20 May 2012

LIFE: Underground

SARONNO, Italy –  Last January, when they were working on the restoration of the large  bronze statue of King Vittorio Emanuele in Milan’s Piazza Duomo, they found a tunnel under the statue. Now they’ve found seven rooms. The rooms are all interconnected to the central vertical shaft, which was used to lower workers inside the statue. They also found the point where, in all probability, the last worker left after completing the work. Why they are there is a mystery. No one knew about them, not even the City of Milan.  
Piaza Duomo, Milan - Statue of Vittorio Emanuele on the right
 Secret tunnels are nothing new in Milan. There are secret tunnels in other parts of the city as well. Under the Sforza Castle, for example, there’s a tunnel which Leonardo da Vinci called the ‘strada secreto dentro’, the secret street below’. No doubt it was the ace up Duke Ludovico Sforza’s velvet sleeve as the Duchy of Milan was not only a hotbed of local uprisings but a prime target for outsiders, ready to attack at the first sign of weakness. No doubt the secret road was his plan B,  for in those wild and wooly days, you just never knew when it would be prudent to slip out the back door and take the secret road out of town.
 Sforza Castle in Vigevano
Ludovico applied the same strategy in Vigevano. At that castle, his favorite, there are underground tunnels that lead to a wide, covered road that run from the center of the castle to the outer edges of the town. Leonardo da Vinci was working for the Duke when he remodeled the castle in Vigevano, and designed the royal stable. (See http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.it/2010/01/on-road-vigevano.html

There are also tunnels under Duomo of Milan. Most of the tunnels were built in secrecy so it’s difficult to know if they were built when they were building the Duomo, during the time of Duke Ludovico, or later. Were they built to save the treasures of the Duomo in case of an all-out attack, which in actually did happen in 1499, when the French King Charles VIII invaded Milan, or later, and used when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded the city in 1796? 

But it doesn’t end there. There are also secret tunnels under Milan’s Chamber of Commerce. As much as I would like to think that they were built in an attempt to save the Chamber member’s skin from hostile crowds, the tunnels were, in fact, built a long time before the Chamber moved to that location. So, whoever was there first, felt the need to have a secret get-a-way just in case they got caught doing what they shouldn’t have been doing, or maybe not. Maybe that’s just my imagination at work.
The Pope's Fortress - Castel Sant'Angelo
Truth is, there are secret tunnels and getaways under most Italian cities. In Rome, there is a secret passage  from the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo. Some records claim it was built by Nicholas III in 1277,  but others say it was built by the anti-pope John XXIII (1410-15). What is certain is it was repaired by the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, later in the fifteenth century. The narrow corridor was built within the thickness of the wall and during the sack of Rome in 1527, it enabled Pope Clement VII to escape the Vatican and take refuge in Castel S. Angelo.  
The tunnels were often used as secret escape routes, but in Turin, the King used his tunnels as storerooms for wine and cheese and other foods. He also put his alchemists down there, under the city, to mix and stir and brew potions, with the ultimate goal of discovering the secret of how to turn base metals into gold. They never did, of course, but it couldn’t have been easy climbing out from the dank and dark tunnels every day with the King waiting at the other end.

Gold Plaques on Royal Palace Gate in Turin
You can tour the tunnels under Turin, it’s a fascinating world. You can also tour the tunnels under Naples, but those were built for still another reason. The Naples tunnels were built by the Romans to carry water to houses throughout the city.  
These stories fascinate me, all of the stories fascinate me, they are part of the joy of this Italian life.

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