The church of S. Maria dei Ghirli is beyond a doubt the largest and most monumental church in Campione d'Italia, despite the fact that it never served as a parochial function.
The principal nucleus was clearly built in the 7th century, but the church was named S.Maria in Willari according to the testament of Totone, who in 777 left his property to the Bishop of Milan and, hence, the monastery of St.Ambrose. The origins of the name are subject to several interpretations: the most commonly held theory attributes it to a term in the Ghirlian dialect meaning "Swallows," or better "Swifts," birds that are particularly numerous in the area during the summer months and with their periodic travels recall/I the migrations of the residents of Campione who traveled far and wide for work. According to others, the name should be traced hack to Saxon origins and the term would, therefore, indicate the place from which one left or departed and would have been imported by the monks who traveled and stayed as guests in the xenodochius (hostel for travelers). The contemporary presence of the town cemetery (place of eternal departure) near the church may also have played a role in determining the name. The building, which originally must have been a small church set a short distance from the settlement, was very simple and of little artistic significance. It was transformed into an Oratory sometime around the 1300's, according to the Romanesque character of the architecture, and consisted of a single nave with a square bell tower. Toward the middle of the century it was decorated with frescoes, both inside and outside, by painters of an important School.
The edifìce, as it appears today, is the work of Isidoro Bianchi, a Campione-born artist of the 7th century who gained notoriety in Turin as an architect who observed the dictates of the Counter Reformation, which tremendously influenced architecture in general, but religious architecture in particular. These were the first symptoms of the Baroque period that would appear about a century later. The imposing facade consisting of three arches facing the lake is connected to the lake by means of a monumental ramped stairway lined by two rows cypress trees that create a grand scenographic effect, especially for those who approach it. The principal arched entryway is richly decorated and is dominated by the dove of the
Holy Spirit, while the two lateral arches introduce visitors to porticoes that enhance the monumentality of the complex and protect the external frescoes. The tigurium is elegant and refined, in contrast to the bell tower that maintained its not so-graceful Romanesque style despite retouching in the l8th century. The interior of the church, a single nave covered by a barrel vault. is divided into three parts: the hall reserved for the faithful, the Sanctuary and the Presbytery. The portion of the church reserved l'or the faithful is decorated with l4th century, frescoes, some of which are in good condition, having been partially covered by false galleries that Bianchi introduced to give the impression of greater space. On the counter facade the frescoes were damaged when a window was installed, while the section lo the north is evidence of the severe damage that humidity can cause to paintings.
The frescoes of the Sanctuary are un exaltation of the mission of the Virgin, a clear result of the Counter Reformation that was contrary to Calvinistic heresy. Bianchi represented these scenes in a very moving way, assisted by the copious amount of light that floods in from the tigurium and by the presence of the musical angels who lead the way toward Paradise. Both the ceiling and the walls are embellished by stucco work of the highest quality, a specialty of the work of Bianchi and his School. The triumphal arch, splendidly decorated with un impressive rendition of the Annunciation and the images of saints Isidoro and Maurice, introduces one to the Preshytery where a 17th century altar is set that encorporates a triptych crafted during the previous century with the Madonna of Cardellino at the center. The lunette that completes it contains a beautiful tondo with the Crucifixion surrounded by faithful and orants. There are niches on either side of the 5th century Madonna that host Mary Magdalene with a vase of perfumes and St.Rocco, the pilgrim. The sculptures reveal a typically Campionese hand and the chromatic effect of painting vividly brings them to 1fe. The paintings in the Gothic hall, which during 17th century restorations were completely covered in plaster and stucco work, have been brought to light recently, revealing a painterly display o fan unknown Master, whose artistry deserves great admiration - he was probably from Rimini but with strong Lombard influences. This artist depicted the history of St.John the Baptist placed in the two upper registers, while the lower register, which is badly damaged, represents a calendar indicating agricultural activities.The frescoes on the northern wall are especially poorly preserved due to exposure to the elements. Noteworthy is an image of the Holy Quattro Coronati, patron saints of stone workers and sculptors, which has led scholars to believe that same people commissioned the life of St.John. The sacred hall, divided by a balustrade surmounted by a railing, is decorated with the 17th century frescoes of Isidoro Bianchi that depict the Wedding of the Virgin with the Visitation in the background; in front of this is the presentation at the Temple with the flight into Egypt in the background; the Annunciation is at the center on the arch, while the images of Saints Maurice and Isidoro are represented on the two later pillars.
The planet of the tambour is painted with the Assumption with the four Sibyls: Phrygia, Egypt, Samia and Tiburtina. In the intrados of the chorus are representations of the four Prophets, on the vault are Angels, and above the Adoration the Magi probably the hand of another artist.
The portico, richly decorated with frescoes from different epochs, was recently protected by panes of glass. The most important representation is without a doubt the Last Judgment painted in the i5th century the brothers Lanfranco and Filippolo de Veris. In the upper register is an image of Christ in tribulation upon a throne surrounded by angels who hold the symbols of the Passion. On the sides are groups
of supplicants, including religious figures, popes and kings who appear troubled and, in turn, are supported by other angels. This is clearly an allegory for the battle between Good and Evil, as well as the diffusion of corruption among the clergy; it is
also a moralizing scene placed near the doorway that depicts three figures who are lavishly dressed in the costumes of the epoch, two of whom (the Knight and the Maiden) are punished by divine fury for their poor behavior.
The lower register bears a scene that is vaguely reminiscent of Dante with demons and damned souls that are being tortured in different ways. On the pillars and above the door are other minor frescoes from the same epoch: St.Goar, a monk venerated by the boatsmen of Lake Ceresio, a Madonna with Child, the Annunciation and, in the background, St.Ambrose. To the right of the principal door of the church is a grand fresco that was originally situated in the northern portico, but was removed in 1893. This is the expulsion of Adam from Earthly Paradise painted in 1514 by an unknown artist; certainly of a Larian school that some identify in Bernardino Luini (despite proper documentary evidence). The exterior walls still bear several votive frescoes from the l5th century, executed in an artigianal style, that includes the Madonna of Garofano on the facade and St.Rocco and Sebastian in the northern portico near the entrance to the bell tower. As previously mentioned, the church of S.Maria dei Ghirli was never destined to be a place of worship for the faithful, but was a monument in and of itself and evidence of the religious devotion of the people of Campione through the depictions and architecture complement each other. The conspicuous paintings and stuccoes executed by Isidoro Bianchi in order to display wealth and grandeur, demonstrate the love that this artist held for his homeland - o much so that he was honored and recognized in Turin, Milan, Como, Prague and other important cities. But he never forgot his small town on the shore of the Ceresio.