The Baptistery of San Giovanni alle Fonti: in search of hidden Milan

The Baptistery of San Giovanni alle Fonti during the subway excavations in Piazza del Duomo, Milan, 1960.

The restraint with which Milan has long safeguarded its masterpieces and history I find almost touching; it seemed to me a virtue born of old-world grace and gentility. Today, however, in a world that makes a great show of nothingness and elevates ignorance to a virtue, I feel anger: Milan – like the whole of Italy – is now forced to unveil itself in order to affirm its beauty and regain the place it deserves in history and in the present.

Walking along the passageways of the metro at the Duomo station, one glimpses through some of the glass panels of an archaeological area that recounts a forgotten page in the history of this city.

We are at the time when Milan was the capital of the Western Roman Empire, a few decades after the Edict of Milan (313 AD). In 387 AD, to be exact, in this place, Saint Ambrose baptised Saint Augustine. The importance of the episode goes well beyond religious considerations, as Ambrose and Augustine (I deliberately omit the religious title), in addition to being two of the four “Doctors of the Western Church”, are undeniably outstanding figures in the history of Western thought; in fact, it is no coincidence that both were baptised in adulthood and after a long secular education, often far removed from Christian teachings.

Ambrose was born in Trier, Germany, to an illustrious family of Roman origin, while Augustine was born in Tagaste in North Africa, halfway between today’s Tunis and Algiers, but it was in Milan that the two met, and it was right there, beneath the Cathedral square, next to the corridor that thousands of unsuspecting people walk along every day, that History with a capital “H” was made: the history of thought and philosophy, the history of a man who set out from Central Europe and a man who set out from North Africa who, over sixteen centuries ago, produced a philosophy that still lies at the basis of the identity of the entire Western world.

Reducing this to a mere episode in the history of Christianity would be quite wrong. It was about two restless men, in search of Truth, who travelled thousands of kilometres before they met. A meeting that is also a representation of the fundamental role Milan already played in ancient times, and of its intellectual and moral vigour in a world searching for a new order.

The extraordinary beauty of this place therefore does not lie in its octagonal shape, in the architectural details now only imaginable or in the decorations on the floors, since beauty, real beauty, springs from meaning and this place is extraordinarily rich in significance.

The Baptistery of San Giovanni alle Fonti – this is its name – accessed from inside the Cathedral, is today located between the Duomo and the Museo del Novecento. In walking just a few metres, one can pass in an instant from early Christian art to the artistic movements of the 20th century, forever in search of the True and the Beautiful.

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ArchaeologyLombardyMilanReligious architecture