The Jesuit church of S. Fedele in Milan: description of its origin

S. Fedele di Milano, tempio per belleza, e vaguezza di architettura e d’invenzione,

singolarissimo tra le fabbriche moderne, uscito dal divino ingegno di

Pellegrino Pellegrini, ed altri che a questa sono esperti […]

Giovan Paolo Lomazzo, Trattato dell’arte della pittura, scultura ed architettura, 1584.


The innovative design of the nave and façades of S. Fedele in Milan was praised almost immediately after its dedication by Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan, on June 1579. The architectural and artistic program of the Jesuit church was completed during several phases of planning and construction that started in 1567 when the Society of Jesus in Milan announced their intention to build up a spot to preach and hear confessions. Leonetto Chiavone, then Jesuit rector, agreed with Carlo Borromeo, to commission Pellegrino Tibaldi (Puria di Valsolda 1527- Milan 1596), a versatile and non-jesuit artist, to designing the new building. Tibaldi’s drawing plan was sent to Rome for the approval of Giovanni Polanco, the Jesuits General secretary. Once in Rome, Giovanni Tristano, consiliarius aedilicius, main architect of the Society of Jesus, gave his opinion and then the plan was accepted with minor modifications. The response signed by January 17th 1568, established that Tibaldi had to include into his project a pulpit and a single portal with a protrude jamb.

Derek Moore’s dissertation defends the possibility that Leonetto Chiavone were behind the choice of Tibaldi as architect for S. Fedele. By 1563 Giovanni Tristano was the only architectural authority among the order in Rome. He accomplished good tasks as a supervisor expert but he was not considered with the capacity of invention, boldness and versatility required for the Jesuit enterprise in Milan. It seems that Borromeo, concerned with the quality of the church to be built in his city, agreed with Chiavone that Tibaldi were named the designer for the church. Since July 1567 Tibaldi was appointed as the major architect of Milan cathedral.

Under the protection of Borromeo, Tibaldi had been focused on projects of architecture. In addition to his appointment as architect at the Duomo, his duties as official visitator and technical advisor of Carlo Borromeo in the diocese implied the proposal of the necessary changes to bring the churches into line with the Tridentine decrees.

Before building process began at S. Fedele, Borromeo called Tibaldi to work in three significant projects: The Collegio Borromeo in Pavia (1564); the canons’ courtyard and residence at the archbishopric complex in Milan (1565) and the new presbytery structures in the cathedral of Milan.

It has been repeated the notion that S. Fedele is one of the best examples of Counter –reformation churches, projecting a typical Jesuit construction with a single nave and theatrical use of light at the altar. And it has been also stressed the role of Carlo Borromeo, as the patron and director of a project who pretended to transform the city into a bastion of Catholic faith in North Italy. (Haslam, 1975:131,134)

However, scholars as Derek Moore (1998), Stefano Della Torre and Richard Schofield (1994) have studied the church of S. Fedele as one of the Jesuit’s enterprises more random, variable and adaptable to the urban surroundings under the practical requirements of the Society (related to their goal of obtaining the houses around the piazza based on the social networks of the order in Milan). They have argued that S. Fedele does not fit the stereotype of a Jesuit structure. When considering S. Fedele one of the first new temples built by the Society in Italian territories, it is necessary to understand its construction process in relation to the local tradition in Milan and to other projects initiated by Society, acknowledging the diversity and heterogeneity that make “the Jesuit enterprise both rich and hard to define” (Bailey, 1999: 68). For example, it’s known that during mid-16th Century, the project by Galeazzo Alessi for the façade of S. Maria presso S. Celso in Milan, was admired and studied by the architects established in Milan and is more than significant its relation with the scheme of S. Fedele main façade (considering especially the portal projected, the top pediment and the even base of the first section).

More recently, historians have recovered the first ground plan for S. Fedele which was much more modest than the present. It is so interesting to note that Tibaldi had drawn a Greek-cross floor plan, instead of a wide single nave with a tribune in the east - end as was settled (Stefano Della Torre and Richard Schofield, 1994:117-119).

In fact, Tibaldi had to rethink his original project at least three times, in order to adjust the work to the space conditions and the Jesuits necessities. The second plan was for a smaller church (about a half of the size) that occupied the same area and orientation of the Old S. Fedele, which was located close to the current presbytery. In fact, this spot was determined by the urban plan of this part of the city and also, by the position of the piazza that functioned as a kind of atrium arranged Southwest-Northeast.

