The history of the church of Santa Maria della Carità is closely connected to the Brescian noblewoman Laura Gambara (ca. 1490-1549). She spent a large part of her life tending to the needs of vulnerable women. And there were plenty of vulnerable women to protect, for the years after the Sack of Brescia by French troops in 1512 took a heavy toll on the city. In the 1530s, Gambara founded the Conservatorio delle Convertite della Carità, which allowed victims of sexual assault, but also former prostitutes to start a new life, guided by religion. In the 1540s, Gambara had a church built, but it should be noted that this is not the current Santa Maria della Carità. Between 1640 and 1655 her church was completely rebuilt by the architect Agostino Avanzo (ca. 1585-1665).
Avanzo’s church is an octagonal building. Visitors usually only realise this once they are inside, for the shape of the church is well hidden by the beautiful, but fairly simple façade. If we take a look at this façade, we first of all notice the four painted niches, two of which have a statue (also painted). The portal, which was added in 1744, is very nice. The two grey columns on either side of the entrance were taken from the cathedral of San Pietro, the former summer cathedral of Brescia that was demolished in 1603 to make way for the Duomo Nuovo. The columns themselves are probably a lot older; they must have been taken from a Roman building as spolia. About halfway up the façade we see two angels at the corners. They were made by Antonio Ferretti and Alessandro Calegari (died 1765). The angel on the right is holding a scale model of the Holy House of Loreto. We will see this House again once we are inside the church.
Starting in 1730, the interior was given a thorough makeover. Painters such as Giuseppe Orsoni (1691-1755), Bernardino Boni (died 1774) and Ferdinando Cairo (1665-1743 or 1748) showed their talents by painting the walls and the dome. Together they were responsible for the opulent Baroque interior that we see today. The side altars feature older works by Antonio Gandino (1560-1631) and Francesco Paglia (1635-1714), while the enormous high altar dates from the eighteenth century. The altarpiece of the Vergine dei Terragli (Virgin of Crockery), however, was painted at the end of the fourteenth century or the beginning of the fifteenth. It is alternatively known as the Madonna della Carità.
The chapel behind the high altar is a rather curious creation. Here we find a replica of the Santa Casa di Loreto, the Holy House of the Virgin Mary in Loreto in the Marche. This is the house were the Virgin is supposed to have lived in Nazareth in the Holy Land. According to tradition, it was taken from Nazareth to Italy by angels, who seem to have taken a detour along the way. The house arrived in Italy in 1294, and the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto has been an important destination for pilgrims for hundreds of years. Dutch winemaker Ilja Gort visited the Basilica not long ago, as is demonstrated by this movie (the relevant fragment starts around 10:00). Unfortunately I do not know why a replica of the Holy House was put in place here in Brescia. I must say the construction is rather fascinating, even for people who are sceptical about the story.
- Evert de Rooij, Lombardije Oost, p. 71;
- Italian Wikipedia.