Today it is the financial capital of Italy, but in the past Milan was a city of witches and alchemists where even the devil incarnate has, on occasion, been seen within its very walls. Below are ten of the most mysterious places in Milan.
Devils and mysteries:
The financial capital and fashion hub of Italy, Milan is in fact an ancient city steeped in mystery. About two thousand years ago, it is said that there was an oak wood inhabited by druids who built a temple at the very spot where the Cathedral now stands. Over the centuries, Milan has seen its fair share of witches, alchemists and demonic figures, and battles between the forces of good and evil. Milan has its own esoteric tradition – maybe not as impressive as Turin’s, but still one worth a mention. Here is a brief introduction to the most mysterious places in this city of Lombardy.
The wild boar in Palazzo della Ragione
In the medieval centre of Milan, on a pillar in Palazzo della Ragione facing Via Mercanti, is a Roman bas-relief of a wild boar. According to a legend, the “Scrofa semilanuta” (a wild boar with long hair on the front part of its back) is the earliest known symbol of Milan, and the name can perhaps be attributed to the Latin “medio-lanum” which refers to the “short hair” of the beast. It is also said that the goddess Belisana revealed the “scrofa semilanuta” in a dream to Belloveso, a Celt who then built the original Mediolanum in the area where he had seen the magical beast.
The Ossuary chapel of San Bernardino
In Via Larga, near Via Santo Stefano, stands the Church of San Bernardino alle ossa. The church takes its name from the ossuary, a side-chapel: where human skulls decorating the walls, niches, columns, doors and pillars inside are set against Rococo architecture. The bones are those of victims of the plague who died in the nearby Hospital of San Barnaba in Brolo or were buried in either of several cemeteries that were later put out of use. The skulls outside are those of people condemned to death.
It is said that, on the night of 2 November (Day of the Dead), the remains of the little girl to the left of the altar come back to life and dance with the other skeletons. Do not approach these – because the sounds of the bones can apparently be heard even from the outside.
The star and remains of the three Magi in the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio
Saint Eustorgius took it upon himself to bring the remains of the three Magi – Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior – from Constantinople, but his cart inexplicably broke down because the wheels had suddenly become very heavy, and the Saint decided to build a Basilica for the Magi outside the walls of the city. The three Magi were laid here, in what is now the church in Corso di Porta Ticinese, until 1162.
After Federico Barbarossa’s sacking of the city, the remains were taken to Cologne, Germany, and eventually brought back to Milan in 1904, but only in the form of a few fragments: just two fibulas, a tibia and a vertebra can now be found in a box next to the old sarcophagus. Commemorating the Magi on the belltower, in the place of the cross, is an eight-pointed star like the one that guided the Magi to Bethlehem and baby Jesus in the stable.
“Madonna con le corna” in Sant’Eustorgio
Behind the apse in the Church of Sant’Eustorgio is the Portinari Chapel. Here, if you buy a ticket to enter the museum complex, you can see the famous Madonna and child with horns. This work of art, painted by Vincenzo Foppa between 1464 and 1468, represents in fact the Miracle of the false Madonna (the real name of the work). Pietro da Verona used sacramental bread to banish the devil hiding behind the Madonna; but the horns of the devil can still be seen.
According to another myth, the fresco is haunted by the spirit of Guglielmina la Boema, a woman who lived the life of a saint but was posthumously declared a heretic.
The Holy Inquisition and the witches in Piazza Vetra
Piazza della Vetra is now one of the most peaceful parks in Milan but, in the past, the Holy Inquisition burnt witches at the stake here almost a century before Pope VIII issued the papal bull Summis Desiderantes affectibus in 1484, giving official approval to prosecute witchcraft.
Many women believed to be witches were, in reality, people with mental illnesses or who had taken psychotropic substances: Milan has always been home to a great many pharmacists and alchemists, as testified by the thousand-year history of the hospital-apothecary of Ca’Granda in the city.
Mortorium libris and necropolis
Under the Policlinico Maggiore, buried four metres under the city, is a sepulchre that was discovered only recently. Here lay the bones of more than 500 thousand bodies, including victims of the plague referred to in Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed.
Discovered together with the one urban necropolis in Italy was the mortorium libris, containing records cataloguing 500 years of research into illness and disease in the city.
The house of the devil in Porta Romana
The devil incarnate was said to have lived at number 3, Porta Romana, in Palazzo Acerbi. The people of Milan believed Ludovico Acerbi, from Le Marche, who redesigned the building in the Baroque style in 1615, to be the devil itself. In 1630, while the citizens of Milan suffered the ravages of the plague, the Acerbi household did nothing but hold parties. The nobles who enjoyed the hospitality of the Acerbi household were among the few to survive the plague, which only gave the Milanese better reason to believe that Beelzebub himself lived in that house.
Devils on the Duomo
According to the legend, the devil visited the lord Gian Galeazzo Visconti of Milan one night in 1386, commanding him to build a church decorated with images of the devil or face eternal damnation. Visconti began construction of the Cathedral and a stone in the right nave bears the very year when work commenced. There are more than 3,400 statues and 96 gargoyles around the Duomo, many of which with demonic features. Visconti’s face, too, can be seen on the oldest spire, named the Carelli spire.
The devil’s column in Sant’Ambrogio
In the square in front of the basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, where the saint faced the devil, stands a column with two holes: Sant’Ambrogio is said to have pushed the devil against the column, embedding its horns in the marble. If you put your ears to the holes, you can apparently hear the sounds of hell and catch a whiff of sulphur.
The chessboard of the Knights Templar and Moses’ serpent in Sant’Ambrogio
When you enter Sant’Ambrogio you cannot fail but notice the 18 columns of the portico decorated with monstrous creatures and bizarre animals and plants. The most mysterious object, however, is to the right of the facade of the basilica – a chessboard, measuring 7 x 7 squares made of white and brown marble. Seemingly of no religious significance, this chessboard has been associated with the Knights Templar because the colours are those worn by the military order: the sergeants and novices wore black or brown while full knights wore white.
Then, to the left as you enter the basilica, half way along the central nave, stands a porphyry stone column surmounted by a bronze serpent drawn from the Old Testament. Moses is said to have forged the serpent during the Exodus to protect his people against the bite of the reptiles: whoever touched this serpent would become immune to the venom. Over time, people continued to believe that this serpent could cure certain diseases and would touch it to purge themselves of worms and intestinal diseases.
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