The Sanctuary, built by the Jesuit fathers starting in 1608, as well as being a small artistic jewel, has always been the fulcrum of devotion to the Saint of Youth, a centre of Aloysian spirituality and a destination for pilgrims from all over the world. The Sanctuary of St. Luigi Gonzaga stands on the area overlooking the Gonzaga fortress donated to the Society of Jesus by the saint's brother, Marquis Francesco. It was with this marquis, who succeeded Rodolfo, that the marquisate saw its greatest moment of artistic, cultural and spiritual splendour thanks to the new buildings and the arrival of the new Religious Institute. He wanted to call the Jesuit fathers to the city for a qualified formation of the youth and to have a living memorial of his holy brother, also a Jesuit. What is now the Sanctuary was born in 1608 with the construction of the Church and the adjacent College for boys. At the same time, 200 metres away, the three Granddaughters of St Louis - Cinzia, Olimpia and Gridonia - in collaboration with the Jesuit fathers gave life to the Noble College of the Virgins of Jesus for the education of girls of good society. Thus around what is now the Sanctuary, there was an educational centre of excellence and a centre of spiritual and cultural irradiation. What we now call the Shrine, comprised the Jesuit College, the Church and, in between, a wide corridor or gallery for access to both. The Jesuit College in 1980 became the seat of the city's Town Hall, the gallery or corridor became the Don Rinaldo Hall in 2006, and the Church, with the arrival of the Saint's Relic in 1610, became a Shrine; in 1968 it was elevated to the status of Minor Basilica by Pope Paul VI. Today, the Sanctuary of St. Louis consists of the Basilica, the 18th-century sacristy, the Don Rinaldo Hall, two small gardens and the rectorial house.
Dedicated to the former rector who lived at the Shrine for 53 years (1947-2000), diocesan priest Fr Rinaldo Dalboni: originally it was the corridor connecting with the church and the adjoining college built from 1608 by the Jesuit fathers on the orders of Marquis Francesco Gonzaga. At present, it is a small atrium opening onto Piazza San Luigi and then the rest of the wide corridor leading to the sacristy. Over the centuries it has had various functions according to changing needs: a corridor, a room for showing films for the youth of the Castiglione oratory, a room for exhibitions and displays, and a storage room. In 2006, work began to redevelop and adapt this space to the new needs of the Sanctuary: redoing the electrical system and lighting, installing the heating system, repainting, polishing the floor and marble, chairs, maxi-screen and amplification system, and restoring the three 18th-century frescoes.
These frescoes, attributed to a collaborator of Anselmi, are three lunettes placed above the doors depicting Jesus Master at the entrance, the reception of St Stanislaus Koska at the Society of Jesus, and the apparition of the Virgin and Child to St Louis in Jesuit garb. Thus in 2006 the 17th century corridor took on the appearance of a beautiful multi-purpose hall adapted as a place to welcome pilgrims, for conferences, spiritual retreats, or for exhibitions and conventions. On Sunday 11 June 2006 at 6.30 p.m. after a solemn concelebration presided over by the Rector of the Sanctuary, in the presence of the population and city authorities, the Bishop of Mantua inaugurated the renovated hall and blessed the marble plaque with the dedication to Don Rinaldo Dalboni. So from then on it will be called 'Sala don Rinaldo', in memory of this humble and beloved diocesan priest who for no less than fifty-three years animated the Sanctuary with finesse and love, seeing it elevated to Basilica status by Pope Paul VI and welcoming Pope John Paul II as a pilgrim.
The Basilica has a harmonious façade, enriched by a marble prothyrum, Tuscan and Ionic pilasters and a tympanum. The Church was built by the Jesuits (1608), together with the adjoining College, on the occasion of the beatification of Luigi Gonzaga, brother of Francesco who ruled Castiglione at the time. It was completed in 1610, consecrated in 1962 by Monsignor Poma, Bishop of Mantua, and erected a Basilica by Pope Paul VI on 21 June 1964. The interior recalls the structure of Vignola's Church of Jesus in Rome and was built in accordance with the canons imposed by the Council of Trent. The 17th-century design is by the Jesuit Luca Bienni of Salò. After a long interruption, work was resumed in 1761. Based on a design by Paolo Soratino of Lonato, the presbytery was rebuilt, the dome was raised and the marble complex of the new high altar with the altarpiece depicting St. Louis praying before the Virgin in the centre was placed.
The two marble statues on either side symbolise Innocence and Penance and are a clear Aloysian reference. Above it all is the Eucharistic triumph. Inserted into the structure of the altar is the urn containing the relic of St. Louis: the sacred skull which, brought from Rome in 1610, was first solemnly placed in the Palatine Church of St. Sebastian and then transferred to the Basilica named after the Saint in 1679.
