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By Norbert Figueroa, an experienced architect, travel writer, long-term budget traveler, and photographer with over 13 years of travel experience in over 139 countries and counting. @globotreks


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Milan, while usually seen as a fashionable and cosmopolitan city with little or no “traditional” history, has another face many people don’t tend to explore.

The truth is, there is a lot of history here, but contrary to Rome and Florence, you will have to dig a little bit to find it.

Of all the history I saw in Milan, the aspect that captivated me the most was its dark side – the creepy, sick, and not-so-glamorous face of Milan. These are six sites I revisited a few times to find out more about the dark side of Milan’s past.

San Bernardino alle Ossa

This church is best known for its ossuary, a small side chapel decorated with numerous human skulls and bones, and probably my favorite sight in Milan.

San Bernardino alle Ossa, Milan, Italy

The church’s origins date to 1145, when a hospital and a cemetery were built in front of the basilica of Santo Stefano Maggiore.

In 1210 a chamber was built to house bones from the cemetery (which had already run out of space), next to which a church was built in 1269.

It was restored in 1679 by Giovanni Andrea Biffi, who modified the façade and used human skulls and tibiae to decorate the walls of the ossuary.

Cimitero Monumentale

The Cimitero Monumentale is one of the two largest cemeteries in Milan, but what makes it so unique is the abundance of artistic tombs. In fact, these artistic tombs have made this cemetery one of the most popular free sights in Milan.

It opened in 1866 and was designed by the architect Carlo Maciachini to consolidate several small cemeteries that used to be scattered around the city into a single location, at that time being removed from the central city area.

Cimitero Monumentale, Milan

To appreciate a cemetery like Cimitero Monumentale, you have to be able to look past all preconceived ideas of cemeteries and death and look further into its art.

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The monuments featured in this cemetery speak of something other than death. They tell a story and speak of the person who once lived and the people that are left behind to remember them.

The beautiful aged monuments tell a story of their own and possess their own mortality, especially those that mimic our image.

Looking at this I wondered countless times, why so many feel the need to express their grief in such a manner? Well, at least they showed me how alive and evocative death could be.

As an interesting fact, Eva Duarte de Perón (1919-1952), First Lady of Argentina from 1946 till her death, was secretly buried here as María Maggi between 1955 and 1971, after military dictatorship took power in Argentina.

This cemetery is one of the most popular free sights in the city.

Having said that, if you want to have an in-depth experience at the cemetery, you can take this 2-hour long tour that explores this magnificent open-air museum.

Duomo

Here’s one of the most interesting fun facts about Italy; the Milan Cathedral, also known as Duomo, is the largest cathedral in Italy (not counting St. Peter’s Basilica which is the largest in the world, but it is in Vatican City).

As one of the most popular sights in the city, Duomo itself is not a creepy place, though I have to admit that the dark interiors can make it look creepy.

What’s dark and interesting is the statue of San Bartolomeo Flayed, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, on the left of the altar. This is the most famous statue in the cathedral, and it was sculpted by Marco d’Agrate in 1562.

The statue shows the saint completely skinned, wearing his skin like a stole. Hence, his alien-looking physique.

St. Bartholomew statue, Duomo, Milan, Italy

Christian tradition has three stories about Bartholomew’s death. One speaks of him being kidnapped, beaten unconscious, and cast into the sea to drown.

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Another tells that he was crucified upside down, and another says that he was skinned alive and beheaded in Albac or Albanopolis near Başkale, Turkey. I guess Milan’s Duomo likes or believes in the latter.

If you’re interested in seeing the Duomo, I highly recommend taking this skip-the-line tour that also takes you to the cathedral’s roof.

Here’s a short video with clips I shot on the previous three sights mentioned…

YouTube video

Lazzaretto

While Milan didn’t suffer much during the terrible “Black Death” in 1348, it suffered greatly in subsequent plagues that struck Europe – like the Epidemia Magna of 1451.

After this huge plague, the Lazzaretto was built as a hospital to shelter the lepers, keep them confined, prevent the spread of the disease, and take care of them.

