At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Saint Charles Borromeo

Great reformer earned appreciation after his death


This painting of Charles Borromeo is in the St. Hermes Church in Ronse, Belgium
This painting of Charles Borromeo is in the St.
Hermes Church in Ronse, Belgium
Charles (Carlo) Borromeo, a leading Catholic figure who led the movement to combat the spread of Protestantism, was born on this day in Milan in 1538. 

Part of the noble Borromeo family, he became a Cardinal and brought in many reforms to benefit the Church, which made him unpopular at the time.

But he was held in high regard after his death and was quickly made a saint by Pope Paul V.

Borromeo was born at the Castle of Arona on Lake Maggiore, near Milan. His father was Count of Arona and his mother was part of the Medici family.

He was educated in civil and canon law at the University of Pavia.

When his uncle, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Medici became Pope Pius IV in 1559, Borromeo was brought to Rome and given a post in the Vatican.

The following year the Pope made him a Cardinal and asked him to supervise the Franciscans, Carmelites and Knights of Malta and organise the last session of the Council of Trent, which was being held in Trento to reform the Church and counter the spread of Protestantism.  The Council issued a long list of decrees covering disputed aspects of the Catholic religion as well as denouncing what it considered to be heresies committed in the name of Protestantism.

When Borromeo’s older brother died, the family wanted him to leave the Church and marry and have children to continue the family name, but he would not give up his calling.

However, the death of his brother and also his contact with the Jesuits encouraged him to lead a stricter, more Christian life.

Borromeo was made a bishop in the Sistine Chapel in 1563 and became Archbishop of Milan in 1565.

The colossal statue of Charles Borromeo in his home town of Arona on Lake Maggiore
The colossal statue of Charles Borromeo
in his home town of Arona on Lake Maggiore
Before he left Rome, where he had personally overseen church reforms, a nobleman remarked that the city was ‘no longer a place to enjoy oneself or make a fortune’.

Borromeo also reformed Milan after he arrived, simplifying church interiors, clearing away ornaments and banners and separating the sexes during worship.

He believed that many abuses in the church were caused by the ignorance of the clergymen and he established seminaries for the education of candidates for holy orders.

His reforms met with some opposition and a shot was once fired at him when he was in his own chapel. His survival was later considered to be miraculous.

When famine and plague struck Milan, Borromeo used all his own money and then got himself into debt in order to feed the hungry.

He faced increasing opposition while trying to implement the reforms to the Church dictated by the Council of Trent, but in 1584 he became ill with fever and died soon afterwards at the age of just 46.

Even a biographer who admired him described him as an ‘austere, humourless and uncompromising personality.’

But after Borromeo’s death his popularity increased and he was canonised in 1610 and eventually became venerated as a Saint of Learning and the Arts all over the world.

His nephew, Federico Borromeo, furthered his uncle’s support for learning by founding the Ambrosian Library in Milan.

Many churches, colleges, seminaries and even cities throughout the world have been named after Charles Borromeo.  The city of Saint Charles in Louisiana, for example, is named after him, as is the Brazilian city of São Carlos.

Travel tip:

Arona, where Charles Borromeo was born, is a town on Lake Maggiore in the province of Novara. One of its main sights is the Sancarlone, a giant statue of Saint Charles Borromeo made from bronze. It is second in size only to the Statue of Liberty and is believed to have been looked at by the architects of the Statue of Liberty when they were producing their own design.

The Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan
The Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan
Travel tip:

The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Piazza Pio XI in Milan was established in 1618 to house paintings, drawing and statues donated to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, a library founded in the same building by Cardinal Federico Borromeo a few years before. In addition to works of art, the museum keeps curiosities such as the gloves Napoleon wore at Waterloo and a lock of Lucrezia Borgia’s hair, in front of which famous poets such as Lord Byron and Gabriele D’Annunzio spent a lot of time drawing inspiration. Visit www.leonardo-ambrosiana.it for more information.

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