A valuable organ by Gerolamo Bonatti of Desenzano (1794) was placed in the choir loft to the right of the presbytery. The instrument retains its original features. An inscription recalls that in 1859 some pipes, kept in the small room next to the manticeria room, were removed by the Piedmontese and French soldiers who, after the victory, went around festively "ziffolando" through the streets of the village. Also in the presbytery, opposite the sacristy, in a small side chapel, the bodies of the Venerable nieces of St. Louis are displayed in three urns: Cinzia, Olimpia and Gridonia, foundresses of the 'Noble College of the Virgins of Jesus'. They were the first to follow the example of their uncle, consecrating themselves to God in a life of prayer and dedication to their neighbour, in teaching and in educational work. On the floor of the church, in a niche in front of the presbytery, a plaque recalls that Charles I, third prince of Castiglione and nephew of St Louis, is buried there. It was he who had the Saint's precious relic transported to this church (1679).
To the right of the entrance door is the chapel of St Stanislaus Koska. The altarpiece on the altar depicts the saint praying before a painting of Pentecost. The work, dated 1737, is signed by Lucia Torelli from Bologna. Opposite is the Chapel of the Crucifix. It houses a beautiful wooden sculpture of the dead Christ on the cross. The work is attributed to a local craftsman of the late 17th century and is characterised by a certain anatomical and chromatic realism. The one dedicated to the Assumption follows. The 17th-century altar frontal, decorated with fine marble inlays, is embellished in the centre with a small image of the Assumption sculpted in white marble. The canvas, by an unknown author, is from the second half of the 18th century. Opposite, the chapel of St Francis Xavier. In the canvas, on the altar, the saint is depicted in the act of preaching the Gospel to peoples who have not yet come into contact with the Gospel. The work, neither dated nor signed, dates back to the first half of the 18th century. It is followed by that of Our Lady of Sorrows. The altarpiece bears the inscription: 'Guercino Giovanni Francesco - Cento 1650' in the bottom right-hand corner and should be placed within the late production of the Ferrarese master. Opposite is the chapel of St Ignatius of Lojola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. The canvas on the altar depicts the apparition of the Trinity to the saint. The work is attributed to a local painter from the 1700s.
The large hall-like interior, reminiscent of the plan of the Gesù church in Rome, is presented in its architectural simplicity, emphasised by the modulations of the lighting with six side chapels; the decoration is Baroque. In the centre of the barrel-vaulted ceiling, a tempera by the painter Martinenghi painted in 1891 depicts the Saint teaching catechism to the youth of Rome, while above the horizontal frames of the vault, the twelve apostles and the symbols of the four evangelists are depicted. The fresco between the two frames of the triumphal arch, painted in 1741 by the Veronese painter Giorgio Anselmi, depicts the glory of St. Louis Gonzaga. Between the side chapels and on the back wall are ten monochrome ovals from the second half of the 17th century, which, with the large canvas above the entrance door, illustrate episodes from the Saint's inner life. The pulpit, the prince's tribune, the women's gallery and the six wooden confessionals richly carved with plant motifs, are of exquisite workmanship and date back to the late 17th and early 18th century.
The presbytery area, bordered by a marble balustrade, is dominated by the monumental and complex structure of the late Baroque high altar, rich in marble, sculpture and architectural elements. The work was realised in 1761 to a design by Paolo Soratino.
At the side ends of the altar and the altarpiece, leaning against the apse wall, are two copies of white marble angels holding candelabra and Classical statues depicting the virtues of innocence and penitence. In the centre, genuflected angels and cherubs adorn the small temple that holds the urn with the skull of San Luigi Gonzaga, donated by the Jesuits to the Saint's brother, Francesco, in 1610. Above the relic is Antonio Balestra's 1734 altarpiece depicting St. Louis praying before the Virgin. The large marble complex is surmounted by the Eucharistic triumph (symbol of the Jesuits) and adoring angels. Between the concave altar table and the altarpiece, a marble staircase allows the faithful to pass in front of the Saint's relic.
On either side of the high altar are two walnut canopies carved with 16th-century decorative motifs. The four pendentives of the dome, framed by stucco decorations, are attributed to Pitocchetto (18th century) and represent episodes from the Saint's life: his birth, his First Communion, his renunciation of the marquisate and his entry into the Society of Jesus in Rome. The inner dome is adorned with a rich stucco decoration with eight frescoed medallions depicting the Christian virtues. Charity is represented by St Louis dressed as a prince in the act of rescuing a plague victim. Inside the lantern dome, a dove represents the Holy Spirit. The organ, located to the right of the presbytery and dated 1794, is signed by Gerolamo Bonatti. The chancels, in Rococo style, are decorated with lacquered scenes on a gold background and represent Chinese landscapes.
To the left of the presbytery, under the chancel, is the access to the sacristy. In the central medallion of the ceiling, the glory of St. Louis is frescoed. The vast room is enriched with fine walnut wooden furniture. In the sacristy, one can admire a carved wooden altar by the Castiglionese craftsman Tommaso Ceratelli (1684) and four other monochrome ovals in a 17th-century frame.
Recently, various improvements or restoration works have been carried out: the windows of the dome and nave have been renovated, the scenes in the pendentives under the dome have been cleaned, the entire presbytery and the exterior of the Basilica have been repainted in a very light, typically 18th-century teal colour, and the organ has been restored.
With these and other interventions, the intention was to honour the memory of our fellow citizen Saint on the fourth centenary of his birth into heaven (1591-1991).