ABBEYS, FARMHOUSES AND WATERWAYS IN SOUTH MILAN AND LODI AREA
The suggested itinerary provides an interesting and unusual view of Milan and its surrounding areas. An interesting route to be taken by car, bicycle and, in some stretches, even on waterway boats.
The province of Milan is often mistakenly considered a purely industrial setting, the typical outskirts of a modern metropolis with grey warehouses and blocks of flats. Nothing could be further from the truth. Milan is, without doubt, a typically “business” destination, thanks to its commercial vocation and the many trade fairs organised in the new Rho exhibition centre, but both the city itself and the surrounding towns and villages will not fail to surprise visitors.
Outside the metropolis lies, for example, the Parco Sud Milano (South Milan Park), an enormous green lung that extends as far as the province of Lodi, where the agricultural landscape is only interrupted by little characteristic towns and villages, real oases for those seeking relaxation and good food. Like Basiglio, for example, an ancient farming village lapped by the river Olona (which is also the site of the modern residential district of Milan 3).
The area is dotted with important mediaeval abbeys of that remain popular pilgrimage destinations still today, often hosting religious concerts, particularly around Christmas. A couple of important examples are the abbey of Morimondo, near Abbiategrasso and that of Mirasole.
It is the economic capital of Italy and one of the most important European cities: Milan is famous worldwide as a fashion capital and home to true “Made in Italy” style. In fact, the streets of the city provide constant temptation for shopaholics.
But the Lombardy capital is not only the reign of shopping. Milan boasts a very ancient history, of which important evidence remains. It was founded by the Celts in around 600 B.C. during the Roman domination (the Romans conquered Milan in 222 B.C.) and the city grew in importance, finally becoming the capital of the western Roman Empire (301 B.C.). Important evidence remains of the Roman period, such as the San Lorenzo columns, an ancient colonnade situated opposite the church of San Lorenzo on Corso di Porta Ticinese, an area of the city considered, along with the Brera district and Navigli area, as one of the hubs of Milanese nightlife.
Yet Milan is also a great place of spirituality, as proven by the imposing cathedral, the only true example of gothic architecture in Italy. Saint Ambrogio, who became the city’s bishop in 374 A.D., is still loved and remembered today. Today he is the patron saint of Milan and the Basilica that bears his name is a pilgrimage destination.
A trip to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie is a must and has been classified as Heritage of Humanity since 1980.
The Last Supper is the result of the sublime invention of Leonardo da Vinci and came about from the use of light and new prospective behind the diners. The opening of three windows, beyond which a luminous landscape can be seen, against the light illuminates the apostles also from behind and the sides. This unique perspective is the result of a revolutionary blend of Florentine space perspective and that obtained using chiaroscuro.
The 7th of December, the date devoted to St. Ambrogio, marks the start of the traditional Christmas market “Oh bej, Oh bej!” (in Milanese dialect: “How beautiful, How beautiful,” in reference to the goods). The fair takes place all around the spectacular Sforzesco castle. Built on the remains of a Roman “castrum,” the castle was home first to the Visconti family and later to the Sforza family, who helped make Milan great in the 15th century. In particular, the castle is associated with the figure of Ludovico Sforza, known as “Il Moro,” backer of Leonardo da Vinci. Later, Milan was conquered, first by the French and then the Spanish, a difficult period also marked by terrible pestilence and masterfully described by writer Alessandro Manzoni in "The Betrothed," the most important Italian novel. Then came the turn of Austrian rule, resulting in the construction of the Scala Theatre, one of the temples of “good song” where artists such as Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi triumphed. The Napoleonic era instead gave rise to the civil arena, the archway of Foro Bonaparte and the building of the Vecchio Politecnico in the Città Studi area, which still today boasts important university buildings, although the most evocative remains the central base of Via Festa del Perdono, still today referred to as Ca’ Granda, which rises up in the old hospital ordered by the Sforza family.
You need merely take a stroll through the city’s streets to discover a wealth of monuments, churches, houses with splendid façades, each with its own story to tell, from the Liberty building to those of Via Boccaccio. Today, in 2011, the imposing presence of Palazzo Altra Sede of the Lombardy Regional Authorities remains admirable, a unitary complex of buildings – which, using avant-garde technology, looks to maximum energy savings and environmental sustainability – including a 161.3 metre tall skyscraper, the tallest in Italy and symbol of the city’s urban re-launch.
The town of Chiaravalle links its history to that of the abbey from which it takes its name and was built in 1135 by Saint Bernard. On return from the French abbey of Clairvaux after a trip to Rome, Saint Bernard was deeply struck by the difficult living conditions of the area’s farmers, who had to battle with swampy lands and an environment that were, at the time, unhealthy. The Benedictine monks who set up in Chiaravalle gave an important boost to the reclamation of the swampy territories and, thanks to new, revolutionary farming techniques, such as water-meadows, successfully improved living conditions in the area. Alongside them, they had an unusual ally: the stork, which, feeding on the water snakes (and, of course, the snake is the biblical image of the devil), was considered a living symbol of divine providence. Its figure remains sculpted in the inlaid wood and on the splendid tower that overlooks the abbey, and for many years they nested there, filling the air with their "chatter." Still today, the locals use an onomatopoeic term and call it the “ciribiriciàcula.”
