A true jewel of mysterious Milan

In Milan, not far from the splendid 15th century State University, there is the Ossuary of San Bernardino alle Ossa in Piazza Santo Stefano, in the Verziere area. Next to the Basilica, to the left of the front, there is a more intimate temple, more in the architecture than a church that would evoke a classic eighteenth-century palace. Its history is fascinating and complex, dating back to 1127, when Gottifredo da Bussori founded the hospital of Santa Barbara in Brolo, to which in 1150 was added the Hospital of Santo Stefano alla Ruota, which also housed abandoned children. When the cemetery no longer offered enough space, a new room was opened: and next to it, in 1269, the little church of Santa Maria Addolorata and of Santi Stefano e Ambrogio was built. In 1400 the Confraternita dei Disciplini, which was entrusted with the use of the building, dedicated it to San Bernardino. It was an apostolic community dedicated to prayer, the cult of the dead and self-flagellation. The followers wore a habit in raw wool and a high hood with two slits for the eyes. The waist was surrounded by a cord at the end of which a skull was dangling. Today the mummified bodies are found in the small crypt of the church. In the same chapel of San Bernardino there are also the tombs of some descendants of Christopher Columbus, with the Explorer’s coat of arms and the family motto: “Colon gave the New World to Castile and Leon”.

In 1642 the bell tower of the Basilica of Santo Stefano collapsed, damaging both the ossuary and the church. The Disciplini restored in a short time the structure that collects the human remains, thus creating a unique space, in its disturbing suggestion, where hundreds of empty orbits seem to scrutinize the visitor, while decorations of bones and skulls cover the entire surface of the room with a square plan, forming real ornaments certainly macabre, yet not without their eighteenth-century harmony. All a gloomy composition of skulls, femurs and tibias, which transcends any distinction of census and belonging, to remind us of the ephemeral temporariness of earthly life.

John V, king of Portagallo, after a visit, was so fascinated by the environment that he wanted to build another one similar to Evora, near Lisbon. But where did all those bones come from? Here reality and legend are confused. Certainly some of them date back to the ancient cemetery of Brolo. There is also talk of the possible remains of Manzonian plague victims. According to a seventeenth-century chronicler, many of the bones could also be traced back to the Milanese martyrs who died at the time of Saint Ambrose in the fight against the Aryan heresy. And they could include, according to a controversial hypothesis, the remains of Catarina, mother of Leonardo da Vinci.

The entrance door is decorated with skulls, beheaded people and on the side of the only niche stands the statue of the Madonna with black mantle, made by Gerolamo Cattaneo during the Spanish domination. Looking up, one can admire Sebastiano Ricci’s fresco on the pendentives and vault, where the material is sublimated in the spirit of the souls flying towards Paradise. Another legend would have it that on All Saints’ Night, to the left of the altar, the skeleton of a little girl is detached from the wall, dragging the others in a dance now wild and now solemn, however noisy, and those who were there for the occasion could perceive the sound clangour. For a darker vision we recommend the evening hours, preferably in winter.

Marina Viazzi

Devi essere registrato per inviare un commento Entra o registrati