Long attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance sanctuary of Santa Maria alla Fontana is one of the most secret and poetic places in the city.
The site was originally in the middle of the countryside, beyond the Porta Comasina city gateway, and the sanctuary was founded in 1507 by Charles II d’Ambroise, governor of Milan, on behalf of Louis XII of France. According to tradition, Charles II, who suffered from eye disease, used the waters of a spring on this site and vowed that should they cure him he would build a sanctuary in honour of the Virgin Mary. He is then said to have commissioned Leonardo to build it. However, recently discovered documents show that the architect was actually Giovanni Antonio Amado. Initially entrusted to the Benedictine monks of San Simpliciano, this sanctuary – together with the Ca Granda and Il Lazzaretto – became one of the three lynchpins of the city’s health service.
Inside you can still see the old frescoes attributed to Luini’s workshop. There is also a plaque commemorating the foundation of the sanctuary on 29 September 1507.
Within the sacellum, initially open on three sides so that the sick could hear Mass from outside, the altar stands just opposite the hole from which the water flows endlessly through eleven different taps. The ceiling is striking as it consists of a coloured spherical vault divided by twelve ribs, unique in Italy. At the end of the vault the figure of God blessing those below is not only painted on the surface, it is carved into the wood and modelled in the plaster.
The figures between the ribs are the twelve Apostles – or rather, eleven plus St Paul after his conversion. Attributed to the sixteenth-century Campi brothers, the large painting behind the altar depicts the Virgin and Child woth cherubs and archangels; at her feet is a solitary man, shown first stricken with sickness, then cured.