1. The roots of faith and the Basilica Maior
Piazza Duomo, at the foot of the Monument of Vittorio Emanuele II.
Despite the many changes, Milan has preserved the original use of its urban areas through the centuries. The area occupied by the Cathedral and the complexes has always been, since the time of the Celts, consecrated to devotion. In the Fourth Century, here the first Christian basilicas rose here: the Maior, also known as Summer, and Vetus, also called Winter. The first, then called Santa Tecla, extended to the area between the equestrian statue of the first king of Italy and the Cathedral’s churchyard. The relic of the Holy Nail was preserved here and today it is in the cathedral. Destroyed in 1458 to make room for the Duomo, it was used from the Easter period until the third Sunday of October.
2. The Basilica Vetus, or the Winter Basilica
Piazza Duomo. The Cathedral’s Churchyard.
The Basilica Vetus used to be where today is the Duomo; it was one of the first churches to be built after the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. The Emperor Constantine, acknowledging freedom of worship to all faiths, established the possibility to allocate places to the practice of worship. From that moment, the construction of the first churches began in Milan, the oldest of which is the Basilica Vetus that stood in the apse area of the cathedral and it seems that the construction started in the year 314. Saint Ambrogio came to pray here every day.
3. The disappeared baptisteries: Santo Stefano and San Giovanni ad Fontes
Cathedral in the apsidal area.
Until the Thirteenth Century, the area, now framed by the Galleries designed by Mengoni, was a swarm of churches, monasteries, baptisteries and episcopal palaces. Santo Stefano ad Fontes was in the apse area facing Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and, along with the Baptistery of San Giovanni close by, of which the ruins lie beneath the façade of the Cathedral, it had wonderful baptismal fonts, supplied by Acqualonga, a channel system that allowed all the Duomo area to have running water. Their remains were unearthed a few decades ago and can be visited in the basement of the Cathedral.
4. Santa Redegonda: the disappeared monastery and the first thermal power plant
At the time of the Lombard people, the Monastery of Santa Maria di Wigelinda was in front of the Basilica Vetus complex. Its foundations are linked to two stories of which the protagonists are an aunt and a niece bearing the same name, Wigelinda. These two princesses were victims of turbid and bloody intrigues to conquer power, relegated to monastic life against their will. Dedicated to Saint Redegonda around the year 1130, it became a complex of impressive proportions over the centuries. In 1801, a part of the complex was converted into a theatre and then, in 1884, it was demolished to house the first thermal power plant in Italy, the third in the world after New York and London. Today, the famous Odeon Cinema, an undisputed masterpiece of Milan Deco, is in that same area.
5. Piazzetta Reale: The Archbishop’s fenced orchard
Piazza Duomo, Palazzo Reale
Since the founding of the city, this area has always been devoted to cult. The first archbishop's palaces were built here in addition to churches and convents. The episcopal complex used to be where today stands the Royal Palace square and included the gardens that extended as far as Via Larga. Surrounded by high walls, for security reasons, it was also called the archbishop’s Broletto, a term deriving from the Celtic brogilòs that was translated to brogilum in the Late Latin period and that meant “fenced orchard.” Over time, it took on, in the Lombardy area, the general meaning of a place dedicated to political power.
6. The block of Rebecchino and the district of hat makers.
Arengario, on the corner of Via Marconi.
Abandoned in the Sixth century, the area south of the Piazza Duomo continued to be an uncultivated place scattered with poor wooden buildings until the Tenth Century. This area was rebuilt only starting in the Tenth Century, a sign of population growth and of better economic conditions. In the Middle Ages, in what later became the Rebecchino block, which owes its name to a Sixteenth Century inn managed by a rebec player, there was a flourishing of precious heraldic fur trade and there was also a hat maker’s district. The district of gold merchants used to be not far away in what is now Via Torino.
7. The Broletto of Oldrado da Tresseno
Piazza dei Mercanti.
Built in 1233, commissioned by Oldrado Tresseno, the city authority, it was used until 1776 and then converted into the State Archives by the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. In the Middle Ages, this square closed on four sides was reached through one of six communication gates, two of which overlooked the Duomo: the one of the old fish market and of the Ferrata. Delegated to host the Judges’ hall, it was the centre of administrative, political and legal life of the city. Contrary to what many believe, there was never a market here. Instead, we can say that this was the ancestor of the modern Stock exchange that is not far away, in Piazza Affari, according to the city’s best tradition. Looking at the façade onto the square, we can see the beautiful Antelami relief in the middle.
8. Lombard age curtis ducis
Known to all as the Cordusio, in Lombard times, the duke's palace used to be in the area now occupied by the square. At the time of the Lombard people and then of the Franks, here stood the "Curtis Ducis" (that gave origin to the name Cordusio), seat of the Duke. Only at the end of last century, it took on the features that it still preserves, becoming the city's financial centre. In the Middle Ages it was a bustling area filled by artisan workshops located in the thick block systems that extended from the court up to what is now via Torino: Via Orefici, Via Spadari, via Armorari are the names through which their memory have been handed down. Until 1902, the home of the renowned Missaglia family, one of the most important dealers of the Fifteenth Century, was in Via Spadari and partly rebuilt in the Castello Sforzesco courtyard.