In the final plan for the Jesuit church, two bays divided the nave. It was built as a hall-like space destined for preaching according to the increasing popularity of the Jesuit’s services. In order to get a broader nave, the Jesuits had to give up the rows of side chapels that were common in latter commissions as happened at Il Gesù in Rome. In S. Fedele, Tibaldi designed “immense niches” rather than chapels.

Another important consideration was the vault ceiling. Leonetto Chiavone defended the vault against the flat ceiling, on the basis of their acoustic. For him and in general for Jesuit architects, the vault was capital to improve the sound during mass ritual.

Tibaldi resolved a ceiling composed by two domical vaults instead of the cross vaults that appeared on the second plan. The vaults are resting on six monolithic columns of pinkish granite (migliarolo) inspired by the remains of Ancient Rome architecture, such as the central halls of the Baths of Docletian. It seems that Chiavone and Tibaldi agreed to assure the quality of the materials used and the novelty of the ornaments and details carefully designed. In fact, all the construction materials were carefully selected from Lombard quarries: the granite columns were extracted from Baveno on Lake Maggiore; the grey stone that dressed the interior is a rock from Trezzo dell’Adda and the block of stone used for the exterior revetment was a pink and orange Triassic sedimentary rock from Angera on Lake Como. The quarries in Angera belonged to Borromeo’s family. (Haslam, 1975: 124).   

The importance of the material selection was connected with the quality and identity of the architectural work. At a certain point, Tibaldi visited the quarry with the stonecutters to determine if the Lombard granite had the properties and dimensions for the gigantic columns.

Jesuits arrived to Milan in 1563, under the command to establish a college. They wanted a space to setting up the college and the residency. Their interest was to find an old monastery with possibilities to renovating it. A church wasn’t a priority at the beginning because they could preach in the Duomo and other churches as the small parish of S. Vito, with the permission granted by Borromeo. The need for a church was only a secondary issue and in fact it’s not know why and when the Jesuits changed their intentions. In the letter sent to Rome with Tibaldi’s designs was not mentioned the Borromeo’s patronage, nor a name that assure the cost of construction. Leonetto Chiavone, played a crucial role in planning the new church. He was responsible for S. Fedele location since his friend, Benedetto Alemanni, a layman who lived in the same neighborhood, suggested the Old parish of s. Fedele as a perfect place for the Jesuits complex. Once Chiavone made his decision, he presented the plan of renovation to Carlo Borromeo.

The site selected by Leonetto Chiavone had many advantages: it belongs to the district of Porta Nuova at the center of the city; the building had a way out to a small piazza which could be adapted in order to gave the façade a significant view, and finally, it was surrounded by houses that could be demolished or rehabilitated for the Jesuits’ church and residency.

The pattern of streets, intersections and the piazza around S. Fedele, gave the church its orientation. Besides, it was near to prominent buildings as Palazzo Marino and the house of Leone Leoni. This spot had put Tibaldi and his patrons in a challenge but also, in a privileged position. 

Leonetto Chiavone persuaded the Milanese lay supporters to contribute with considerable funds for the building process. The municipal government gave another important contribution. Since it’s arrival the Jesuits receive the support and approval of the Spanish governor, the Duke of Sessa.

Carlo Borromeo gave S. Fedele to the Jesuits on 22 March 1567. At the same time, he outlined the intention to bring the relics of St Fideles and St Carpophurus to Milan. The corpi santi of the two martyrs were brought in 1576. The relics were preserved at the abbey church of S. Gratitiano e Felino in Arona (Carlo Borromeo had resided at Angera in Arona for many years before 1560). So, it is very likely that archbishop Borromeo wanted to provide the new church of S. Fedele with the saint relics as a way to recall the beginning of the Christian church. The relics were an excellent device to link the project with the sacred history of the early church, capable to activate the memory as is described in a letter from the rector: “essendo come estinta la memoria” (Moore, 1988: 56).

Borromeo put the prima pietra at S. Fedele in July 1569. One year later from the approval. This delayed was a consequence of the lack of specialized workers. The Jesuits signed a contract with the Scala group masons, a union that holds the Lombard tradition of masons and worked in Palazzo Merino. Only this group could guarantee the quality of the elaborated stone revetment and ornamental scheme that Jesuits looked for.

Even when the General Congregation of 1558 decreed that Jesuit buildings should be neither sumptuous nor novel, with churches exception, the changes and revisions to Tibaldi’s plan for S. Fedele –in order to magnify it–, continued until 17th Century. The construction process covered two long stages: the first campaign of construction went from 1569 to 1595 where the nave and ceiling was built; the second, in 17th century observed the structure of the presbytery, the apse, cupola and sacristy. In all the stages, the architects followed carefully Tibaldi’s drawings. The fact that only the nave was almost entirely the innovative work of Tibaldi, inside and out, was very well known. Years later, Andrea Pozzo reminded the novelty of Tibaldi’s design presenting a longitudinal view of S. Fedele’s single nave on his famous treatise Perspectiva Pictorum et Atchitectorum, vol. 2 (1700).