Back then, at the beginning of the 16th century, the Lazaretto was a large square with a church in the center. Along the square were 288 rooms for the sick and hospital services.

The Lazaretto proved to be of great use during the following three major epidemics that struck Milan: in 1524 (plague of Charles V), in 1576 (plague of St. Charles), and in 1629 (plague of Manzoni, which combined with the 1524 plague accounts for 50,000 deaths or half of the inhabitants of Milan).

Lazzaretto, Milan, Italy

In all three cases, the sick outnumbered the amount of space in the Lazzaretto, so makeshift camps were made around the city, especially at Gentilino outside Porta Ticinese.

After the plague of 1629, the Lazaretto was used for various purposes, often military, and in 1844 the rooms were converted into homes and the church into a barn.

Today, the only thing remaining is the church, which was reopened for worship under the title of San Carlo al Lazzaretto in 1884.

Piazzale Loreto

While nothing can be seen there today, it is interesting to know that one of the most well-known events in modern Italian history happened here – the public display of Benito Mussolini’s corpse on April 24th, 1945.

Mussolini hanged at Piazzale Loreto
Mussolini Hanged at Piazzale Loreto. Image from Wikipedia.

The day before, Mussolini, his mistress, and some other high-ranking Fascists had been captured and shot by partisans near Lake Como.

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Their bodies were taken to Milan and hung upside down from the roof of an Esso petrol station in the square (which does not exist today).

Later, on the 29th of April, Achille Starace, a prominent leader of Fascist Italy before and during World War II, was taken to the square, shown the body of Mussolini, and shot.

The body of Starace was subsequently strung up next to Mussolini’s. The bodies were photographed as a crowd vented their rage upon them.

The display of these bodies took place in the same spot where, one year before, Fascist squads had exposed the bodies of fifteen Milanese civilians (the so-called “Martyrs of Piazzale Loreto”) whom they had killed in retaliation against the partisan activity.

Piazzale Loreto, Milan

While it is hard to pinpoint the exact spot where the bodies were hung, it is most probable that it happened near McDonald’s (in the above picture).

Parco Ex Trotter

This park has more history than you’ll imagine by just looking at it when strolling through it. 

Before, it was a horse racing ground – from which it gets its name – but even more interesting, it used to house a school for children with tuberculosis.

The school, called Casa del Sole (House of the Sun), used the park grounds to entertain and educate the children. 

Today, in front of the school building, you can see a few old pictures of children playing in the park.

Casa del Sole, Milan, Italy

And you thought Milan was only about fashion?

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16 Comments

    1. Thanks, Jessica! Oh yes, this side of Milan is not often sought. I have to thank my friends in the city who illuminated me with most of this information. 🙂

  1. Very interesting take on Milan. Not one of my favourite places I have to admit, but interesting due to its history for sure.

    1. Thanks, Christina. Sure, Milan is not the Italian city many people seek after, but it still presents some good takes on history and more.

  2. Great post! I have always thought that Milan is all about fashion. I definitely have to visit San Bernardino alle Ossa one day. It looks quite interesting.

    1. Thanks, Milena! Yes, Milan is mostly about fashion, but I think its hidden history is just as interesting. Do go to San Bernardino! Worth it!

  3. Piazzale Loreto – Mussolini’s corpse and other’s were taken to Milan and hung upside down from the roof of an Esso petrol station at Piazzale Loreto, which was located between Corso Buenos Aires and Viale Andrea Doria, where now there is a building with a bank at the ground floor. After the war, the appearance of Piazzale Loreto was changed to adjust to the increasing road traffic of the city.
    Lazzaretto – Milan did not suffer during the plague of 1348, likely due the initiative of Luchino Visconti, who ordered that all gates be guarded and anyone entering the city be checked for symptoms of the disease. When nevertheless three families in the city contracted the plague, Visconti simply had them immured in their homes (Geo Epoche magazine ‘Die Pest’, p. 139).

  4. Very informative and interesting article. Never ever remove it from internet. All the future generations have right to know.