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The Devil’s Column: a gateway to hell in Milan’s city center

3 min read

Despite its modernity and services, Milan is a city rich in history and ancient legends.
It is an ancient Roman city: founded around 590 BC, it was conquered by the Romans in 222 and renamed Mediolanum (town in the center of the plain).
The remains left by the Roman presence are still visible today and testify to the wealth and beauty of the city.

If you ever happen to come to Milan and take the Green line, there’s a stop called S. Ambrogio. Exit the subway line and you’ll find a basilica dedicated to the eponymous saint, better known in the English world as Saint Ambrose.
The church, consecrated in 379 (yes, it is about 1640 years old!) and almost destroyed in the Allied bombings of World War II, is a shining example of very early Christian imagery and a treasure trove of religious and cultural references with its engravings and inscriptions.
On the left of the basilica’s entrance there’s a single column standing in the middle of a small square, in a completely different style than the rest of the buildings in the area. That column is known by the Milanese as the “Colonna del Diavolo”, literally Devil’s Column , and is part of one of Milan’s oldest and most beloved legends.
As story goes, Sant’Ambrogio (who was not yet saint at the time, but just a simple bishop) was out walking in the garden of the basilica, when the Devil himself appeared. He and Ambrogio had been having issues for a while, what with all the temptations business and the saint being in charge of an entire city in the process of establishing his church.
Ambrogio, in addition, was kind of a very big deal at the time, a mixture of holy man and an incredibly skilful politician, so the Devil spent a lot of time trying to corrupt him, which annoyed the bishop to no end. And so Ambrogio, being a practical problem solver, literally kicked the Devil in the butt and slammed him into the column, where his horns got stuck creating the holes you can see still today.
It seems that the Devil tried to set himself free for the entire night, giving up at dawn and disappearing in a puff of sulphur-smelling smoke. And so, since that day, on the night of Easter’s eve, you can see him on a carriage passing in front of the basilica, dragging the souls of sinners down to Hell.

But, legend apart, where did the Column come from?
It’s a Roman ruin, dating back to the second century AD and It seems that it had a strong symbolic value. It is said, in fact, that all the emperors, before the coronation, had to embrace it.
At the time it was not located where it is today, but in a more isolated area. Archaeologists speculate that in reality it is a remnant of an ancient second-century palace that was only later transported to the square in front of the Saint Ambrose church.
However, historical facts are really confused. I couldn’t find any information on how the column’s story shifted from its historical roots into folklore, as folklore is oral, tradition, and it’s constantly evolving. And tracking down its evolution is often close to impossible.