In addition to the tower, the mill leaves its mark, along with the silence of the cloisters and the beautiful wooden choir stand within the main church.
The abbey is still today inhabited by Benedictine monks.
A town on the outskirts of Milan, Opera is an excellent starting point for visiting the abbeys: the Abbey of Mirasole can be found in Opera and dates back to the Middle Ages. Built by order of the Humiliati, rather than a monastery the abbey was actually a proper farm and entirely self-sufficient: the Humiliati, in fact, tried to live like the early Christian communities, working and praying. Both monks and laymen belonged to the order along with their families.
Outside Porta Vigentina, 10 km from Milan, the abbey of Mirasole was built in the first half of the 13th century. At present, it is one of the most typical and best preserved mediaeval colonic courts.
The architectonic complex includes the agricultural buildings, the 14th century church of S. Maria Assunta and the cloisters dating back to the 1400s with an open gallery of columns in terracotta on the first floor. The church of Santa Maria Assunta has a single nave on the back wall of which a large fresco painting takes prime position, created by the Lombardy school and depicting the Assumption. The church also holds many 15th and 16th century paintings.
The abbey is today open to the public and in autumn stages a long season of concerts and musical events.
Just a short way from Milan, the town of San Giuliano Milanese is famous above all as a solution for business travellers. It does, however, hold important surprises for tourists who visit the abbey of Viboldone to admire the beauty of its architecture and 14th century fresco paintings, making it one of the most important mediaeval complexes of Lombardy. It was founded in 1176 and completed in 1348 by the Humiliati. The architectonic style is midway between Romanesque, as shown by the clean design and use of terracotta, and gothic. The style is reflected in the acute archways and crossover vaults that accompany worshipers through the church up to the altar, surrounded by fresco paintings attributed to the school of Giotto. On 21st March 1963, cardinal Montini was in Viboldone for the festival of San Benedetto: it was his last trip because he was to be elected pope just a few months later.
Rocca Brivio can also be found in San Giuliano and is one of the defensive bulwarks erected along the Milan – Lodi road in the late Middle Ages, at the time of the war between municipalities. In 1515, the Rocca was the star of the battle of Marignano, the famous “Battaglia dei Giganti” (Battle of the Giants), which saw the French, Landsknecht and Milanese armies battle for possession of the Dukedom of Milan. Just a short way away from San Giuliano, visit the ancient Marignano (today “Melegnano”), which preserves the castle and important mediaeval and baroque churches. Rebuilt in 1600 by the marquis Brivio, who gave it the baroque appearance it has today, the Rocca faced a new major battle in 1859, when Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoia entered Milan with Napoleon III, after having defeated the Austrians. Today it is owned by the city council and is often used to host exhibitions and cultural activities, although it can also be rented out privately for events and weddings. History, however, is not all heroes: in San Giuliano you can also visit the museo della civiltà Contadina Cascina Carlotta (Cascina Carlotta museum of farming civilisations), where you can experience the daily lives of nineteenth century farmers first-hand.
Sant’Angelo Lodigiano is today located in the province of Lodi. In the Middle Ages, however, the two cities were rivals and Sant’Angelo was linked to the dukes of Milan. This is why in 1224 the imposing castle was completed, which still overlooks the city today and attracts visitors from all over northern Italy. In 1370, the queen of Scala, wife of Bernabò Visconti, elected it as her preferred home and embellished it with fresco paintings and architectural treasures.
Today, the Bolognini castle houses three museums: the Museo storico-artistico Morando Bolognini (Morando Bolognini historical-artistic museum), with furnishings and paintings from the 18th through to the 20th centuries, armour and gates in wrought iron, the Museo lombardo di Storia dell’Agricoltura (Lombardy museum of the History of Agriculture) and the Museo del pane (Bread museum).
Sant’Angelo is, in fact, considered the “city of bread.” It is in Sant’Angelo that Saint Francesca Cabrini was born: her home has been turned into a museum. The founder of the Istituto delle Missionarie del Sacro Cuore di Gesù missionary institute in 1880, from 1886 to 1915 she assisted thousands of emigrants who left Italy on board enormous ships in search of a better future in America.
From Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, Lodi is within easy reach, a small but interesting city in terms of the cultural life that still retains the allure of the 19th century and traces of the Middle Ages. The Lodigiana countryside is also filled with watercourses, fields and small forests, perfect for exploring by bicycle.
Basiglio (Basili in Milanese dialect) has just 8,500 inhabitants. It is situated in the southern outskirts of the city of Milan. Lapped by the Olona and including the residential district of Milan 3, Basiglio was erected in the Middle Ages and its history is closely linked to that of the Lombardy capital. Its previous inhabitants were farmers, but now many of its inhabitants belong to the wealthier classes and have chosen Basiglio as a home in which they can enjoy the peace and quiet and healthy environment.
Basiglio retains its farming tradition and its cultivated lands, which exceed the inhabited surface area, mainly offering rice, produced in large quantities year after year.