If you’re the kind of person that likes to read about curious facts, this article is for you! Milan may come second to Rome in terms of size, history, and population, but it’s home to curious buildings, interesting traditions, and even some mysteries!
As a born and bred local, I know plenty of interesting facts about Milan – here I’ve collected my favorite 30 Milan curiosities, but I’m sure there are more!
Curious Facts About Milan History
1) Milan was Founded by the Celts
Milan was founded by the Insubrians, a population of Celtic origin, around 600 B.C. It is believed that the city’s first name was Medhelan, which became Mediolanum when the territory was conquered by the Romans in 222 B.C.
The Latin term ‘Mediolanum’ means ‘in the middle of the plain’, referring to Milan’s location at the center of the Po Valley.
2) The ‘Scrofa Semilanuta’ – Milan’s First Symbol
There is an alternative theory about the origin of the term ‘Mediolanum’. The founder of Milan was a Celt named Belloveso, who crossed the Alps looking for the perfect place to build a city. He consulted the oracles who told him to look for a sow half-covered in wool – and when he found it, he laid Milan’s first stone.
Mediolanum also mean ‘half-wool’, in reference to the legendary sow. The half-wooled sow was Milan’s symbol all throughout the early Middle Ages, and you can still see it in Piazza Mercanti, one of Milan’s most beautiful squares!
3) The Biscione
Nowadays, Milan’s best-known symbol is the biscione, translating as ‘the big snake’. It was the coat of arms of the Visconti family, rulers of Milan from the 13th to the 15th century.
The Biscione is portrayed with a human figure in his mouth – it is believed to refer to Ottone Visconti’s victory in a fierce battle with a Saracen warrior during the Crusades. The Biscione can still be seen in the logo of many Milan-based companies – such as Fininvest (Berlusconi’s holding company), Alfa Romeo, and the Inter Milan football team.
Curious Facts About Milan Duomo
4) How Long Did it Take to Build the Duomo?
The Duomo took a whopping 600 years to build. Yes, I’m not exaggerating – construction started in 1386 and only ended in 1965, when the last entrance door was installed. Countless architects, engineers, and builders worked in the construction of the cathedral, overseen by the Fabbrica del Duomo, still in charge of upkeep of the great church.
Why did it take so long, you may ask. This is due to two main reasons – wars and money problems delayed construction, and as a result the plan changed several times, to keep up with the times. Milanese people still say ‘Lungh ‘me la Fabrica del Domm’ (long like the construction of the Duomo) to refer to something interminable.
5) Statues on the Duomo
The Duomo also holds an unusual record – it’s the building with the highest amount of statues in the world, over 3400!
You’ll find statues of angels, saints, and the Virgin Mary (more about this later!) but also a whole bunch of more unusual subjects – including statues of boxers Primo Carnera and Erminio Spalla, Napoleon, and even Benito Mussolini!
6) Tarantasio the Dragon
There’s one really unusual statue on the Duomo, just to the right of the central entrance door. It looks like a cute and cuddly baby dragon – it’s believed to be Tarantasio, a dragon who used to live in the now-disappeared Lago Gerundo to the south of Milan, terrorizing villagers until he was slain.
It is unsure who killed Tarantasio – maybe Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, San Cristoforo, or one of the Visconti. Some also believe Tarantasio to be the legendary Biscione mentioned above.
The church of San Bassiano in Pizzighettone, close to where Lago Gerundo used to be, has a giant bone believed to be one of Tarantasio’s ribs.
7) The Madonnina
Tarantasio may be the coolest, but the best-known Duomo statue is by far the Madonnina (Madunina in Milanese), a 4-meter statue of the Virgin Mary set on top of the highest spire. The Madonnina is one of the symbols of Milan, overlooking the city and protecting its inhabitants.
Traditionally, the Madonnina marks the highest spot in Milan. This was once the Duomo’s highest spire, but since then various skyscrapers have been built. To keep this tradition going, a copy of the Madonnina is placed on top of every skyscraper – there’s one on the Pirelli Tower, at the top of Palazzo Lombardia, the Unicredit Tower, and Isozaki Tower.
Curious Milanese Traditions
8) Panettone in February?
Panettone is probably Milan’s greatest gift to the world – but did you know that every respectable Milanese will have a slice of panettone on February 3rd, to protect themselves from sore throat?
February 3rd is San Biagio’s day. Legend goes that the saint saved a youngster who was about to choke on a fish hook, by giving him a giant crumb to eat. For this reason, San Biagio became known as the protector of the throat.
So, what does this have to do with panettone? According to another legend, a lady brought a panettone to a monk to have it blessed, but he forgot and decided to eat it instead. When she came back on February 3rd asking for her panettone, only the empty packaging was left. The monk went to get it, trying to come up with a story… when he saw that the panettone had reappeared, twice as big as before!
Since then, a slice of panettone is enjoyed every year on February 3rd in honor of San Biagio, protector of the throat and maker of giant panettoni!
9) Ambrosian Carnevale
In Italy, Carnival is celebrated on Shrove Tuesday, the last day of fun and revelry before Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent. In Milan, it lasts until the following Saturday.
