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If Meersburg is the most Italian settlement in Germany, then Milan is the most Germanic city south of the Alps.[1] And so – assimilating to stereotypes of snobby workaholic locals – visitors have historically tended to travel on business rather than leisure. Not surprising perhaps given the city contributes ten per cent of the nation’s GDP. 

That’s all been quietly changing over the last decade, however. In fact, its tourist stats now match Rome’s with roughly nine million per annum, and not just because the city acts as a travel hub for the lakes. Instead, much of its traffic is thanks to its football tourism, design expos such as salone de mobile and fashion venues like the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuel II. This trade could go higher if Milan played two of the strongest card in its hand: its Roman cum Byzantine culture paired with a dangerously calorific dose of Lombardy’s cuisine. 

Exterior of Sant'Ambrogio Milan

Yet both are undervalued. If Milan’s culture is mentioned, orations on the greats of Teatro alla Scala tend to follow rather than the inventories of ancient churches. And if food is referenced, Milanese dishes such as mondeghili or meaty tagliolinis are belaboured with faint praise such as “stolid,” “unpretentious” or even “improved by migrants” instead of being applauded for marrying the cucina povera (poor man’s cuisine) with the cooking methods and pastry techniques of France and central Europe.

Much of this can be attributed to the over-simplified notion that Italian food is southern Italian food but there’s a certain Milanese complicity too. With its caricatured personality of wealthy indifference, the city has the airs and graces of a place that doesn’t need to confect a food culture to be somewhere, it already is somewhere.


What follows, then, is an account that eschews the Duomo and the usual litany of exhibitions, museums, opera houses, football stadiums and Michelin restaurants (Milan has the most in Italy). Instead, it’s time to search for Byzantine churches while fuelling ourselves on the dishes of distressed trattorie. You know, the sort that serve dishes – like tripe or ossobuco with gremolata – that make even the weariest of nonnas squeal with joy.


Located in the Padan Plain (beneath the Gotthard Pass), Milan has historically always been wealthy thanks mainly to its role as the gateway (read: toll-booth) of Italy, its rich lands – irrigated by the River Po – not to mention its wool, silk and weapons industries.


The ancient city (Mediolanum) was typically Roman in that it possessed two major thoroughfares, the traditional cardum and decumanum, which crossed at the Forum, today’s Piazza San Sepolcro. This area, once framed by baths, a circus and an imperial mausoleum abutted on to the imperial palace, which occupied a huge area between Via Meravigli and Via Torino.

Its remains today are best seen in Via Brisa but, in reality, these ruins amount to little more than foundations. Better to visit the Archaeological Museum based next to the ex-convent of San Maurizio, which contains Roman funerary stelai, mosaics and statuary but most impressively, the well-preserved parts of the Massimian walls and towers.

Capital of Sant'Ambrogio Milan Italy.jpg

It was the Maximian (d.310) of these walls who elevated Milan from a once Celtic provincial capital into the capital of the western half of the Roman Empire as part of the tetrarchy. Yet his name – even in Milan – is usually eclipsed by the emperor whose life fills part of the Duomo’s porta minerbi: Constantine the Great. 

Despite the fact the “Edict of Milan” was promulgated by Licinius in Nicomedia in AD 313 (and even then was simply a confirmation of Galerius’ edict of AD 311 [Serdica], which hadn’t been implemented properly), not Milan, and despite the fact it was not an edict (but a letter to the governors of Asia Minor and the East explaining how to treat Christians), its gist i.e. that Christianity could enjoy the rights of other faiths, has been honoured as a pivotal moment in history.

Yet the city had no need to invent historical supernovae. It possessed a titan in Ambrose of Milan (d.397). The Roman whose sermons converted one of the Church Fathers – Augustine of Hippo – used his Greek to study Philo, Origen and Athanasius, and he became famous not only for refusing Arians two principal urban churches (on sufferance of his own martyrdom at court) but also for excommunicating Theodosius for massacring approximately 7,000 at Thessalonica.[2] If you want to see the man who told the emperor to imitate David’s repentance before he could be admitted to the Eucharist, he can still be seen today in the crypt of San’Ambrose alongside the corpses of Gervase and Protase.

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Apse of Sant'Ambrogio Milan Italy.jpg


When you enter this church (via one of its medieval gates, known as the postern of St Ambrose, which marked the Hortus Philipphi – an area for Christian burials)[3] walk towards the right of the apse where the small trapezoidal room Sacello di San Vittore in Ciel d’Oro predates even the main church, and was once independent of it. Possessing monograms that ensure it can be dated to before AD 313, it was built by the bishop Maternus for the relics of St Victor, an imperial soldier martyred by Maximian, but later accommodated adorably accurate portraits of Maternus and Ambrose too.

