Milan — and Roman Ruins

Our winter vacation began in Milan on a pre-ski tour to see The Last Supper.  I had always thought of Milan as a Renaissance city, despite its reputation as a world-class business and fashion center, famous for its shopping gallery.  Which indeed it is.


Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, built in 1861

IMG_Galleria 10001



But I love to delve into the past and Milan’s Renaissance history appealed to me.  When Jim invited me to join him on his pre-ski trip specifically to view this painting, I happily accepted.  The Last Supper was commissioned of Leonardo da Vinci by the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza, also known as il Moro, around 1495-96.  Leonardo worked on it until 1498.

Ludovico Sforza had caused much turmoil in Italy during the period in which The Last Supper was being painted.  In 1494, he allied himself with the French king Charles VIII, who had a claim to the throne of Naples.  This city had, about fifty years earlier, passed from French to Spanish rule.  Moreover, the Spanish king had established an alliance with the Pope so that Naples would be inherited by his son.  To protect Milan against this Spanish-Papal alliance, Sforza invited Charles III into Italy so that he could make his way to Naples to re-claim it for France.  This opened the way for French aggression in Italy. Ultimately, in 1498, Charles VIII’s successor claimed the throne of Milan.  In 1499 both Sforza and Leonardo fled Milan; in 1500 Sforza was captured by the French, living the rest of his life as a prisoner in France, where he died in 1508.  Leonardo also spent his last years in France, at Amboise, one of the Chateaux of the Loire Valley, under the patronage of Catherine de Medici.  And his greatest painting remains in Milan.

Our visit to The Last Supper was scheduled for late in the afternoon.  That gave us a large part of the day to explore the city and learn something of its history.   Our visit began, normally enough, with a visit to the cathedral.

A visit to Italy is always a trip back in time, however, and Milan was no exception.  Besides, we are always on the lookout for Roman ruins.  Were there any in Milan, a city noted for its Renaissance culture and contemporary design?  Anyone who has studied Latin in high school has heard of Cisalpine Gaul, as the region in which Milan is located was known to Julius Caesar.  The city itself had been conquered in 222 BC and from then on was under Roman administration.  And, yes, there were traces of that time, though not many.

Very impressive nevertheless were the Columns of San Lorenzo.  They are believed to have been part of a pagan temple or a bath house of the second century AD.  Two hundred years later, they were moved to the parvis or the area in front of the Basilica of San Lorenzo


By the fourth century AD, Milan had been Christianized.  In fact, it was from Milan in 313 AD that the Emperor Constantine issued the edict that allowed tolerance for all the various religions of the Roman Empire.  From that point on Christianity could flourish openly.

Emblematic of this history, are the vestiges of this 5th-6th century church which we saw on the way to the Columns.  According to the signpost in front, it was built over “the remains of a lavish Roman residence.”


And also this niche that we found on our way to Maria delle Grazie. 


It was now the end of the day and we were making our way to see The Last Supper.  As we passed from ancient to modern times, we came upon a very interesting public building, the Stock Exchange.


It is a wonderful example of “fascist architecture.”  It is imposing and stark.  Very little of its structure is given to decoration, but what is, exemplifies Roman power and virtue.   This building calls attention to the authority of the State.  In front is an award-winning sculpture from 2000.  Its visual statement says it all.

It was the end of the day and growing dark when we finally arrived at our purpose – viewing The Last Supper.  Ludovico Sforza had purchased the monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie around 1494.  The mural was originally intended as decoration for the family mausoleum.  It was only later that the room containing the mural became the rectory for the monks, the subject of the painting being appropriate for them to contemplate while dining.


The Last Supper was a Passover Seder at which Jesus announced that one of the Apostles would betray him.  Our guide pointed out the various expressions of suspicion and horror on their faces, each man wondering who it would be and trying to assert that he himself would not be the one.  Judas is depicted as holding a purse, representing the thirty pieces of silver and reaching for Jesus’ bread.

Jim had a question:  Why was the bread not unleavened instead of the round loaves depicted since it was a Passover Seder?  We have not been able to find the answer.

It was dark when we made our way to the metro and back to our hotel and a delicious dinner.  A great ending to a great day.  Tomorrow I would be on to Paris, where I had decided I would spend part of my time looking at still more Roman ruins.




Pont de Gard and Aqueducts

Pont de Gard

Not all Roman ruins are in Italy.  The Empire was vast.  We’ve climbed Roman walls in England, found a statue of Trajan in a far-flung field in Romania.   When we visited Cahors, France, we couldn’t use the municipal parking lot because, when expanding it, workers discovered Roman ruins.  All work stopped and the archaeologists were called in.  These ruins are a patrimony to be conserved and appreciated.

France, when it was Gaul, was a part of the Roman Empire.  One of the most impressive relics of that time exists almost intact:  The Pont de Gard in Provence. 


The Pont de Gard is an aqueduct built in the first century AD to direct water from a mountain spring to the Roman colony at Nimes.  Of course, it fell into disuse when the Western Empire collapsed.  Fortunately during the Middle Ages it was used as a toll bridge, so remains more or less intact. 



Jim, being an engineer, has a lot of knowledge and something to say about aqueducts.

 Aqueducts by Jim MauroDSC00230


 Roman aqueduct technology gave the Roman population an advantage of better health over competing civilizations and better food supply as they also supplied water for their extensive crops.  The technology included:  gravity feed at a minimum slope of 1 to 4000, periodic maintenance required a conduit large enough for a person to enter through the regular openings; also at regular intervals, pools dug down, would collect sediment; if the topography was too steep steps in the conduit or large receiving pool to catch the falling water and release it into a lower conduit would be used.  They also developed a form of concrete called putoleum that would cure under water and was water proof.   Rome in the year zero received from its aqueducts as much water as New York City in the year 2000. When a large festival with many animals was staged in the Coliseum, after it was over the whole bottom area was flushed out to the river.

 The aqueduct scene that most people think of is of arches supporting the water conduit, but in reality most of the aqueduct is below grade and through mountains/hills, only 20% is above grade.  Some of the techniques used by the aqueduct engineers for siphoning water over depressions are still used by today’s hydraulic engineers.

 Aqueduct near St. Agata dei Goti 2

Aquaduct near St. Agata dei Goti (2)
Aqueduct near St. Agata dei Goti


In the Naples area the “Augustus” aqueduct was built to supply the Southern Fleet stationed in Mycenium northwest of Naples.  It terminated in the “Piscina Mirabalis” which is a One Million gallon holding facility built exclusively for the fleet. 

Entering Piscina Mirabilis
Descent into Piscina Mirabilis
IMG_0505 Light through Surface Access
Light through surface access


In Naples itself at Virgil’s tomb you can walk through a section of the aqueduct.  It is about 5 feet high & 2 feet wide.  The bottom & sides up to 4 feet are covered with putoleum cement as the rock in Naples is largely tuffa that is porous.

Roman Brickwork inside aqueduct
Roman brickwork inside aquaduct