The Santi Ambrogio e Carlo is undeniably the largest church along the famous Via del Corso. The gigantic edifice is dedicated to two saints that have close ties with the city of Milan and the region of Lombardy, i.e. Ambrosius (ca. 340-397) and Carlo Borromeo (1538-1584). The dedication to the two saints is also mentioned on the façade of the church:
DIVIS AMBROSIO ET CAROLO DICATVM
Both men served as (arch)bishop of Milan. In many sources the church is simply called San Carlo al Corso and Ambrosius is omitted. I can think of two explanations for this omission. One is that “Carlo al Corso” just sounds better because of the alliteration, another that while the church does possess an important relic of Carlo Borromeo, it has no relics at all of Ambrosius. The relic of Carlo Borromeo is the saint’s heart, which is kept in a niche in the ambulatory. His body, by the way, rests in the Duomo of Milan, while the remains of Ambrosius can be found in the church of Sant’Ambrogio – founded by the saint himself – in the same city. For the sake of simplicity I will call the church “San Carlo” in this post.
The current church is the successor of a small church called San Niccolò del Tufo. This church stood just south of the San Carlo and was dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Myra. In the fifteenth century Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) granted it to a lay confraternity from Lombardy, which decided to co-dedicate the edifice to Ambrosius of Milan. When Carlo Borromeo was canonised in 1610, a plan was hatched to build a much larger church. The new church was to be constructed north of the San Niccolò and to be jointly dedicated to Ambrosius and Carlo (but not to Saint Nicholas). On 29 January 1612 the foundation stone for the church was laid under the direction of the architect Onorio Longhi (1568-1619). It is often suggested that his father Martino Longhi the Elder (1534-1591) had designed the building. However, this Martino Longhi died in 1591, which was well before Carlo Borromeo’s canonisation and the laying of the foundation stone. Therefore the suggestion does not seem to be very plausible. Nevertheless, it is true that the San Carlo is more or less a family project, as the interior of the church was largely designed by Onorio’s son Martino Longhi the Younger (1602-1660).
The church has an enormous dome which was completed in 1668 by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669). The dome can be seen very well from various spots in the city, for instance from the Spanish Steps. The Ara Pacis near the river Tiber not only gives a good view of the dome, but also of the choir and ambulatory of the church. The façade of the San Carlo was completed in 1684, and its completion marked the end of the construction activities. The façade is vast and imposing, but it looks like it could do with a little maintenance. Flakes of paint are visible in several places, and it appears that maintenance in general is a problem for this church. At the end of the twentieth century serious issues regarding the stability of the building were discovered. The church was even in danger of collapsing and thorough restorations were necessary. The church is still in the possession of the lay confraternity from Lombardy, but it is administered by the Fathers of Charity, or Rosminians (see Rome: San Giovanni a Porta Latina).
Things to see
An artist who left a lot of work in this church was the painter Giacinto Brandi (1621-1691). I have previously discussed one of his ceiling frescoes, and in the church of San Carlo he also decorated the ceiling. The fresco, painted between 1677 and 1679, represents the Fall of the rebel angels and is surrounded by stucco decorations made by the brothers Giacomo Antonio (1606-1674) and Cosimo Fancelli (1618-1688). Brandi also painted the pendentives of the dome, where we find four prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. The frescoes in the choir were made by Brandi as well. On the barrel vault he painted the apotheosis of Carlo Borromeo and in the apse the saint among the victims of a plague. I do not mean to be disrespectful, but the saint has a strikingly large nose. The depiction of the nasal organ is correct though, as is proven by other portraits of Carlo Borromeo.
The gigantic altarpiece in the apse is by Carlo Maratta (1625-1713). He painted it between 1685 and 1690. Here Saint Ambrosius finally enters the stage; the altarpiece features him kneeling on the ground with a book in his lap. One level up Carlo Borromeo is kneeling on a cloud. He is introduced to Christ by the Virgin Mary. Below Christ we read the Latin word humilitas, humility. The sculptures in the apse are by Cosimo Fancelli again. If you are looking for the heart of Carlo Borromeo, just follow the ambulatory and you will find a niche with a gilded reliquary. Above it we see a bust of the saint with folded hands. The large painting on the back wall was made by a painter from the school of the aforementioned Carlo Maratta.
Much excellent art can admired in the chapels of the San Carlo. The first chapel on the right for instance has a nice wooden altar from the sixteenth century. It is gilded and features a crucifix by Francesco Cavallini (ca. 1640-1703), who must of course not be confused with the medieval painter Pietro Cavallini. Truly spectacular are the chapels in the transept. The chapel on the right is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and dates from 1769. The altarpiece is a mosaic of the Immaculate Conception and four Doctors of the Church. It is a copy of a painting by Carlo Maratta in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. That church is located about 750 metres north of the San Carlo and can easily be reached by simply following the Via del Corso. The chapel of the Immaculate Conception has another fresco by Giacinto Brandi and sculptures by the Fancelli brothers. However, the remarkable statue of king David and his harp was made by the French sculptor André-Jean Lebrun (1737-1811).
The opposite chapel in the left transept closely resembles the chapel of the Immaculate Conception, but it was fitted out much later, in 1929 (!) to be exact. The architect was Cesare Bazzani (1873-1939), known for his work in Assisi. The altarpiece is seventeenth-century again. It was painted by Tommaso Donini, also known as Il Caravaggino (1601-1637), a follower of Caravaggio who died young.
The third chapel on the left is dedicated to a remarkable saint, i.e. King Olaf II of Norway. In 1030 he was murdered or killed in battle, and almost immediately the Norwegians started venerating him as a saint. Pope Alexander III (1159-1181) formally canonised him in 1164. On the altarpiece in the chapel we see the king treading on a dragon. He has just planted his large battle-axe into the animal. The painting was made by the Polish painter and sculptor Pius Weloński (1849-1931). Above the king we see a reference to Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903). In 1843 this Vincenzo Gioacchino Pecci – as he was still called back then – had been appointed archbishop of Damietta in Egypt. In 1893 he celebrated his 50th anniversary as bishop, and on that occasion he was presented with the painting. The painting refers to this event with the words ANN. EPISCOPATVS L (‘his 50th year as bishop’). When a Norwegian chapel was created in the San Carlo, it was decided to hang the painting featuring Saint Olaf there.
I personally think the work on the right wall of the Norwegian chapel is much more interesting. It features the Holy Family and was painted by Cristoforo Roncalli (ca. 1553-1626), also known as Il Pomarancio (there were more painters with this nickname, which by the way simply refers to the Tuscan town of Pomarance). On the way to the exit I also found a wall monument for Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, who between 1876 and 1905 served as bishop of Piacenza. In 1997 he was beatified. The wall monument dates from 1912 and – if I understand correctly – refers to Scalabrini’s trip to ‘the two Americas’, which is a reference to the United States and Brazil. These countries had large Italian immigrant communities. The wall monument is certainly not a tomb. The bishop was laid to rest in his own cathedral in Piacenza, where villains stole valuable objects from his coffin in 2013.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009, p. 141;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 298;
- San Carlo al Corso on Churches of Rome Wiki.