Now wheel back to pray, either before the ninth-century altar (which looks like a Frankish version of Venice’s impeccably Byzantine pala d’oro) – once adorned with one of the famous Byzantine “hunter” silks – or take the stairs to the crypt behind. A spiritually charged space, with the skeletons of the martyrs flanking Ambrose in their zany vestments, there is a palpable sense of being in the presence of faith’s power; a holy cockpit emitting that peculiarly Christian blend of contrition and joy.[4] If this overawes, make a beeline towards the most outrageous conglomeration of late antique and early medieval beauty I’ve ever seen: the ambo.

Its eclectic, magpie-ish character may be due to the fact S. Ambrogio’s vault collapsed in 1196 and its current condition reflects the best recoverable fragments. Supported by slender columns atop the sarcophagus of Stilicho, highlights include the last supper, Daniel in the lion’s den, the adoration of the magi, the labours of Adam and Eve, and two birds drinking from the cup of eternal life.

Achilles Zeus Ambrosian Illiad Milan.jpg

Whether the sarcophagus was Stilicho’s is moot. It was certainly made for a senior official (perhaps even the emperor Gratian, or the general Theodosius) as he appears on the north side and on the lid. Another side depicts the traditio legis, while the other shows Christ teaching the apostles. 

Before leaving, admire the apse mosaic, which is probably early thirteenth century and is less interesting for its enthroned Christ as “ego sum lux mundi” than its attempts to link St Ambrose and Milan with St Martin and Tours in order to emphasise their roles as bastions of orthodoxy against Arianism.


Last but not least is the the enigmatic serpent column. In the reign of Basil II (d.1025), the Milanese archbishop Arnulfus II visited Constantinople and was invited to select a gift from the imperial treasury (probably as part of a failed marriage proposition on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperors). He chose a Hellenistic bronze serpent and upon his return to Milan, this was erected in San’ Ambrogio.[5] Like Moses’ bronze serpent it was placed high on a pillar and following John 3:14 it sat opposite its equivalent, a cross also raised on a pillar.



Trippa means tripe, and this entrail-based dish often features on the menu. Chef Diego Rossi trained with famous Dolomites-based chef Norbert Niederkofler. The menu changes according to availability, but, as a general rule, Rossi repurposes “peasant” cuisine: A risotto comes topped with silene, a herb known for its sweet and mild flavor; a soup will contain nettle and cicerchia (a local legume that used to be a pantry staple but then fell out of favour). The point is that simplicity is key: Rossi never uses more than four ingredients in a dish.




Near to Ticino Gate, S. Lorenzo – the oldest church in the city – rises above a nine-metre tall marble colonnade, which probably once formed part of the bath complex, and up until 1935 was occupied by old tenement buildings. Here, much as San’ Ambrogio’s first masterpiece was its sacellum, so Lorenzo’s is the chapel of Saint Aquilino adjoining the main church. Full of fourth-century Byzantine mosaics (with a beardless Christ again, similar to S. Ambrogio’s Christ on the ambo), a mosaic in the left apse has crumbled away revealing the artist’s drawing underneath. Another similarity to S. Ambrogio is that it claims one of its sarcophagi is to be as vaunted as Stilicho’s given it belongs to Galla Placidia.[7]


Lorenzo forms one of the four “Ambrosian” basilicas that the bishop set up to honour different biblical categories. S. Ambrogio was for martyrs; San Nazaro in Brolo for apostles; San Simpliciano for virgins and San Dionigi (Dionysius, a Cappadocian) was for prophets. The sad fact is, however, that today S. Nazaro and S. Simpliciano have been renovated too frequently for their late antique characters to shine, while S. Dionigi no longer exists.


Though not justifiable on Byzantine terms, a little detour (seven minutes south along the corso di Porta Ticinese) to the Magi at S. Eustorgio is excusable on the grounds of beauty. Founded in the fourth century but rebuilt in the nineteenth, it’s home to the gobsmackingly gorgeous Portinari Chapel. Decorated with scenes from the life of St Peter of Verona and a fourteenth-century sepulchre for the saint by Giovanni di Balduccio (a pupil of Giovanni Pisano), the restraint and discipline of Vincenzo Foppa’s frescos (and unknown architect) offset by the skywards exuberance of the late Gothic tomb results in something ineffably pleasing to the eye.

Theodelinda chapel.jpg


The church once housed the relics of the Magi until they were stolen by Frederick Barbarossa and translated to Cologne. Indeed, the city hasn’t been particularly fortunate in war. Sacked by Goths in AD 402 (when the western Roman capital was moved to Ravenna), it was taken again by the Gothic general Uraia in AD 539 and by the Lombards in AD 569 (who took Ticinum too and made it their capital renaming it “Pavia”). 


