Archaeology of the tracks

The case of the basilica of S. Simpliciano in Milan
Church of San Simpliciano, Milan; current status

In the architectural field, an important theme is the attention to the material and the traces inherent in it, often the only witnesses of the building’s life stage. Whether you approach, it’s important not to neglect the analysis of the details which, if eliminated, would cause irreversible loss of information.

The basilica of San Simpliciano, located in the square of the same name in Milan, with its long history, has many traces and demonstrates how it is enough to start from a reading of them to expand the knowledge of architectural evolution that made it as it is today. Following is the case of stratigraphic analysis of the South elevation of the transept started following the arched trace on the internal side of the central buttress.

Detail of the arched trace at the inner side of the central buttress of the transept
Detail of the arched trace at the inner side of the central buttress of the transept
The monument

The building of early Christian origin underwent numerous changes in the Lombard, Romanesque and then Baroque phases, when the external arcades were converted into chapels. Moving on to the restorations, the most important are the “ristauro universale” by Giulio Aluisetti in 1841 and the stylistic restoration of Carlo Maciachini in 1870 to which the neo-Romanesque façade is due. The last interventions made in 1959 and 1972 concerning the apse and the last early Christian parts. Given the long history to date, the structure is a palimpsest for stratigraphic approaches from which any restoration intervention should not ignore.

Study methodology

Assuming that a correct study must always look at the totality of the building, here in order to show how the analysis of a single part can also provide useful data from which to start, we show what has been done on the southern transept. Following the archaeological methods of stratigraphic analysis, we started by identifying the negative or positive (US) stratigraphic units (US) on the elevations of the transept, i.e. all those units that show a phase, an action or a lack of these contact points have been studied to deduce the relative stratigraphic sequence, i.e. which part comes before or after.

Transept elevation of San Simpliciano
Transept elevation of San Simpliciano with mapping by perimeter of the stratigraphic units and indication by arrows of the stratigraphic relationships
Stratigraphic deductions

Through the aforementioned studies it was possible to highlight how the façade narrates several phases characterized by openings, window closings, cuts of protruding spurs and curtain walls, also connected to changes in masonry techniques. Deepening the trace near the buttress, it refers to the footprints usually left by times and then removed. If this were the case, then there would be evidence of a vaulted roof of structures that had to be attached here. An important element of comparison is given by the 1760 print representing the church, made by Giulio Cesare Bianchi.

Print by Giulio Cesare Bianchi, 1760
Giulio Cesare Bianchi, Milan, basilica of San Simpliciano, 1760

As you can see in the area of our interest there is a volume leaning against the transept. Another source is a postcard with the church at the same angle as the print.

Postcard with a historical photo of S. Simpliciano
Milan, basilica of San Simpliciano

The aforementioned volume is missing this time, but we can see plasters on the walls that underline the shape of our trace. These clues could be seen as confirmation of the presence of a vaulted structure that no longer exists at the time the photo was taken. The dating of the postcard is not known, but by evaluating the details, references can be identified. For example, the window on the left side of the transept has undergone the top modification from architrave to semicircular documented among the restorations by Aluisetti; this could serve as a guide to frame the photo after 1841. It is then possible to raise the dating again to after 1870 as the facade seems to have already undergone the intervention of Maciachini.

This image is important because it would prove that at the end of the 19th century the volume documented by the oldest print was no longer present but the plaster still remained. This, now removed, would confirm that the trace of our interest is the remaining sign of the vault that was to be grafted here and against which the covering itself ended. As for the identification of the volume, doubts still remain. A clue can be seen in the chronological framework proposed by Claudio Batistini, in which he lists the main events of the church and marks that in 1798 «vengono demoliti l’oratorio di S. Giovanni Battista e la cappella del Corpus Domini posta nella parete meridionale del transetto destro» (Batistini 1979).  It could therefore be thought that the chapel in question could be precisely the volume seen in the 1760 print and absent in fact in the postcard.

In order to substantiate the above, further analyzes cannot be ignored, however it is reiterated that the purpose of the reported work is to show how a search can be initiated from simple traces that often risks being deleted from the restorations without first being followed. An analysis like the present one, made with the right approaches, is undoubtedly a simple but important tool not only for the study of the building itself, but also as a preliminary study for interventions. To support any hypothesis on history, however, as archaeology teaches, a fundamental point is the comparison of data. In this case, the research went beyond the direct vision alone, relating to historical views. The interesting fact to highlight is just how the traces fit together as if they were pieces of a puzzle that is up to us, however, to take care to trace, understand and reconstruct.


Lucrezia Longhitano

Graduated in Archaeology at the University of Catania, in 2020 she obtained a specialization in the study and restoration of buildings at the School of Specialization in Architectural and Landscape Heritage of the Politecnico di Milano. Specialized in Architectural Archaeology, she has had experience in the stratigraphic, autopsy study and diagnostics on buildings. She is currently a PhD student in ‘Scienze per il Patrimonio e la Produzione culturale’ at the University of Catania and works as a freelancer with interdisciplinary teams.


Giuseppe Antonio Longhitano

Freelance architect, Technical Director of an SOA certified company with prevalent OG2 category; for years he has been involved in historical works and has been involved in scientific research applied to Conservative Restoration. Sole owner of several patent works including "Procedure for the formulation of Natural Mortars with a new natural hydraulic binder" to be applied to the monumental works being restored; for this he boasts several conferences and publications, national and international.


Santi Maria Cascone

Engineer, full professor of Technical Architecture at the University of Catania, he taught Restoration and Conservation of Buildings in the degree course of the University of Messina and Architectural Restoration at the University of Catania. Currently, he is the holder of the Technical Architecture course in the Master's Degree in Building Engineering and Architecture of Catania; president of the Joint Committee of the Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture of the University of Catania; coordinator of the Master in Afire Engineering; member of the board of the ArTec Scientific Society of Technical Architecture. He is the author of monographs and more than 100 articles of scientific relevance.