The origins of this custom date back to when Saint Ambrose was bishop of Milan. One year, he was away on a pilgrimage and due back in the city in time for Carnival. He was delayed on his journey back, and only made it to Milan on the Saturday – and since then, it became the day for Carnival celebrations in Milan.
10) Oh Bej! Oh Bej!
Did you know there has been a Christmas Market in Milan since the 1500s? The Fiera degli Oh Bej! Oh Bej! is a week-long Christmas fair, with stalls selling gifts, mulled wine, and other Christmas delicacies, starting on December 7th (St. Ambrose’s Day) and lasting for a week.
It started in 1510, when Giannetto Castiglione was sent by the Pope to Milan. Afraid he wouldn’t be welcomed well by the locals, he arrived on December 7th laden with gifts and started giving them out to children.Oh Bej! Oh Bej! means ‘oh beautiful!’ in reference to the exclamations of joy of little Milanese.
TheFiera degli Oh Bej! Oh Bej! has changed locations several times – it is now held in front of the Sforza Castle.
11) Spin on the Bull’s Balls
If you walk down Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, you may notice people spinning on their heel in a specific spot. Get closer, and you’ll see they are in fact the balls of a mosaic bull!
Spinning three times on the bull’s balls in Galleria is said to bring good luck – think a bit like throwing a coin in the Trevi Fountain in Rome. This custom was probably born as a kind of jest towards Turin, whose symbol is a bull!
Curious Places in Milan
12) Via Lincoln and its Colorful Houses
About 10 minutes from the Duomo, not far from the Conservatorio and Corso XXII Marzo, you’ll find Via Lincoln and its pastel-colored houses.
These houses were built in the late 18th century by a worker’s cooperative, to provide affordable housing for factory workers. Nowadays, they are among the most desirable addresses in the city, and one of the most Instagrammable places in Milan. Oh, how the times have changed!
13) The Rabbi’s House
Not far from Via Lincoln, in Via Poerio 35, you’ll also find another curious-looking house, looking more like a house you’d find in Amsterdam than in Milan.
It’s also known as Casa 770, as it’s the exact copy of another house, located at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, NYC. What is interesting is that the Milan house isn’t the only copy – there are 16 all over the world, in the US, Canada, and even Brazil and Australia. The Milan house is the only one in Europe.
The original house was built by a Rabbi who escaped persecution in Belarus and settled in the US. he became well known in the Hasidic community, so copies of his house were built all over the world to honor his life and memory. The house is still owned by the Hasidic community, and events are sometimes organized.
14) A Villa with Flamingos
The area around via Serbelloni, via Mozart, via Cappuccini, and via Vivaio is known as the ‘Quadrilatero del Silenzio’, a residential neighborhood with stunning villas and examples of Liberty architecture.
One house conceals a different secret – if you peek through the gates of Villa Invernizzi, Via Cappuccini 9, you’ll see pink flamingos! There have been flamingoes in Villa Invernizzi since the 70s, when Ms Invernizzi got them to make her husband happy – he wanted to leave in the countryside while she preferred to stay in Milan, so she figured that some exotic birds might do the trick.
Mr Invernizzi left the flamingoes in care of a foundation after his death, so hopefully they are well looked after!
Famous Milan People (and Ghosts)
15) Verdi and the Conservatory
Giuseppe Verdi is one of Italy’s most famous composers, and many of his operas are still performed at La Scala to this day. He lived in Milan for several years and died at Grand Hotel et De Milan – you can stay in the suite where he passed away if you so wish!
Despite being a great composer, his start in the music industry was anything but straightforward. He flunked his first Conservatory admission exam – that is funny, since the Conservatory now bears his name!
16) Carlina, the Duomo Ghost
On misty days, visiting the rooftop of the Duomo, you may see a young lady in a long black dress floating between spires and gargoyles. It’s the ghost of Carlina, a young woman who jumped from the top of the Duomo before her wedding night, to prevent people from discovering she was already pregnant by another man.
Carlina sometimes makes an appearance in newlyweds pictures taken atop the Duomo. Seeing her is supposed to bring good luck!
17) The Veiled Lady
The most famous of all Milan ghosts is probably the Veiled Lady, sometimes spotted in Parco Sempione on foggy winter nights.
The lady appears to unsuspecting passer-bys, beckoning them to follow her. Unable to refuse, people have been led to a decadent villa hidden in the depths of the park, to join an Eyes Wide Shut-esque extravaganza ending with a crazy night of love.
Only those who are able to satisfy the pleasure of the Veiled Lady are released the following morning – the others will spend eternity in the ghostly villa.
18) Milan’s First Serial Killer
Another notable Milan ghost is that of Antonio Boggia, Milan’s first serial killer, who murdered four people and hid their bodies in a warehouse near his house, in Via Bagnera.
Sometimes, walking down Via Bagnera or nearby Via Torino, you may feel a draft of chilly air in the middle of summer – this is how Antonio makes his presence known!
