Behind the Duomo, there is a small square, which at lunchtime is populated by students of the Statale University: it is called Piazza Santo Stefano and owns its name to the homonymous Basilica standing right there.
Do not get distracted by the Basilica or by the students’ gossips and head to the left of the square, where there is a small church.
Little known, dark and sober, the church of San Bernardino alle Ossa doesn’t seem to be worth a visit. Yet, the name should warn you: why is that Ossa -“bone”- there for?
Are there literally bones in the church? It’s just some kind of metaphor, right? Nope. There are bones in the church. Literally.
But let’s take things slowly.
Milan, 1127. In todays via Brolo, there was a hospital, built to cure leprosy. Beside it, stood a cemetery. Soon, the space of the cemetery became insufficient.
Therefore, in 1210, a room destined to collect the hospital corps was built. In 1269, the ossuary was flanked by a church, San Bernardino alle Ossa, managed by the Disciplini religious order.
It was easy to spot them, even in a crowded place: they used to wear a hood leaving only their eyes uncovered; they had a skull hanging on their belts and they used to keep their habits open on the back, to show their scars.
The “discipline”, from which the name, was in fact the one of self-punishment, which always accompanied their prayers. The Disciplini were the guardians of the church and, when in 1642 the bell tower of the Basilica collapsed on San Bernardino, they decided to rebuild it and to make it more memorable than ever.
Perhaps influenced by the skull they used to carry around, they decided to collect the bones belonging to the hospital and to decorate the church walls.
And today, you can still visit the Church of San Bernardino alle Ossa as it was built more than four hundred years ago.
When entering the church, look upwards, where you can admire the dome frescoed by Sebastiano Ricci, depicting the rise of a soul from Purgatory to Paradise.
After that, take a look at the floor, where you will find an iron gate leading to the Disciplini’s sepulcher.
Now, in the basement, there is only a pentagonal space with stones. Before the order’s dismissal, the stones were used as chairs and on them used to “sit” the Disciplini’s corps. This was, in fact, their mummification process.
Creepy, huh? Still not enough, apparently: head to the right and get to the ossuary. It is here that the Disciplini have really proved their creepy nature, covering every single centimeter with bones and skulls. Legend says that, among the others, there is also a little girl buried in the ossuary who, on the night of Halloween, comes back to life, enjoying a dance with her dead companions.
One last curiosity: in 1783, the Portuguese King John V, was so impressed by the church of San Bernardino alle Ossa, that had an exact copy built in Evora.