Bernabó Visconti, Big Yellow Taxi, Ca' dii can, Castello Sforzesca, Emperor Domitian, Emperor Franz Joseph, Francesco II Sforza, Frederick Barbarossa, Gian Galeazzo, Jerusalem, Joni Mitchell, Milan, Milano, San Giovanni in Conca, St John the Evangelist, Touring Club Italiano, Trezzo d'Adda, Waldensian Church
I now live in Jerusalem. Here, in the Holy City, churches have been damaged, destroyed and demolished by invading marauders, distant caliphs and periodic earthquakes.
In Milan, the damage has been done by its own city council. At least for one former jewel of the city — San Giovanni in Conca. The church was originally built in the fifth or sixth century inside the city’s Roman walls in the middle of present-day Piazza Missori some four hundred meters south of the Duomo. Apparently, San Giovanni’s founders didn’t envision the traffic of late nineteenth-century Milan.
Maybe it’s not exactly ‘They paved paradise to put up a parking lot’ (Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi, 1970) — that would have us incredulously comparing Milan to Hawaii — but it’s Milan’s closest version of it. ‘They tore down the church to put in a traffic lane’. So goes the story of progress in urban Milan in the wake of nineteenth-century national unification and then again after the Second World War.
To be fair, the Germans, Austrians and French had their own role in the church’s demise, but Milan’s city council signed the final death notices.
Maybe there is no reason to think that beautiful ancient churches should have an inherent right to occupy Milan’s modern landscape. Maybe my imagination is overly captured by the reconstructed design of the original church by Francesco Corni. Then, again, I have a thing for medieval Milan.
San Giovanni in Conca, dedicated to St John the Evangelist, measured 53 by 7 meters. It had a single nave with a single, semi-circular apse. For some reason, it was rebuilt in the eleventh centuries upon the same foundations.
Then entered one of Milan’s own invading marauders. Frederick Barbarossa (1122-1190) destroyed the church in 1162. Again, it was rebuilt, this time with a 24-meter bell tower, three aisles, a transept and a central dome topped by a cupola-like structure (architecturally called a lantern). High up on the façade, a central niche housed the bust of St John the Evangelist, represented in a cauldron of boiling oil. According to tradition, the Emperor Domitian immersed the saint in the oil; yet, St John emerged unscathed.
Perhaps, the most storied history of the church is from the late middle ages. In the fourteenth century, the Visconti ruling family of Milan liked the church so much that they enclosed it within their own estate, the so-called ‘Ca’ dii can’ (or ‘House of Dogs’).
Thus, the Visconti family turned San Giovanni in Conca into their own private chapel and burial chambers. Queen Beatrice della Scala was buried there in 1384, followed a year later by her husband, Bernabó Visconti, who was poisoned in Trezzo d’Adda by his nephew, Gian Galeazzo. Bernabò’s funeral monument and equestrian statue, now in the Castello Sforzesca (Sforza Castle Museum), are a separate blog post waiting to happen.
In 1531, Francesco II Sforza donated San Giovanni to the Order of the Carmelites, who constructed a monastery adjacent to the church. They raised the bell tower, and the interior of the church was transformed into a baroque building. A new baroque façade was placed on the building.
Tragedy befell the church in the modern era. St John surviving the clutches of Emperor Domitian was a dawdle compared to San Giovanni’s plight against the forces of modernity. The cauldron of boiling oil remained frozen in stone as the saint looked on helplessly from his sacred perch.
First, the church was deconsecrated by Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria in 1872, and then closed by the French and used as a warehouse. Milan’s city council stepped in following the Unification of Italy to further seal the fate of the church, deciding in 1877 to create via Carlo Alberto, today via Mazzini, through the area occupied by the church.
Then enter a role played by a rather interesting protagonist. In 1879, the city council allowed the Waldensian Church — a pre-Reformation Protestant group long persecuted by the Catholic Church — to take over the space. With the help of architect Angelo Colla, the church, now gutted of its nave and aisles, was drastically shortened with a neo-Gothic façade now attached to the apse. The ‘new’ Waldensian church was dedicated on May 8, 1881.
The story begs creative interpretation. Did the Waldensian Church, which only gained legal freedom in Italy in 1848, finally ‘get a piece’ of the Catholic Church and with it yet more de facto recognition? Or, did the Waldensians once again get ‘short-shrifted’? Perhaps, neither. But for a tradition that has often recoiled at all things Catholic, what a beauty irony to worship within the truncated walls of one of Milan’s most hallowed catholic foundations.
And the story only gets better.
After World War II, the inevitable creepage of modernity finally condemned the building to near oblivion. The Milan city council finally finished what Barbarossa had started in 1162. The church was demolished between 1948 and 1952 in order to fully develop via Albricci and Piazza Missori. Even so, the underground crypt and sections of the apse were retained. It is not so clear, however, whether the self-inflicted ruins stand as a memorial to the ancient church or as a tribute to the follies of modernity. In the meantime, the Waldensians, once again, had to flee for cover. This time to nearby to via Francesco Sforza — taking per forza their now-cherished façade with them! The new building, fitted with its old face, was dedicated in 1949.
The Touring Club Italiano now manage the ruins of San Giovanni in Conca. Barring traffic (!), the crypt is open Monday – Saturday, 9:30 – 17:30, which ironically are better hours than most of Milan’s free-standing churches.