If historical interests extend to the churches of the Lombards it’d be daft to miss visiting San Vincenzo in Prato, a ten-minute walk north-west via Via Marco D’Oggiono. Founded in the eighth century by King Desiderius, it’s kept most of its personality. Though not even Vincenzo can compete with Monza cathedral – a fifty-minute car journey – which possesses the Iron Crown of Lombardy (supposedly inlaid with a nail from the True Cross) and the stunning chapel of Theodelinda, which dazzles with fifteenth-century frescoes.[8]


Continuing our conquering theme, the Carolingians took Milan in AD 774, but few of Charlemagne’s successors exercised large amounts of authority, making it necessary for Otto I to retake the city Milan in AD 961. The more the Holy Roman Emperors sought to convert their nominal legitimacy into tangible power, however, so local resistance grew proportionately. In 1162, Frederick Barbarossa sacked Milan, and the Lombard League was born shortly after. Defeating the emperor at Legnano, the Peace of Constance was signed in 1183 giving Milan a large measure of independence.


One of the biggest sponsors of the city (and others such as Ancona) in this period was a figure no less than the Roman Emperor in the East, Manuel I. When Germanics destroyed Milan, it sent envoys to Constantinople c. 1167 and as a consequence the Byzantine Emperor extracted an oath of fealty (“imperator exegit fieri fidelitatem sibi”) in return for a hundred pounds of gold.


His namesake, Manuel II, also gave the city gifts. Though Constantinople was in much reduced circumstances by the early fifteenth century, the emperor, with good reason to highlight the theme of a beleaguered sacred city during his tour of the West, showed alertness to the connection between heavenly protectors and the appeal of images to lords of others cities. And so he presented an icon (that’s now in Freising), which was originally dated to the thirteenth century but had an image of the Virgin overpainted and provided with an elaborate revetment, which melodramatically reminded the reader of the “hope of the hopeless.”


M. Vassilaki suggests the inscriptions and overpainting were instigated by Manuel while resident at Thessalonica. She argues that he presented the icon (as well as a thorn from Christ’s crown) to the Duke of Milan, Giangaleazzo Visconti, while visiting his city in 1400. A duke on the make, he could have burnished his regal pretensions by coming to the aid of such a prestigious city.[9]




Gambero Rosso, the Italian authority in food publishing, praised Trattoria Mirta for offering a “reassuring experience,” but it’s by no means a run-of-the-mill Italian restaurant. Uruguayan chef Juan Lema, who named the restaurant after his mother, puts his own spin on traditional dishes, such as Parmigiano encased in phyllo dough and brasato (braised beef) cooked in chocolate and blueberries. For all that though, the most popular dish is the most traditional of all: fresh pasta with Amatriciana (made using guanciale – cured pork cheek– chillies, white wine vinegar and wine) – just don’t mention the fact it hails from Lazio.


[1] Interestingly, many Milanese don’t see this comparison as particularly surprising given they consider themselves Gauls or Germanics who occupy the southern flat-lands of the Alps rather than the north, hence the Roman name for this province: Cisalpine Gaul or “Gaul on this side of the Alps.”

[2] For those interested in Greek texts in Milan, the best pit stop is the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. Famous for possessing the Ilias Picta or Ambrosian Iliad, a fifth-century vellum manuscript that depicts the entirety of Homer’s Iliad, it’s considered unique thanks to being the only set of ancient illustrations that depict scenes from the Iliad. Other worthy works include the Uncial 0135, a Greek uncial manuscript of the New Testament dated to the ninth century, as well as the Codex Ambrosianus 436, a twelfth century text that contains Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul in Greek miniscule.

[3] Its two main gates, Porta Ticinese (by San Lorenzo Maggiore) and Porta Nuova medievale, form the survivors of the old Cerchia dei Navigli (Canal Ring) that later mimicked the medieval circuit of the walls, built to withstand Frederick Barbarossa. 

[4] The crypt wasn’t built until the late tenth century. The two martyrs were originally beneath the altar of his basilica (having been transferred from the nearby chapel of Sts. Nabore and Felice). Sidenote: perhaps I’m reading too much into the intense colours of the vestments, but theologically they may indicate that the dead who die in the truth of the Lord lie far closer to the source of life than those who happen to be living wracked by sin.

[5] It may have inspired the Visconti Biscione, which replaced the scrofa simulanuta (half-woollen boar) as the late medieval symbol of Milan. It was certainly as an object of healing, especially ailments such as intestinal worms.

[6] The desire to identify the bronze serpent of S. Ambrogio as Moses’ miraculous snake was strong, despite the evidence of 2 Kings 18:3 that it had long ago been destroyed.

[7] However plausibly it was made for her, it’s incontestable that her mausoleum stands in Ravenna and she was buried in Rome.

[8] Monza is roughly half-way to the city of Cantu, making it the perfect stepping stone to San Vincenzo on the hill of Galliano. Consecrated in AD 1007, the church’s frescoes – especially those in the apse – show the martyrdom of San Vincenzo of Zaragoza and the complex provides one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture on the continent.

[9] M. Vassilaki, “Praying for the Salvation of the Empire,” Vassilaki, Images of the Mother of God (2016) 265-9.

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