Milan, Museo Civico Archeologico

Corso Magenta 15
Phone: 02 88445208
Hours: from Tuesday to Sunday: 9:00 to 17:30
Closed Monday
Tickets € 5

A visit to the  Museo Civico Archeologico is really a two for one deal and a good one at that: after your visit to the Museo, very nice unto itself, you can either exit the way you came in or go through the Church of San Maurizio, otherwise known as Milan’s Sistine Chapel, with beautiful frescoes by Vincenzo Foppa, Bernardino Luini and many others.

The Museo is housed in what was formerly one of the largest convents for Benedictine nuns in Lombardy, the Monastero Maggiore. As soon as you pass through the main gate on Corso Magenta and enter the first small garden you leave the noise and bustle of the city behind you and are pervaded by a sense of peace. If you really get your timing right you’ll come at around noon, as the school groups leave and you have the whole place to yourself.

The monastery was built on the remains of a Roman villa and incorporates a square Roman tower that was once part of the hippodrome as its bell tower. Another Roman tower, that looks round at first glance but is actually a 24 sided polygon, was part of Roman Mediolanum’s city walls in its heyday in the year 300 AD. Back then the emperor was Augustus Maximian, not Armani Giorgio. There is a model of Mediolanum, complete with it amphitheater, in the first room of the Museo.

In the first part of the Museo there is a small cloister with the funerary monuments of a Milanese cobbler and a cloth merchant, just to give you a sense of commercial continuity. To the back of it is an abandoned space of graves and garbage.

Most of the Museo is in a modern building to the right across the garden, past the polygonal tower. The first section is on Cesarea Marittima in Israel and includes some wonderful mirrors made to ward off the evil eye and some fabulous, if illegible, tabella defixiones or curse tablets. These tablets were used throughout the Greco-Roman world to ask the underworld gods or the deceased to help put a curse on a person or object. Since very few people could write back then, tablets were prepared by professionals with blanks left for inserting names by request. Some are inscribed with voces mysticae, meaningless babble words that demons would understand. Text was scratched on thin sheets of lead that were then rolled up and hidden.

Tabella defixiones could be used against thieves, counterparts in lawsuits or even rival sports teams. Some were used to cast love spells. Some historians have compared them to swearing, saying that they were commissioned in anger or envy. Cassandra is most interested in the ones created in moments of unhealthy obsession towards a person of romantic interest. Because the best things in life never change.

Heading upstairs, you go through the Early Middle Ages and the Barbaric invasions. The theme seems to be from Chaos to Christianity, but Italy is a Catholic country after all and its formerly great empire was toppled by hoards of bearded barbarians. The Italian word for beard is barba, and the word for barbarian is barbaro, but currently beards, the telltale sign of lack of civilization in the Roman Empire, are fashionable- even here.

You’ll find a lot of rusty weaponry and a mannequin that seems to have been dressed in woman’s clothes by mistake.

The Etruscan section has some family tombs,

while the Greek section has heavenly bodies, theatrical masks and what may be the original Venus on the half shell.


Back downstairs there are more heavenly bodies. Cassandra did her best to get behind the marble fig leaf, a prudish coverup addition onto a colossal statue of Heracles.

Cassandra also found a nose job, by Jove!

From here it’s on to the monastery proper and Bernardino Luini’s beautiful frescoes.

Suggested listening: The Pogues,The Curse of Love

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