Piazza Sant’Ambrogio • M2 S. Ambrogio
The Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio is of prime importance to Milan because it was founded by, and dedicated to, Ambrose, the Ancient Roman-born citizen who was elected bishop of the city by popular acclaim, in 374 A.D. Today, the church is basically Romanesque, 11th-12th century. The church itself is preceded by a pronao, a quadrilateral with porticoes that probably served to give shelter to the continuous stream of pilgrims that arrived here at the shrine of Ambrose. To the left and right of the façade, there are two bell-towers: not symmetrical design, but reflecting the fact that in the 8th century, the priests of the church were joined by a group of Benedictine monks. The two groups did not see eye to eye, the monks started the construction of their own bell-tower (the right-hand one), and so the priests followed suit. Competition was so fierce that the archbishops of the city had to settle disputes as to number of bells, who should ring at which hours and for how long. The pronao includes many Ancient Roman remains as well as fragments of Medieval frescoes. The right-hand nave culminates in an apse in which a Paleochristian sarcophagus presents possibly one of the earliest depictions of the Crucifixion.
To the right, a frescoed passage leads to a small chapel in which walls and ceiling are covered with 5th century mosaics, with depictions of six saints including Ambrose. There is now an admission charge of about €2 to see this part of the church, along with various other exhibits.
Back in the main church, the crypt gives you the chance to see the remains of Saints Ambrogio, Gervasio and Protasio. Above, the altar is surmounted by a canopy with four columns, probably taken from an Ancient Roman building and installed here in the late 5th century: the altar itself is a 9th century masterpiece, in gold and precious stones, but unfortunately it cannot be approached close-up. On the other side of the altar, in the left-hand nave, a door leads out into what remains of a courtyard by Bramante: it was extensively damaged by bombing in the Second World War. Back in the church, the pulpit is a remarkable piece of work created from various relics, including a superb 4th-century Paleochristian sarcophagus, and various other carved stone components dating to about the 8th-9th centuries. Further down this side of the nave is a large Roman column with a bronze snake on top. The snake was apparently installed in 1002, after having been brought back from Constantinople: according to tradition, it was a snake erected in the desert by Moses to keep real snakes away. For centuries, people of Milan attributed curative powers to the column: it was supposed to cure or prevent worms.