Hidden Seeds

March 14, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

MILAN, ITALY — Milan, Italy.--Friends of mine are sure that the only places worth visiting in Italy are two medieval walled towns, with their tilting towers and churches not remade to later Renaissance or Baroque styles. The big cities are, in this view, too successful for their own good. Growth and modern needs have effaced the past. Only Florence and Venice, of the big cities, have partially escaped this fate. Rome, Naples, Genoa and Milan have almost totally buried their medieval past.

Of all these cities, Milan, as the most modern, is considered the most cursed. The fashion industry, the automobile industry, and (now) the corruption industry have put a slick and ugly surface over this old center of the Roman empire.

But a paradox of these new cities is that they often uncover older things than the Middle Ages. By digging foundations for modern structures, workers dig up a deeper past. Milan, of all places, is the best example of this. In 1943, people were digging a bomb shelter to escape Allied planes' raids, when they came on ancient remains of the church under the city's huge cathedral (the Duomo). Postwar need prevented an exploration of this find until the 1960s, when the subway was being dug near the Duomo.

An octagonal pool was found with formal steps, which was recognized as the baptismal pool for which Ambrose, the 4th-century bishop, composed eight Latin verses to be placed on each side of the pool. This amazing find gave us back the site where Ambrose baptized a young North African named Augustine -- who, after his return to Africa, wrote the books on which medieval Christianity was based: ''The City of God,'' ''The Trinity,'' ''The Confessions.''

This Ambrose was a tough church ruler, the son of an aristocratic Roman family, who defied the Roman emperor when his palace was in Milan (not in Rome). Just before coming to Italy, I was studying the work of Chicago's great city planner, Daniel Burnham, known for his grandiose schemes. Burnham's motto was ''Make no small plans.'' But Burnham's plans proved too big to be implemented. Ambrose was a city planner who succeeded. He put four churches outside the four main gates of Roman Milan.

This layout of a new city orientation was part of a year-round liturgy that celebrated the different saints' feasts at the shrines where their relics were kept. Ambrose established patterns that were followed by the whole Western church. The city grew around these satellites, still there despite much later refashioning. We can make the orbit of Ambrose's pilgrimages to this day.

At one of his new churches Ambrose died, and fragments of his ornate Roman bed, and of the precious silk coverlet put over his bier, are preserved at the church, now called by his name.

The odd thing is that these great remains of the ancient church are largely ignored by people who say they come to Italy to rediscover the past. Thousands of pilgrims go to the shrines of St. Francis and St. Clare in Assisi for every one person who goes to these sites of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. Both times my wife and I were in the museum with Ambrose's relics, we were alone. The Duomo throngs with tourists, but hardly any go underground to the ancient baptistery.

Yet that octagonal pool was so revered in the past that many church sanctuaries and bell towers were made octagonal in its honor. One sees them everywhere, sprouts from the hidden seed that the modern world was unaware of until the 1960s. There is no more sacred or awe-inspiring place in this country full of sacred places. Even in the newest town one can find the oldest treasure.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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