On his final ground floor plan, Tibaldi’s project managed to maintain the interior of the apse as wide as the nave, while he kept the presbytery at a minimum length because there was not enough space outside; in fact, he took advantage of the maximum possible extension of the site.

Under the supervision of the architect Martino Bassi, the revetment of the north flank was finished in 1591. He made also substantial corrections in the area of the Tribune: the apse and cupola changing its baldachin structure. Bassi proposed a decoration more related to 17th-century taste: a revetment of stucco instead of carved stone and ornamental coffering in the apse. The works on presbytery area began after 1629. The Milanese architect Francesco Maria Ricchini directed the construction. In 1633 he decided to finally build a crypt, putting an end to a long lasting negotiation with the noble locals and wealthy patrons of the church who demanded sacred tombs.

The design of the façade was by Tibaldi. It included ornaments and a lunette with a relief of the martyr Fidelis planned above the portal that was never executed. On the literature, the façade has been compared with the design of Il Gesù stressed the differences between the projects; S. Fedele façade with its single entrance, was more simply, economic and timid than Il Gesù (it had no lower wing or connecting volute forms). In this regard, S. Fedele has been compared to Michelangelo’s façade model for S. Lorenzo in Florence.

Until mid 17th-century the pediment was still empty and the middle sections of the upper cornice were unbuilt (the pediment was finished by Pietro Pestagalli in 1833).

On the interior, the iconographic and functional program from the first phase of construction included only the main altar, and two on the nave with their aedicule. The Jesuits commissioned also the wooden confessionals and coretti, which are balustraded galleries that flanked the niches intended for the music makers or members of the Society, which assisted to sermons in this private areas. There is an internal corridor with spiral stairs to give access to coretti located in the nave; the two of them observed on the wall of the main entrance in the interior façade have only a decorative purpose: to preserve the correct symmetry of the rectangular space, there is no way to get inside.

Following the canonization of Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier in 1622, the Jesuits planned to dedicate the first chapel on the right, empty until then, to the founder of the Society.

The current main altar and marble pavement were installed during 19th Century. Beyond the many constructive phases described, S. Fedele presented late subsequent changes as result of historic facts, the more important modification was done after IIWW when the piazza was bombed. Nowadays, the church is still in use under the Jesuit administration.


Key questions

Does S. Fedele belong to a “pervasive Jesuit architectural style”? Can we say that the scheme of the constructive process of S. Fedele was according to a Jesuit’s ‘way of proceeding’, I mean, the result of the imposition of a corporate strategy deeply rooted in the foundation of the Society of Jesus?

It reflects the ideals of the Counter Reformation churches built under the impulse by Carlo Borromeo?

Can we consider this building as a product of a local tradition taken into account that it was adapted to its urban surroundings from the very beginning?

Scholars had discredited the idea of the Jesuit style; nonetheless, Jesuit foundations are noticeably different from those of other orders. Is it possible a comparison among Jesuit churches and what happen within the American establishments?



Bailey, Gauvin Alexander. “’Le style jésuite n’existe pas’: Jesuit Corporate Culture and the Visual Arts” in The Jesuits. Cultures, Sciences and the Arts 1540-1773, editors, John O’Malley, Gauvin Alexander Bailey, 39-89. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Della Torre, Stefano and Richard Schofield. Pellegrino Tibaldi architetto e il San fedele di Milano. Invenzione e costruzione di una chiesa esemplare. Como: NodoLibri, 1994.

Haslam, Richard. “Pellegrino Tibaldi and the Design of S. Fedele, Milan”. Arte Lombarda 42/43 (1975): 124-153.

Moore, Derek. “Pellegrino Tibaldi’s Church of S. Fedele in Milan: The Jesuits, Carlo Borromeo and religious architecture in the late sixteenth century” PhD dissertation, New York University, 1988.

Pedrocchi, Anna Maria. “Il coro della Chiesa di San Fedele in Milano”. Arte Lombarda 65 (1993): 89-92.

Robertson, Clare. “Two Farnese Cardinals and the Question of Jesuit Taste” in The Jesuits. Cultures, Sciences and the Arts 1540-1773, editors, John O’Malley, Gauvin Alexander Bailey, 134-144. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.