Roman and early Christian Milan
When it comes to a city as big as Milan, that is dedicated to technology, entrepreneurial activities and that is so forward-looking, there is often a tendency to overlook its ancient origins. It may come as a surprise to many to know that Milan was for a brief period the capital of the Western Roman Empire (IV century A.D.).
A walk around the ancient city can help us discover an unknown part of Milan.
Let’s start with Piazza Duomo, from where at the dawn of Christianity there was an Episcopal complex of baptisteries and basilicas. Beneath the Cathedral lie the visible remains of the Baptistery of San Giovanni alle Fonti and the font of the Baptistery of Santo Stefano.
From here, we can walk to Piazza Missori where we find the crypt of San Giovanni in Conca - no longer consecrated but used for special events. Of the original construction (the building was rebuilt during Roman times and then partially demolished), only the Basilica’s apse and crypt remain standing. A grand example of an early Christian building is the Basilica di San Nazaro. This too was built in accordance with the wishes of Ambrose (started in 382) and was consecrated in 386 with the relics of the saints from which it took its first name “Basilica Apostolorum”. From here we move on tothe Basilica of Sant'Eustorgio, where some excavations - in the nineteenth century - brought to light a venue of early Christian worship beneath the Basilica itself. Nearby stands the Basilica di San Lorenzo - with the Chapel of Sant’Aquilino, a building with a marble colonnade dating from the second century A.D. that was originally used on a Roman building and then reused in the atrium of the Basilica.
In via De Amicis we find the Park of the Roman Amphiteatre, a theatre built in the first century A.D. that witnessed bloody encounters between men and animals, public executions and even naval battles.
An amazing remnant of Milan’s early Christian period that is still standing today is the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, built between 379 and 386 according to the will of Ambrose. Well worth a visit inside the Basilica are the Museum of Sant'Ambrogio and the Mosaics as well as the Chapel of San Vittore in Ciel d’Oro. It is important to note that before you reach the Civic Museum of Archaeology, along what is now Via San Vittore, on the site where an ancient necropolis once stood, an octagonal-shaped enclosure with towers on its corners was built during the late ancient period. This area became the burial place of the privileged and went on to contain Christian tombs as well as a magnificent imperial mausoleum. The latter subsequently became part of the Basilica di San Vittore al Corpo (St. Victor at the Body) and was then demolished (XVI century). Finally, we reach the Museum of Archaeology. At this moment in time, the exhibition rooms allow visitors to explore some of Milan’s ancient origins. The museum is currently undergoing a massive redevelopment that will lead to its enlargement and provide a section totally dedicated to Milan's most ancient history.
It is worth mentioning that the museum’s garden in Corso Magenta contains the remains of the "Mura Massimiane" that were part of the building renovations wanted by the Emperor Maximin himself. It consists of the Torre di Ansperto, a twenty-four sided construction connected to a section of wall. Its foundations are visible beneath the building.
Finally making our way back in the direction of Piazza Duomo, we pass firstly through piazza Affari where beneath the Stock Exchange and Chamber of Commerce buildings lie the remains of the Theatre (first century B.C.), and then move on to Piazza San Sepolcro. The church of the Santo Sepolcro consists of upper and lower sections. It was established in the year 1030 on the remains of the Roman Forum, the paving stones of which have been used in the lower church. In the middle of this area, which is also home to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, was where the intersection of two roads, which we believe to be the cardo and the decumanus (meeting point of east and west), crossed at right angles. The heart of the ancient Roman city is right here. Before returning to Piazza Duomo and the end of our walk, it is worth remembering that the ancient city of Milan is at the heart of a great programme of discovery and upgrading with the involvement of Milan’s public bodies, eminent universities and cultural institutions.