Text, photo and video by  – VIRGINIA STAGNI

Translation by – FLORA TRIOLO


The topological back-up has been recreated on paper and then transferred on the satellite images of Gmaps.

History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity .”

Marco Tullio Cicerone



Suggested soundtrack for your itinerary: the classical “Now we are free” and “Honour Him” from The Gladiator – Hans Zimmer (Oscar nomination)


A small virtual preview of this first tour:  video <—click here

In this first episode we will focus on the first core of Mediolanum. The first inhabitants of the city were the Celtic Insubres, more than 2500 years ago, with a settlement in the area that is today found between piazza del Duomo (A), via Valpretosa (B) and via Meravigli (C) .


From 286 to 402 d.C. Milan was the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Why are the Latin traces  so difficult to detect, although not impossible to find for a watchful eye? During the centuries, destructions, reconstructions, sacks and pillaging have followed one another: the city fell prey to the Goths  (538 d.C.) and the Lombards (569 d.C.), was besieged by Frederick Barabarossa, reaching its climax with the capturing of the city in 1162, targeted by French troupes and claimed by the Spanish and the Austrians, as well as capital of the Lombardo-Veneto reign.

Maybe its the effect of my grandfather being an antique dealer, but the Archaeological Museum has always had a certain appeal to me. The culture-soaked air you breath here is one of those rare occasions in which such a high, elusive and abstract concept becomes tangible. How can you experience culture and not think of it as something elite and outside of us? By visiting the Archaeological Museum of your city. Corso Magenta 25, alongside of the gorgeous church of San Maurizio, that we will visit in the next episode, in front of the amazing Palazzo and  Teatro Litta, offers its visitors an infinite collection comprising the most diverse historical and artistic eras.


The museum is divided in sections according to different themes with an outstanding number of archaeological finds: Etruscan, Oriental (there is an interesting itinerary on Buddha), Greek, Roman Lombard and a section on the High Middle Ages


The staff is impeccable, with such  warmth, care and consideration for the visitors that it would make Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly “buy some furniture and give the cat a name”, as well as making her declare”  “It’s marvellous, right? Do you understand what I mean when I say nothing very bad could happen to you here? And its not for the (archaeological) jewels…”


Enter through the Baroque gate leading to the museum and, after having crossed the first courtyard with the remains of the ancient Roman walls…


In front of you you can observe the perfect wooden model of the city – even Vespa would be jealous of it – that reproduces the city during the Western Roman Empire


This is the area that we are analysing; in red, the Roman ruins.


Now turn around and go downstairs:  this is were the floors from Roman nobility’s mansions are kept, the most ancient parts dating back to the I century d.C.  There are similar finds also in  Via Amedei 4-6 and Via Nerino 12 (two side streets of the well-known Via Torino, the continuation of  Corso di Porta Ticinese, famous for the Colonne e the Basilica di San Lorenzo, that we’ll visit): these are private homes, making it more difficult to access them.


These floors are decorated with mosaics with geometric and plant motives, indicating the presence of wealthy families: if affluent families were here it means that Mediolanum was a social and cultural fulcrum, fertile and lively


We envisage it as a city studded with sumptuous residences (those that Ausonio described as the “ countless noble homes” when describing Milan as a magnificent city where “everything is worthy of admiration”), temples, burial grounds: some finds of this kind, such as sarcophagi and inscriptions, are kept in the second courtyard of the museum (previously a cloister, the Monastero Maggiore delle Monache Benedettine).


If all of this is today preserved in the Museum, we owe it to the dedication and recovery work of the Mediolanenses of the Renaissance : the newly awoken interest for the ancient times led to the first transcription and interpretation effort of the finds of a Milan that was, according to Sesto Aurelio in The Lifes of the Cesari, comparable to Rome in terms of beauty and magnificence.

By the end of the I century d.C.,  glass-blowing techniques were discovered close to  Tiro and Sidone: this lead to an extremely vast production of ornaments, which we now find in the Museum. The balsamari (ointment containers) and the ampullae for perfumes and essences are particularly refined..


Another Roman find preserved in the Museum: the Massimanee walls, dated between the end of the III century d.C. and IV century, originally 4500 meters long, today only reaching 15 meters in length and 1,72 in height.

The Emperor Massiminiano chose Milan as the seat of the capital of the empire and expanded the pre-existing walls, build in the late Republican era (second half I sec). Parts of these walls, which are connected to a 24-sided tower, the only one that has been well-preserved to this day,  are now found in the internal courtyard.

foto 3

During the Middle Ages the tower became a chapel: indeed, today you’ll enter a striking prayer place decorated with ancient frescos (XIII century) depicting the Crucifixion and stories of the Saints, one of the few examples of mural painting this old in the Milanese area.

foto 2

The structure that we are now examining was only revealed after World War II, since it had been for centuries absorbed by the Benedictine convent, one of the most wealthy and famous of the Lombard era, as well as the most ancient, being built during the VIII century (High Middle Ages). Part of a Roman residence from the same period is preserved in this same courtyard.


A majestic circus, ordered by emperor  Massimiano Erculeo, was built at the end of the III century d.C. Its remains are also in the courtyard of the convent, with one of the two towers that enclosed the rectilinear structure (today overlooking Viale Luini 7) later used by the nuns as a bell tower.



To see the external walls of the circus you can go to  Via Vigna 1 and to Via Circo 9 e 16. Massimiano based the imperial palace  and the circus  on the structure erected in the East by Diocleziano.


The circus was the scene of the most famous chariot face-offs of its era,  as well as the location were Lombard king Adoaldo was crowned. The structure was ultimately demolished by Barbarossa in 1162: thus, we can only use our imagination to grasp its magnificence. The models provided by the Museum certainly help the plastic representation of this space.

