“Vediamoci alle colonne” (Let’s meet at the Columns!) is a familiar invitation in Milano: it means getting together for an evening with friends at the foot of the sixteen Corinthian columns that rise along the edge of an open piazza in front of the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore, in Corso di Porta Ticinese. The colonnade and the basilica date back to Roman times, between the 4th and 5th centuries, and are some of the most beautiful remains of ancient Mediolanum in the city.
The impressive marble colonnade is built of elements (trunks, bases, capitals and architrave fragments) dating back to the late 1st century AD and taken from an unidentified public building.
Due to its antiquity, the layout of the San Lorenzo Basilica is different from others in Milano: it has a square-shaped main body with four rounded apses, different from cross-shaped churches we are used to. It is in fact described as the oldest known example of a tetraconch (from the Greek for ‘four shells’) church.
On entering, you will be struck by the sight of the immense dome that rises above the central atrium: on the right, you can enter the Chapel of S. Aquilino, constructed between 390 and 430 AD.
Due to its octagonal lantern and the opulence of the interior, it was thought to have been built as an imperial mausoleum. Access is permitted to the foundation, in the chapel's basement, built of squared stone blocks sourced from the demolition of the nearby Roman amphitheatre. The four walls of the atrium are decorated with mosaics depicting the Patriarchs, the Apostles and a beardless Christ.
The unknown architect who worked in St. Aquilino carefully studied the path of the sun and positioned the chapel's windows correspondingly: on winter solstice the rays enter the south-east window illuminating the mosaic scene with the chariot of the Christ-Sun and then dip down to the floor; it is believed that they point to the place where the imperial sarcophagus was to be located. This fascinating play of light is still visible every year on December 25th.
Legend has it some porters found the sacred remains of St. Aquilino in a sewer in via della Palla and immediately transferred them to the basilica. To this day, porters consider Aquilino as their patron saint and offer a flask of oil in his honour every year, to keep an eternal flame burning in front of the martyr's urn.