Trick AND treat. The Portanuova way to celebrate Halloween


Trick or treat? A catchline that genre-specific cinema and literature have sanctioned as a “sound trademark” unmistakably linked to Halloween. The celebration has evolved into a marketing phenomenon with a jokingly grim tone (to the delight of children all around the world) as late as the past century, thanks to a “dark” and well-orchestrated makeup Made in the USA. Halloween is, indeed, the American re-make of a film shot two-and-a-half centuries ago, which origins are quite distant from the stars and stripes. Once again, its history is inherited from the Celts, a well-present people on the European pre-Christian stage. They imported to the city they founded in Northern Italy their end-of-summer (pagan) feast, which also corresponded to their New Year’s Day. The city was born as Medhelan, then became Mediolanum under Roman rule, and is currently Milan, a city that celebrated a trailblazing version of modern Halloween a stunning 6 centuries before Christ!

This city, at the forefront of amusement ever since its erection, currently hosts an invisible map: a map of sightings of the ghosts of women “gone to glory” (or to obscurity) in terrible circumstances. Lost souls that may only be seen around the places of their tragic departure. Like the infamous Veiled Lady that may be sighted at sunset, on summer nights, on the path leading to the artificial lake of Parco Sempione, whose steps are paired with a sweet smell of violet. Some say that if you try to stare at the bony face of the Ghost of Sempione, hidden beneath a mourning veil, you shall fall in a trance and wander around the gardens astray, forever. Other (so-called) witnesses claim that the woman appears at a distance, and invites her unfortunate victims to follow her inside a mysterious mansion where an ancient ball is taking place, then to her bedroom: not to seduce them, but to show them the body of a woman resembling her, resting inside an open coffin. It is hard to prove such facts and their reliability, but some research studies reveal that the Veiled Lady may be Bianca Maria Scappardone, widow of Ermes Visconti, accused of her husband’s homicide in 1526, thus beheaded. As far as heads rolling in burning fires go, Milan’s gothic scrapbook is proud to present Isabella da Lampugnano, the first woman to be tortured on the dreaded execution wheel, then burnt at the stake for witchcraft. Again, some say she can be currently sighted at Parco Sempione, and is known to play jokes on bystanders. Our map of spooky spots brings us to the witches of the Verziere market neighbourhood, between Via Festa del Perdono and Piazza Santo Stefano, where Arima – the most famous witch in Milan – lived, at the second floor of Via Laghetto 2, and needless to say was hanged in Piazza Vetra in the mid-1800s. Legend has it that, on full moon nights, Arima and her cohorts still party on the roofs of the Verziere, banqueting on magic potions and spells. Finally, our trip to the discovery of the creepiest side of Milan leads us to Bernarda Visconti, daughter of the Lord of Milan Bernabò Visconti, who locked her in a tower of the Porta Nuova arch to punish her for adultery. She starved to death in 1376. Some say the ghost of a woman dressed in medieval clothes still terrorizes passers-by today.

Let us now leave the ghouls and spectres to their job of pedestrianscarers, and suggest a nice team game for Halloween: the first (lucky?) sighter to seek out the ghost of Portanuova will win a Pan dei morti (bread of the dead), a typical cake eaten on 1 November, made with crumble, dried fruit, egg whites, cocoa, and spices. No need to plunge into the “dark” web: you may find the recipe with a quick Google search (and remember to bake it a couple of days before consumption).

Disregarding the US tradition, even though you chose the treat, we shall reveal the trick too: the ghost of Portanuova does not flutter around our district, but at Porta Nuova: the city gate between Via Manzoni and Via Santa Redegonda, behind the Milan Cathedral. As if to say: “trick AND treat, from Portanuova, with love”.

Do you want to read a good book to soothe your nightmares and explore the history of the spooky side of Milan? Guida ai fantasmi d'Italia (the Italian ghost handbook) by Annamaria Ghedina, Odoya ed., will suit you.