“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.” – Albert Camus, The Plague.
For centuries, the so called “Black Death” swept across the world, devastating towns and cities leaving millions dead in its wake. However, just like the characters in Camus’ famous book, out of this devastation, communities always managed to survive and find new ways of life. And today, we are lucky to have a glimpse of this particular aspect of our history thanks to the beautiful architecture that still stands in Milan as a testament to that terrible time.
Although in 1348, Milan had escaped the deadly illness with fewer casualties than the rest of Europe, the same cannot be said of the epidemics that followed. In the late 1300s after yet another outbreak of the pestilence, the Milanese prayed fervently to the Madonnina (Virgin Mary) for a cure, vowing to construct the largest cathedral in the world in her honor. The plague ceased and construction began in 1386. While it is no longer the largest in the world, at a staggering 108.5 meters tall, 158.5 meters long and 92 meters wide; Milan’s symbolic Duomo is the fifth largest cathedral ever built.
During the following century the pestilence returned many times and claimed more lives, so city officials started working on a preventative approach. In April 1456 the Duke of Milan Francesco Sforza founded the first hospital in Europe open to the public. He combined all the city’s small, monk-run hospices into a Magna Domus Hospitalis that the Milanese started calling Ca’ Granda [Big House], providing a team of trained physicians and a more suitable environment to cure the sick. Monks and doctors did their best, however, often the victims died anyway. The number of those who perished was so great that the physicians were forced to transport the bodies to a little church built in the middle of the hospital and bury them in a mass grave.
This experience prompted new strategies and between 1489 and 1509, in order to keep the moribunds away from the healthy people, the Milanese built a second sanitarium outside the city walls. The Lazzaretto was a sort of rectangular walled citadel, with a large courtyard in the middle surrounded by 288 comfortable rooms, each with a private fireplace. But when yet another new wave of plague arrived, even this was insufficient. The medics had no choice but to lay the sick in the courtyard under the stars, whilst the monks built an altar in the middle of the structure so the ill-fated sufferers could at least follow Mass and pray before dying.
Three more major pandemics hit Milan, known as the plagues of Charles V in 1524, St. Charles in 1576 and Manzoni in 1629. After these terrible experiences, the Major Hospital Ca’ Granda was forced to build a new cemetery in 1695, where a staggering one hundred and fifty thousand people were buried. Due to the sheer size of the area, a petal shaped wall was then built around the cemetery in 1731 and a new church – San Michele ai Sepolcri – placed in the middle. It then became known as the Rotonda della Besana.
All of these morbid yet beautiful constructions are open to visitors to this day. The Ca’ Granda is now home to the Università Statale di Milano [State University of Milan]. When visiting the building, which incidentally is one of the first examples of Renaissance architecture in Lombardy, take a close look at the walls; you can make out the old construction from the new by looking at the bricks; the areas belonging to the old sanitarium are in dark red brick while the newer sections are in different materials. You can still visit the mass grave in the eerie, cold, crypt, adding to the shiver-down-your-spine effect of knowing that people were buried right beneath one’s feet.
What about the Lazzaretto? Well, it was almost completely destroyed in 1890 during an urban requalification of Milan. Only two parts are left standing; the church of San Carlo al Lazzaretto, and a little portion of the original building in Via San Gregorio with five rooms and their chimneys.
On the contrary, the Rotonda, a beautiful example of Late Baroque architecture, has been completely refurbished; the church is used for special exhibitions and occasional cultural events and the garden is even a popular spot for parents to take their children.
As another quote from Camus says “there are more things to admire in men than to despise”. And how true this is. Throughout the centuries; even when half the city’s residents were wiped out by an unforgiving disease, the Milanese labored on through this period of great sorrow and hardship, and the beauty and rebirth that came out of it, are still visible to this day.
Ca’ Granda, Università degli Studi di Milano, Via Festa del Perdono 7 • M1 Duomo, M3 Missori
Rotonda della Besana, Via Enrico Besana 12 · M3 Crocetta + 10 minutes walk
Church of San Carlo al Lazzaretto, Largo Fra’ Paolo Bellintani • M1 Porta Venezia
The Lazzaretto remains, Via San Gregorio • M1 Porta Venezia