At a glance
A visitor to the Church of San Lorenzo – a veritable work of art – reaches piazza Castello and sees no façade marking the church. Piazza Castello is a square with a theatre without a façade (Regio), a façade of a palace (Madama) with no corresponding palace, and a church without a façade. One in fact was designed but never built to maintain the architectural harmony of the square.
The church is next to the gates of the royal palace.
On the church front there is a plaque commemorating the dead on the Russian front and above a bell that strikes 10 times at 5.15 p.m. every day.
Why is this Royal Chapel dedicated to San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence)
In 1557, Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy, and his cousin Phillip II, King of Spain, were fighting the French at Saint-Quentin in Flanders. They made a votive offering to build a church in the name of the saint whose feast fell on the day of their eventual victory; that victory came on 10 August, St. Lawrence’s day.
In Madrid, Phillip II built the Escorial with a church dedicated to St. Lawrence, an abbey in the shape of a gridiron, the instrument of the saint’s martyrdom.
Unable to build a church at once, Emmanuel Philibert returned to Turin (4,800 inhabitants) in 1562, fortified the city and restored the ducal chapel “Santa Maria ad Praesepe” (Holy Mary of the Crib), dedicating it to St. Lawrence. This is the chapel at the entrance to today’s church.
In 1563 Turin became the capital of Savoy and in 1578 Emmanuel Philibert brought the Shroud for the first time from Chambery to Turin, where it has remained, to encourage the pilgrimage of St. Carlo Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, who came on foot to worship the Holy Shroud in thanks for the end of the plague.
For the occasion, the Shroud was placed on the altar in the chapel of San Lorenzo.
The poet Torquato Tasso was at the Mass and he wrote a commemorative poem which we shall come to later.
Emmanuel Philibert died in 1580 and there followed years of war and the territorial expansion of the duchy.It was not until 1634 that the first stone was officially laid for the new church, designed by Vitozzi and/or Castellamonte.
Work went no further than the foundations. At that time the Teatine Fathers arrived in Turin, a holy order dedicated to study, catechism and the teaching of science.
Construction and inauguration
In 1666, Duke Charles Emmanuel II invited Guarino Guarini, Teatine priest and architect, to Turin. Born in Modena in 1624, he joined the congregation of the priests of St. Gaetano, founder of the Order, when he was 15. He taught literature and philosophy in Messina and travelled to many European cities, including Lisbon and Paris to see the sites for his plans and study ancient architecture.
In 1666, the Duke of Savoy asked Guarini to build a new church dedicated to St. Lawrence.
The church was inaugurated on 12 May 1680, the construction of the complex structure having required a little over 13 years.
The lantern dome was closed and Guarino Guarini celebrated a Mass attended by the entire court of Savoy (as documented in the state archives); a Te Deum was sung in thanks, composed for the occasion by Giovan Battista Carisio.
Guarini died in Milan in 1683, aged 59.
Light as a symbol of the Absolute
A man of profound scientific and religious culture, a mystic and experimenter, mathematician, astronomer and indefatigable researcher, Guarini conceived architecture as religious tension towards the divine and believed that construction techniques could be a means to amaze and astound.
The boldness and strength of the construction is worthy of a great genius: during World War II a bomb fell on the palace next to the church (now the seat of the regional government), but despite the strong tremors, the structure was undamaged.
Guarino Guarini wanted his architecture to leave a variety of symbols and his art can be defined as building with light as a symbol of the Absolute.
The architectonic and geometric structure of the church of San Lorenzo follows a symbolic vertical path over several levels towards the light (in human life, this path corresponds to the levels of spiritual growth man can reach, if he wishes, through inner reflection).