"Mediolanum" digital reconstruction (Cristiano64Vectorization, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Placing ourselves in the shoes of a Roman traveller from the 3rd century CE, in today’s Via San Vittore, we would stand quite far outside the ancient Roman walls, which are unfortunately almost completely lost over the ages due to wars, rebuilding and looting. Here, back in Roman times, instead of houses, buildings and busy roads, the entire landscape would offer a very different scene, with vast open fields dedicated to cultivating and alternating between clearings and woods.
In this very place outside the citadel once stood a burial area, later fortified and used as a mausoleum for the Roman aristocracy. This ground was supposedly a sacred place, later becoming a cemetery, which acquired particular importance and was then dedicated to burials of the upper classes of Mediolanum Roman citizens. Many sarcophagi and tombs were found here, dating between the 4th and 5th centuries CE. Above the foundations of the ancient cemetery stands today the “Leonardo da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology”, entirely dedicated to innovation and modernisation, creating an exciting contrast to the place’s ancient sacred and religious significance.
This ancient mausoleum changed shapes through the ages, keeping its religious connotation until the middle ages when the place was the residence of two religious orders, Benedictines and Olivetans, who adopted the old building to build a monastery. The structure was later bombed, partially destroyed during World War II, and rebuilt in the following years.
However, thanks to this remarkable example, from its roman origin to today’s museum, we can contemplate the countless facets and overlapping historical periods that have driven many buildings to their current shape.
Back to its Roman origins, in the lower part of today’s exposition are important visible epigraphs, particularly one belonging to the high-ranking priest “Probus”, dating to 368 CE, who lived for over 80 years, quite a long time for the standards of that time.
After entering the museum’s inner courtyard, are visible two perimeter segments of the ancient Roman Mausoleum. In particular, the intersection of the two is still recognisable as the original base of one of the eight protecting towers. With a bit of imagination, you can get an idea of the size of the ancient building and visualise it in a very different context, outside the city walls, among fields, meadows and woods. This sacred place was a destination for many ancient roman citizens, who came here to visit departed relatives and ancestors, dedicating prayers and offerings.