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Early Modern

Behind San Satiro's architectural secret

Discovering the visual deception created by the renowned Renaissance architect Donato Bramante
Ptolemy
20 May, 2022

Everyone visits the famous Milan Cathedral, but hardly anyone knows that just a few streets away lies a hidden jewel of Italian Renaissance art with a unique feature.

This church is "Santa Maria Presso San Satiro", and its access is almost hidden from the bustling adjacent Via Torino.

The construction of today's church began at the end of the 15th century CE at the behest of Duke Gian Galeazzo Sforza. Works continued under the Milanese Duke Ludovico Il Moro (Ludovico Maria Sforza), who called upon the renowned Donato Bramante as the architect. The Duke of Milan set himself the goal of embellishing the city, attracting the most famous and renowned artists to his court, and making Milan a pearl of the Italian „Risorgimento“.

Detail of Ludovico Sforza, in a painting of Francesco Podesti
Detail of Ludovico Sforza, in a painting of Francesco Podesti

The space behind the transept, the traverse part across the main body of the building, was occupied by the ancient medieval district ”Contrada del Falcone”, now Via Falcone, so the building site was restricted to a short length.

Bramante brilliantly solved the problem. By creating reliefs and mouldings, he painted them to form a perspective joint that simulated a space equal to the arms of the 9.7 meters transept in 97 centimetres depth.

Visitors looking frontally at the altar from the central aisle are deceived by this game of depth, but as they get closer, it is possible to see the 'trick' intended by the artist.

Frontal view of the transept behind the altar (by Zairon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Side view of the transept behind the altar (by Zairon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
What was an initial architectural problem is now the church’s main curious feature, making it a unique example of its kind.

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