It was the year 1952. In Milan, as a result of the circle of intellectuals closely connected to Monsignor Ernesto Pisoni (1920 – 1992), Parish Priest of the Church of San Gottardo in Corte and champion for and courageous director of the Catholic daily L’Italia (the precursor to Avvenire) from 1946 to 1961, an interesting custom began within the Cappella Palatina, one which for many years would be part of the cultural life of the city: the celebration of a Mass for artists.
This initiative may appear a bit bizarre or peculiar, but it is one that was inserted in the more complex and intricate context of the final years of the papacy of Pius XII. It also received a notable kick-start a few years later, with the appointment of Giovanni Battista Montini as Archbishop of Milan. The future pope had always given artists a special amount of attention. In 1957, he addressed them with these deeply-felt, determined words: “The church requires, in its catholic worship, which is eminently spiritual, material things. Who will create this temple to God? Who will be its voice? It will be you, artists. So, don’t say that the church doesn’t include you, that it doesn’t call upon you or invite you. Hear the call which the church makes to you. It says: ‘Come and help me, because I have a treasure to give to mankind; give form to these sublime religious concepts, I elevate your art to priesthood, which is the intermediary between God and men.’ The church needs the mastery and the ministry of artists.” Montini thereby encouraged the initiative of a “Mass for artists”, to be celebrated every Sunday within the Church of San Gottardo in Corte. On 3 January 1960, the first Sunday of the year, he personally held a service in the Cappella Palatina, a custom he didn’t want to interrupt even once elected to Peter’s throne: on 7 May 1964, within the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, he once again met with artists for mass, attributing, however, the authorship of the initiative to Pius XII, his predecessor.
San Gottardo in Corte thus became the “artists’ church”. At the heart of the “artists’ Mass”, besides Monsignor Pisoni himself, were the noted Milanese patron Maria Eugenia Dal Verme and Jesuit Father Favaro, at the time Director of the San Fedele Cultural Centre. At the start and for about two years, this service was celebrated in the parish church of San Fedele, to then find its definitive home in the chapel of the Royal Palace. Many important figures of the Milanese cultural world soon gathered around this small organising committee and the Sunday Mass thus became an eagerly awaited, important appointment every Sunday morning, complete with all the excitement of a performance.
Famous artists, from the stage and beyond, felt directly involved in the organisation of the celebration, as they were asked to read liturgical texts or to engage with the chanting of mass, which always ended with the recitation of the “artist’s prayer”.
Over time, eminent personalities participated in this Mass: musicians, singers, actors, painters, sculptors, architects and many others. Counted among them are Gina Cigna, Renata Tebaldi, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Mario Del Monaco, Luciano Pavarotti, Mariangela Melato, Macario, Renzo Ricci and Roberto Hazon.