I recommended a find of unique beauty, preserved in this location: the patera of Parabiago (MI). Found in 1907, this large plate is reminiscent of those used for libations on the altars. The high relief  figures, sculpted at the centre of this ornament are the gods Cibele and Attis, in the presence of gods, the sky and nature, during their triumph.


The ideological meaning of this find is noteworthy: it dates back to the IV century d.C, when the Latin world was threatened by a viral spreading of Christianity. How to defend the values of the Roman gens pura? By re-establishing the rituals and gods of older times. We find ourselves under the reign of  Giuliano l’Apostata – the Traitor- (360-363 d.C.), a name given him by the Christians themselves. Cibele, Aedes Matris Magnae, eastern goddess included in the Roman Pantheon in the II century a.C., goddess of fertile nature and wild beasts, assumed increasingly esoteric traits since the second half of the II century d.C, becoming a deity for the elite, thus taking pride in initiation rituals and “private” festivities among the aristocracy (although apparently anyone could become an adept). This deity was particularly loved by the nobility of Milan: more than one epigraph names priests and other devotees; moreover, a patera of such worth, testifies the strength of the bond between the aristocracy and the cult of Cibele. Who knows what substances and what gifts were brought on this plate from the ancient Romans during the rituals: we certainly know that the initiation to the cult of Cibele definitely had some folkloric aspects (this judgement is obviously due to our different cultural DNA – no offense intended to  Marc Bloch or Erodoto): in March, after a long fasting period, the aspiring initiate, together with the priests, sacrificed a bull and covered himself with its blood. Once purified, the initiate had to walk holding, in his hands, the kèrmos, a container with the genitalia of the sacrificed bull, a long-lasting symbol of strength par excellence. The procession reached a room in the basement of the temple (probably the greatest of Milan during Roman times, given the importance of the cult): the basement is the symbolic representation of death, the “katàbasis”, of the initiate’s descent to the underworld. Once the genitalia of the sacrificed beast had been laid down, the initiate could return upstairs and drink some milk, since he had been re-born (such a meaning of milk can be observed even in more recent forms of art – just think about Cheryl Donegan’s videoart, currently on exhibition at the Triennale for the exhibit  GUSTO à http://vimeo.com/17888330 ). Why was such a procession necessary? The Great Mother, Cibele reminds every man of the cycle of life and the power of nature that the gods guard and guide.

But where did the emperor live?  In Via Brisa, close to the Museum: here you’ll also find the remains of the heating system of the building itself


scavi BRISA

(this is what you’ll see: click here for the virtual view Virtual View )

You are now in what was, during the late Roman era, the most sumptuous neighbourhood of the city.  You have to imagine lively coloured residential structures; classy men in their togas, ready to discuss the next trial or bargaining on the price of that marble just sent from the Mediterranean,   imperial official buildings, the therme baths belonging to the nobility and the emperor himself  (part of the wall of the baths is till visible in largo Corsia dei Servi, a side street of Corso Vittorio Emanuele II or Corso Europa – depending on where you’re coming from – in any case: Virtual View ) and, not far off, the sandy circus with the heralds of Roman power waving in the wind.

eeeeee Terme Erculee

You can feel the excited screaming and the neighing of the horses running fiercely at breakneck speed. But if you turn around a battered man will be begging you for charity: these performances are indeed occasions in which the emperor makes an appearance in front of all his subjects, no matter their social class, that are, thus, invited to the circus’ games.


An empire is such only if supported by a permanent, deployed, strong and stable army. But where to keep the supplies for the troupes? In via Bossi 4! The horreum, a storage deposit dating back to the II century, is preserved in the basement of this private building.

ricostruzionehorrea  horreum

Depending on which side of the street you came from you can either walk back or go to the crossing between San Giovanni sul Muro and Corso Magenta:  Porta Vercellina, whose existence is only proved on paper, had been erected in the pre-Roman area, as a stronghold as well as a boundary and connection between Milan, Vercelli and Novara (today such rout is symmetrically traced by Corso Vercelli and Corso Magenta).


But when did Milan actually become a Roman city?  In 49 a.C. Where can we find its traces? Our one-hour tour is not enough any more: stay tuned for our next episode, Revolartists Jones.

N.B. : the excavation site of the ancient forum of Mediolanum has been opened a few days ago, just below the  Biblioteca Ambrosiana. The Roman agorà was discovered in 1990; the preserved  remains are scarce, but if you want to take a walk through them, the archaeological site is opened every first Saturday of the month (3 Euro admission cost).

Just one more small consideration before we take a break till the next episode…

The itinerary we have visited, although poor of finds at first glance, has revealed itself as being  able to provide food for thought and rich of quirks if compared to what we would expect from a city often represented as ultra-modern a completely different from an ancient operating site of the Roman Empire. There are numerous sites to visit, but we have preferred to concentrate on those that reflected the most the themes we’ve taken on, also by following the suggestions of the Museum’s itinerary.

Great thinkers have always been seduced by ancient ruins. As by history. Lets learn to observe and explore, picturing places as they used to be, maybe sharpening our imagination, every time that we visit such places. Because it is as if all of its appeal  lies in what has been cancelled. As in the subduing spell of the sea, a wave  washing up to shore cancels every trace of the one before: and here each mind may be inspired in the most fitting way.


Prices and Visiting hours of the Archaeological Museum :

  Tuesday to Sunday: 9.00 -17.30 (ticket office closes at  17.00)
– closed: Monday, 1 January, 1 May, 15 August, 25 December


Price: Ticket 2 Euro; reduced ticket 1 Euro; year ticket 10 Euro; reduced 5 Euro


The Museum is full wheelchair accessible. For motored wheelchairs it would be better to contact the Museum beforehand (02.88465720)


Ticket office:02.88445208


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