creativity and carving. Overall, it is an exemplary expression of Mature Baroque style which involves and overjoys the visitor and, as such, is undoubtedly a masterpiece of the art of the period.

The third element of great interest consists of the examples of Neo-Gothic Lombard art, dating to the end of the 19th. and beginning of the 20th. century. Memorable expressions of this are to be found in the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, the second on the right, restructured by the architect Carlo Maciachini and with paintings by the artist Luigi Morgari; the next chapel, dedicated to the Holy Family, was restructured by the architect Egidio Mazzucchelli and frescoed by the painter Osvaldo Bignami in the same style. Further examples can be seen in the Baptistry, in the first chapel on the left, designed by the architect, Felice Pizzagalli, and in the chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary, the fourth on the left, re-decorated at the beginning of the 20th. century and frescoed by Osvaldo Bignami. A characteristic hallmark of this Neo-Gothic style, well represented in Carmine church, is the facade, designed by Carlo Maciachini; he was a leading architect of the period, the person behind the project for the Monumental Cementery of Milan and in charge of the restructuring of a number of buildings and churches in Milan. He created a terracotta facade over the reinforcing wall in a free, romantic interpretation of the Lombard Gothic style. His academic research, love of archaeology and versatility led him away from re-proposing real Lombard modules, such as those of Pietro Solari, known as more austere, coherent and essential. However, opinion aside, this facade can be seen as an historic work and, as such, undoubtedly and completely authentic. The modern concept of “conserving restoration” would instinctively condemn this type of intervention but it must be seen as an expression of the culture of the time and therefore, to be studied and understood.

Carmine church houses many other lesser-known but significant artworks: paintings by Fiammenghino, Duchino and leading painters of the Lombard Baroque period such as Federico Bianchi and Filippo Abbiati.

Only half of the cloister, part of the original convent complex is still part of the church; the other part, in private hands, has ben restructured but has maintained its external appearance and part of the frescoes which decorated the inner vaults. The Carmine cloister has plaques, coats-of-arms and commemorative stones along its walls, testimony of the past. Its arches are home to the many activities of its lively parish.

There is an interesting detail related to the wooden choir stalls at the back of the presbytery, behind the main altar. Here, fifteen small statues on its gallery and four placed higher up on its outer sides are neither wood nor marble; they are, in fact, the original plaster models of 18th. century statues which were to be placed on the spires of the Cathedral and presented to the Fabbrica del Duomo before they were carved in marble. The Vestry Council of Carmine requested them from the Administration of the Duomo Vestry Council who granted this use after long negotiations. Made by leading sculptors of the Late Neo-Classical and Early Romantic periods, these precious models and identical but larger marble statues looking down from the heights of the Duomo, further strengthen the ties between Carmine church and the Duomo, their famous artists, architects and generous patrons.