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The Devil's Column

Original version
The devil’s column is a Roman column outside St Ambrogio’s basilica in Milan. The column has two holes, which, according to the legend, were the result of the devil’s horns being stuck into the column. The legend tells that one morning St Ambrogio was walking in the garden when he met the devil who had been trying repeatedly to tempt the saint to give up his position as Archbishop of Milan. The devil approached the saint to tempt him again and the saint kicked him violently sending him against the column. The devil’s horns got stuck into the column and the devil couldn’ t get free for a whole night. The following morning, the devil dematerialized and disappeared through one of the two holes opening a gate to hell.
Alternative versions
According to an alternative version, the devil transformed into a man and tried to convince the saint to give up his religious faith. When he failed, he aimed at goring the Archbishop. The devil missed his target and got stuck into the column instead. The following day, he disappeared transforming into sulphur-smelling smoke.
Main characters
Sant’ Ambrogio: He was a theologician, an archbishop, a Roman Saint, one of the most important people for the Roman Catholic Church in the IVth century. He was born in 330, he became Bishop of Milan in 374. He died in 397 in Milan. He is the Patron saint of Milan and of beekeepers. The Devil The column : It is a marble column with a Corinthian capitol. It was said to be part of an imperial building belonging to Emperor Massimiano at the end of the III rd century.
Connected artistic / architectonic / historical heritage
• Saint’ Ambrogio basilica is one of the oldest churches in Milan, being built between 379 and 386 by Ambrogio. After the Saint’s death the church was dedicated to him. It is still one of the most important churches in Milan, a monument of paleo-christian and medieval architecture and a fundamental landmark in the history of Christianity • The column is made of a particular variety of marble. The modern name corresponds to the latin name "marmor carystium" (which means “Marble from Karystos"). It is a greenish-whitish marble with thick green and blue streaks. This variety of marble is typical of the caves near Evia in Greece
Local traditions or historical connections
According to local traditions, if you go near the two holes you can smell the sulphur and you can hear the noise made by the river Styx, the river in hell. According to another tradition, on Easter Sunday at night, you can see a chariot driven by the devil himself carrying the souls of the damned to hell using the holes as a gateway
Didactical Relevance
The students can develop their knowledge on medieval history and architecture, as well as finding information on present day Milan and its economic relevance in Northern Italy, both today and in the past. The website of the basilica offers a virtual tour of the monument: it can be a good tool to study the artistic elements which make the basilica one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Italy. The different didactical activities can be the first step for an actual school trip to visit Milan and the Basilica.
Didactical Activity
Step 1: Start the didactical activity with Geography. Ask the students to geolocalize the city of Milan in Northern Italy. Ask them to consider the central position of the city in the Po Valley and to consider its economic relevance for the region and for Northern Italy. Consider the network of connections (the railways, the highways, the airports) which make the city a “hub” for tourism, economy, culture. Find all the European and International destinations which can be easily reached from Milan. Find out the resources for tourism offered by the city, such as the museums, the monuments, the parks, the exhibitions, the theatres and opera house, the churches, the shopping districts and others. Step 2: A study of the History of the city can complement the general picture: have the students research on the medieval history (III-IV centuries) of the city of Milan from the religious, social and political point of view. Focus on the figure of Saint Ambrogio as the Bishop of Milan, on the development of Christianity in Italy and all over Europe and on the fight against heresy at the time the saint lived Step 3. Art: Ask the students to localize the Basilica on the map of Milan and to look for pictures of its interior and exterior. Ask them to have the virtual tour on the website of the Basilica and to focus on the most important parts of the monument. Point out the relevant elements which make the Basilica an example of medieval Romanesque architecture in Italy. Compare the building to other Romanesque churches both in Italy and in Europe to find out the common elements and the differences. Study the development of the Romanesque style in art. Step 4. Literature: It is important to teach the students how to read a legend and to connect it to local traditions and history. Ask the students to read the legend and reflect on it. The presence of the devil as one of the characters and the reference to hell are a good starting point to introduce the students to Dante's The Divine Comedy, and to ask them to carry out a research on the reign of hell and its rivers as they were described by the poet. The presence of the devil is common to many other legends all over Europe, ask the students to read the other legends by the partners on this “Parsifal” portal and to select those which have the devil as one of the characters, then ask them to find common elements and differences. To develop their creative writing ability, it is possible to ask the students to write their own version of the legend. Step 5. Science: a research on rocks and their formation could allow the students to focus on the materials which were employed to build the Basilica and also on the material with which the column is made. Ask them to look for pictures of the materials and in the case of marble to look for the different types of marble, the different colours and their places of origin. Step 6: Religion. Ask the students to reflect on the lives of the most common saints, on the legends in which they are involved, on the teachings and messages and on their relevance in modern times. Step 7. A class trip to Milan and to the basilica of Saint Ambrogio (full day)


Curious facts about Milan
The video is in Italian but with English subtitles
The history of the basilica
Listen to the description of the basilica and to the legend narrated in English


Sant' Ambrogio
The image of sant' Ambrogio as represented in an ancient mosaic
The Basilica of Sant' Ambrogio
The Devil's column
The column is made of marble and shows a Corinthian capitol. It dates back to the III century
The Basilica and the Column
This is a view of the Basilica. It is possible to spot the column on the left.

External Sources

The Basilica of Sant' Ambrogio
A virtual tour of the Basilica, showing the many works of art it contains

PDF version of the legend in national language