Duomo of Milan (by Sergio Boscaino, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr)
Piazza Duomo was near the Roman Forum, and around the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, it was originally occupied by the episcopal complex, a group of buildings dedicated to the Latin church. Two churches originally stood in the square and were later demolished to make way for the construction of what is now the largest church in Italy: the Duomo of Milan. In this area were also places of worship such as baptisteries and bishop’s residences. As previously mentioned, the consolidation of the Christian cult strongly influenced the Roman Empire, ultimately establishing itself with Emperor Constantine, with whom it became ‘religio licita’, meaning a religion recognised and admitted all over the empire.
It must be remembered that before the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, Christianity, although sometimes already widespread, was still not recognised by the Roman imperial statute. This gap often resulted in violent repressions and persecution of this new Christian belief. A crucial figure regarding this matter was Ambrose, who, through significant efforts and sacrifices, engaged in a real confrontation with the empire, imposing himself as the defender of the new cult. Under Ambrose, the city of Mediolanum acquired a unique appearance, not only from a spiritual point of view. Through the impetus of Christianity, many people and entire populations slowly converted to this new religion, consolidating the foundations of a new future empire that differed from the roman hegemony, albeit with similar objectives: the Catholic Church.
Today, in memory of this past centre, right under the cathedral, we inherit an essential element of the ancient Episcopal complex of Mediolanum: the baptistery of San Giovanni Alle Fonti, which became a famous place where Ambrose baptised Augustine from Hippo, another principal Church Father, in 387 CE.
This baptistery is a chamber of octagonal shape, considered by experts to be the first baptistery in Christianity. Curiously, this particular shape has a deep religious significance, meaning the number of the seven days of creation with the addition of the eighth symbolising eternity and the eight gospel beatitudes. The baptistery has origins dating back to the 4th century and was commissioned by Ambrose. The place was used for baptism, and at the centre of the eight niches is still visible today, the basin that was once filled with water to complete the sacrament. This underground and hidden place stands almost as a secret cave under the masses of tourists who visit the Piazza Duomo daily, representing an archaeological artefact and, above all, of symbolic and spiritual value.
As an additional example of roman relevance, it is possible to observe behind the Duomo the remains of the Herculean baths, dating back around the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, once the spa of the Romans of the time, unfortunately now almost an abandoned place unnoticed by citizens and walkers.
Precisely because of the state in which the findings present themselves to their observers today, it is possible to reflect on the evolution of time and the importance of handing down the past.
It is not only the state of the findings and their preservation that matters but rather one’s desire to narrate the past and learn from it.
By connecting the dots and understanding the past, our eyesight can immediately better experience the present. History becomes an opportunity to learn if only one has the will to do so.