19) Evita’s Grave
Evita Peron never visited Milan during her life, but she resided in the city for 13 years after her death. After the military coup of 1955, her body was smuggled out of Argentina and kept in Milan’s Cimitero Maggiore, in a grave marked as Maria Maggi de Magistris.
Her body was later returned to Argentina, and a plaque in Cimitero Maggiore now marks the grave where she rested.
20) Leonardo’s Job Application
Now, the fact that Leonardo lived in Milan for several years is hardly a curious fact, right? But did you know he actually had to apply for his job?
In 1482 he wrote to Ludovico il Moro, the lord of the city, detailing his skills as a hydraulic engineer – at the time, the canal system criss-crossing the city was being expanded, and Leonardo hoped he could be of use. He ended up spending almost twenty years in the city, creating some of his masterpieces.
21) The Last Supper – Not a Fresco!
Leonardo’s best-known Milanese work is undoubtedly the Last Supper, visible in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church – BTW, don’t forget to book ahead of time!
Did you know that the Last Supper is not a fresco? It was painted with tempera over plaster, a technique that is far less lasting and requires higher maintenance compared to frescos.
More Curious Facts About Milan
22) Milan’s Execution Grounds
Piazza Vetra is a pretty park these days, but it hides a dark past – it was once home to Milan’s execution grounds.
The grounds were especially active during the Inquisition, when countless women were hanged or burned at the stake – Milan was under Spanish rule at the time. The last executions in Piazza Vetra took place in the 19th century.
23) An Incorrect Aperitivo
You can’t miss aperitivo in Milan, said every blogger ever, not knowing that no respectable Milanese would ever be seen gorging themselves from a ‘happy hour buffet’. However, there is one unmissable place for aperitivo – Bar Basso, birthplace of the Negroni Sbagliato.
In 1972, barman Mirko Stocchetto made a mistake whilst preparing a Negroni, adding sparkling wine instead of gin. The result was actually quite nice, so he dubbed it ‘Negroni Sbagliato’ – literally, ‘wrong Negroni’. Now, you can order a sbagliato everywhere in Milan, but the best is still served at Bar Basso!
24) Italy’s Largest Chinatown
In Milan you’ll also find Italy’s first and largest Chinatown, home to over 10,000 people of Chinese origin. Most come from the Zhejiang region, and started settling in Italy in the 1920s to process and sell silk produced near Lake Como.
Nowadays, Chinatown is one of the coolest places in Milan! Walk down Via Paolo Sarpi, the main drag, and take your pick from many Chinese street food places. My favorite is Ravioleria Sarpi!
25) The Names of Montenapoleone
Via Montenapoleone is one of Milan’s most famous streets, home to fashion boutiques and heart of the Quadrilatero d’Oro. Did you know the street had two other names before the current one?
Up until the 18th century, it was known as Contrada di Sant’Andrea. The, Austrian empress Maria Theresia opened a pawnshop (Monte dei Pegni in Italian), and the street became known as Via del Monte di Maria Teresa.
The pawnshop later closed down and was reopened by Napoleon – hence, the name Via Montenapoleone.
26) The Devil’s Column
In front of the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio (one of the best churches in Milan!) you can see a column with two holes in it.
Legend goes that one morning, St. Ambrose met Satan, who tries to convince the bishop to follow him to the ‘dark side’. Ambrose refused and kicked Satan away – the Devil got his horns stuck in the column, and disappeared in a cloud of sulphur. If you get close enough, it is said you can sometimes smell the sulphur!
27) How Many Columns are There?
Let’s move on to Milan’s most famous columns, the Colonne di San Lorenzo! In my post about the most beautiful squares in Milan I told you that the columns conceal a little secret, but I never said which one!
Stand in front of them and count them. How many do you see? Most people will say 16 – but did you see the tiny one with the cross at the top? There are 17!
28) The Hills of Milan
Milan is flat. Completely, 100% flat. So, why are there hills in some parks, and even an actual ‘mountain’, Monte Stella, where skiing competitions used to take place?
Let me tell you the truth – they’re neither hills nor mountains, but war debris. Milan was almost leveled by Allied bombs in 1943, and after the end of the war locals didn’t know what to do with the debris. It was decided to pile it all up, cover it with dirt and plant grass and trees – turning it into hills of sorts.
The tallest one is Monte Stella, 45 meters high, where you can enjoy cool views over the city.
29) A Bridge of Mermaids
Hidden in a leafy corner of Parco Sempione you’ll find the Ponte delle Sirenette, a cast-iron bridge with four topless mermaids guarding each entrance.
The bridge once used to span a section of the Navigli that was covered over in the 1920s. Afterwards, not wanting to ‘waste’ the bridge, it was moved to Parco Sempione – it is said that touching the mermaids’ boobs brings young men good luck on their dates!
30) Unicorns in a Church?
My favorite church in Milan is by far San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, covered in frescos from top to bottom. If you find time to visit it, look for the fresco depicting Noah’s Ark – did you see there are two unicorns climbing on the ark?
Is it proof enough that unicorns exist?