The long-haired sow of Palazzo Ragione

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On the façade opposite the Palzzo della Ragione, Milan, the capital of a column in the second arch bears a little noticed Roman bas-relief depicting a scrofa semilanuta (long-haired sow).

Legend has it that the founder of Milan was the Celt Bellovesus, who crossed the Alps and then came down into the Po valley. Having reached a post that had been indicated to him in a dream by a goddess, Bellovesus is said to have seen a wild sow with one very distinctive characteristic: its pelt was long and woolly at the front of its body, hence scrofa semilanuta (literally, “half-wooled”). Having built his city in that spot, he named it Mediolanum.

However, another version says it was the Romans who gave the city its name, probably rendering their version of the Celtic toponym meaning “in the middle of the plain (planum; but in Celtic languages the initial “p” is dropped). Just like the origin of the name of Rome itself, the etymology of mediolanum is still a matter of debate – there are a further twenty or so theories.

While there may not be any conclusive archaeological evidence, the linguist Christian Guyonvarc’h argues that the term mediolanum actually meant “central sanctuary”: the translation “central plain” is wrong, he says, because some of the places with the same name are actually located in upland areas. So to make sense of the term its religious significance has to be taken into account.

All in all, there are about 60 or so toponyms similar to Mediolanum in the Celtic area of mainland Europe, most of them found in the region once known as Gaul.

It is not known who was responsible for the carving of the “long-haired sow” but it is certainly something seeing the next time you are in Milan.

Interestingly, the Palazzo della Ragione has a wide-arched portico on all four sides, which has its own very strange echo effect. If you speak with your face close to one of the stone columns, you can be heard by someone diagonally opposite.

 

(Adapted from Secret Milan by Massimo Polidoro)
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