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bonvesin_big‘The Praises of Jerusalem’, which first appeared in the eleventh century, is a literary genre celebrating the sanctity of the Holy City. Milan has its own tradition —  or, more accurately, a single manuscript of a medieval text that gushes over the city’s virtues, comparing Milan with other places as an eagle among birds.

The text, De magnalibus urbis Mediolani (‘On the Marvels of Milan’), which was written in 1288, is by Bonvesin de la Riva (c. 1240 – c. 1313), a Milan native regarded as the city’s best thirteenth-century writer.

According to Bonvesin, Milan excels in size and location — he counted 120 bell towers and 12,500 front doors (‘portoni‘). It exceeds other places in its professions: 120 lawyers, 28 physicians, 150 surgeons, 440 butchers and 6 communal trumpeters. Bonvesin describes the two hundred thousand inhabitants of Milan as noble, elegant and especially honest.

The city is no less blessed by its natural resources and physical topography; it is so fertile that fish spontaneously appear in puddles after a rain.

But for Bonvesin, Milan’s name itself (Mediolanum) was the most convincing testimony to the incomparable virtues of the city:

‘From the interpretation of the name itself you can learn about our city. In fact, Mediolanum begins with an ‘M’ and ends with the same letter. In the middle, there are two letters, that is, the ‘O’ and the ‘L’. The first and last letter, an ‘M’, being more extensive than all others letters, indicates the breadth and glory of Milan, which is known all over the world. With an ‘M ‘placed at the beginning and the end the word, it also means the number, one thousand, and so it expresses a perfect number in its uniqueness, meaning that from the beginning to the end of the world, Milan was and will be counted in the list of perfect cities. The ‘O’, one of the letters in the middle of the word, has a round and perfect form, more dignified and more beautiful that all other letters, and which expresses the roundness, beauty, dignity and perfection of Milan. Our city is in fact round in the literal sense, beautiful and more perfect than all other cities. The ‘L’, on the other hand, means the length and heights of its nobility and glory, which thanks to the prayers and merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Blessed Ambrose and other saints, whose bodies lie buried here, its high nobility and glory will remain, by the grace of God, until the end of the world. Furthermore, it should also be emphasized that in this word, there are all five vowels, each with its own syllable. Just like the name of our city which does not lack any vowels, so our city does not lack any benefits that can be enjoyed by the five human senses.  As the names of all other cities lack at least one of the five vowels, these cities when compared with Milan also lack some of these same benefits.  Therefore, the greatness of Milan is evident, and it seems to me that it necessarily follows that citizens of Milan should greatly boast of their homeland’.

De magnalibus urbis Mediolani (‘On the Marvels of Milan’) remained lost for centuries until a manuscript was found in 1898 at the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, Spain.

***

bonve4A poet, writer and teacher of Latin grammar, Bonvesin da la Riva was also a lay member of the Ordine degli Umiliati (‘The Order of the Humiliated’), a order which collected taxes and controlled the city’s purse strings.

So Bonvesin was well-positioned to boast of the city’s fortunes. Bonvesin knew the Milanese, who they were, where they lived and what they ate. His text on Milan includes a long list of the fruits and vegetables being consumed in Milan and even a recipe for chestnuts.

In De quinquaginta curialitatibus ad mensam (‘Fifty courtesies at Table’) Bonvesin provides a detailed overview of thirteenth-century table manners. His other works include Libro de le tre scritture (in Milanese dialect), Disputatio musce cum formica, Disputatio rosae cum viola, De vulgare de elymosinis and Laudes de Virgine Maria. 

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