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The Legend of Colonna del Diavolo

For those who visit Milan, you may want to stop and visit the Basilica of Saint Ambrogio. Not only is it an ancient structure, consecrated in 379, but if you visit during this time of the year, you might even be able to detect the scent of hell outside while standing next to the Colonna del Diavolo, the Devil’s Column. It is the site of an enduring legend.

To the left of the Basilica’s entrance stands a single column in the middle of a small piazza. The marble column is hundreds of years older than the Basilica and appears to be completely out of place. It also contains two small holes and a legend surrounds their origin.

The Colonna del Diavolo outside the Basilica of Saint Ambrogio, dates to the second century AD.

Saint Ambrose, whom the Basilica is named after, died in 397 at around the age of 58. He was the longtime Bishop of Milan, beginning in 374 and proved to be remarkably wise, scholarly and politically incorruptible. He was considered to be the model for bishops throughout the Roman Empire and perhaps this is the basis for the legend. Satan himself felt that no one could resist his temptation, given the right circumstances he chose Ambrose to prove his point.

While the future saint was walking in the garden of the Basilica, the devil appeared and attempted all manner of tricks to persuade the bishop. Ambrose saw through the scheme and easily resisted the temptations. When Satan reappeared, again and again, Ambrose rejected each advance, but finally grew so weary of the devil that he gave him a swift kick in the tail, sending Satan, horns first, into the column. The Devil’s horns became stuck and he spent the entire night trying to extricate himself, to no avail. At the first light of dawn, the devil gave up and disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving behind the rotten-egg smell of sulphur.

The two holes in the column that legend says were left by the horns of Satan.

Since that day, on the evening of Holy Saturday, it is said that an apparition of Satan riding in a carriage appears in front of the Basilica as he drags the souls of sinners to hell. The two holes left by his horns have long been considered to be a doorway to the inferno. Whether there is more to the legend is lost to history, but during the fall and winter months, evidence of this is apparent to anyone who stands near the column. If you bend close to the two openings in the marble, the faint smell of sulphur is still undeniably and inexplicably detectable.

Satan tried to tempt Saint Ambrose in many ways, including pointing to sacred scripture. This earned him a swift boot in the tail by the then Bishop of Milan.