Milan is one of Italy’s most metropolitan and contemporary cities. Attracting travelers and business people from all over the world, it has become one of Europe’s most popular destinations. Among the new mirrored-facade skyscrapers and designer boutiques, old Milan hides many secrets and mysteries.
Dating back to the early middle ages, Milan has gone through struggles between noble families and political regimes, war, foreign occupation, and even the plague. It has a rich, yet dark history. Here are some of the mysteries lurking behind the tall, wooden doors and in the narrow cobblestoned alleyways of la città Ambrosiana.
The emblem of the Visconti, the ruling family of Milan in the 11th century depicts a serpentine creature with a dog’s head eating a boy. The family ruled until the 15th century but the emblem and symbol remained as the coat of arms of the Sforza Castle and is still found today on municipal flags and seals. If you look closely, you’ll also find it on the Alfa Romeo logo.
Legend says that Uberto Visconti took control of Milan by saving the city from a ravenous dragon that terrified the people by devouring the women and children.
The ancient legend of Tarantasio, a frightening dragon living in Lake Gerundo is folklore talked about in other parts of Lombardy. Perhaps Tarantasio had arrived in Milan via the canals where it suffered its fate by Visconti’s sword.
The Devil’s Column
A second century marble column stands alone on the left side of the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. It is not only preserved for its antiquity, but also for the two deep holes made by Satan himself. One day, on the church grounds while Ambrose was walking in contemplation, Satan joined him. The demon tirelessly tormented Ambrose until Ambrose finally gave into temptation giving the demon a violent kick, hurling him into the column. The beast’s horns stuck into the marble leaving him immobile until the next day when the devil disappeared – returning to Inferno through the holes. The Milanese still believed today that the holes are portals leading to the underworld and if you get close enough, you can smell the sulfuric waters of the Stige, the river to Hades. Every year, on the night before Easter Sunday, you may even get a glimpse of Satan driving a carriage of damned souls.
Monument to Witches
Hundreds of people walk past the tall sculpture in the park beside the Basilica of San Lorenzo every day. Il Monumento alle Streghe marks the place where executions of witches and heretics took place in Milan. The Tribunal of the Inquisition was at the nearby Sant’Eustorgio. The condoned were marched from the tribunal to the yard where they were burned alive. The first women accused of witchcraft were Pierina de Bugatis, and Sibilla Zanni in 1390; they had been found guilty of worshiping pagan goddesses. For over two hundred years other executions were carried out until the last one in 1641. Witch executions became a lucrative income for the city by drawing morbid, curious crowds.
San Bernardino alle Ossa Church
San Bernardino alle Ossa is a small church known for its ossuary chapel decorated with thousands of human skulls and bones. In 1210, when an adjacent cemetery became overcrowded, a room was built to hold bones.
In 1712 the small church was attached to the Basilica di Santo Stefano, and dedicated to Saint Bernardino of Siena. Found in a dark back corner there is a chapel where the walls are covered from floor to ceiling in eerily crafted Baroque style motifs and saintly adornments made entirely of human bones and skulls.
On the anniversary day of her death, a young girl’s ghost appears. Ghost or no ghost, it’s a jaw-dropping sight!
More Ghosts in Milan
The ghost of the La Dama Velata, the Veiled Lady searches for her lover. Her origin and name are a mystery. She appears in the Sempione Park, behind the Sforza Castle, always seemly desperate to find her companion. Those who have encountered her, all tell the same story: she is dressed in black with a black veil covering her face. As she comes closer, you cannot help but feel a strong allure and take her hand as she leads you to an old house where she lifts her veil revealing an empty skull.
It is said that Ludovico il Moro haunts the corridors of the Sforza Castle helplessly running away from the French clutching his treasure. However, he is not alone; Bianca Scappardone Visconti who was decapitated walks the passageways, as well as Bona di Savoia who cries for her loved ones and Beatrice d’Este who died screaming in childbirth.
The spirit of Lucretia Borgia wanders the corridors of the Ambrosiana Library looking for the lock of hair she hid in her love letters to Pietro Brembo. The original letters are actually held at the archive and her hair is encased and displayed in a glass frame.
In the Pinacoteca di Brera Museum, a mysterious presence sometimes trips the alarms.
Every once in a while, the ghost of the infamous opera singer Maria Callas, occasionally appears on stage at La Scala Opera House. She was a Greek-American but found her home in Milan at La Scala and apparently, did not want to leave.
There are many more secrets and mysteries lurking in the palaces and plazas of Milan. Next time, you are walking around taking in the sights, don’t forget to look over your shoulder!
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By Celia Abernethy
This article originally appeared in the L’Italo-Americano Association Publication CX N. 21