The community of the CisterciansThe community of the Cistercians
The community of the Cistercians


The Cistercian monastic order was founded in Citeaux, France, in 1098. Its founder, Robert de Molesme, together with a group of monks, wanted to restore strict compliance with the Rule of Saint Benedict, at a time when the communities of the Benedictine monks were characterised by a rather lax approach to customs. According to the Benedictine rule, the monks were to dedicate their lives to prayer and to working in the fields, with a particular focus on reclaiming and using the territory rationally and responsibly. The locations chosen for their monasteries had to be far from residential areas and near a waterway. These recommendations provided the criteria for the establishment of the five French mother abbeys. Welcomed warmly by all the locations in which they settled; these spawned many smaller abbeys were created.  
In 1130, the schism between Pope Innocent II and Antipope Anacletus II started which divided Europe, with King Lothair II supporting the former and King Konrad of Sweden the latter. In this context, the abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a well-known figure, played a very important diplomatic role, taking the side of Innocent II. 
Having returned from the Council of Pisa (1135), Bernard of Clairvaux was sent by the clergy to visit the city of Milan and restore the Milanese church’s obedience to both the emperor and the pontiff. 
His presence contributed to the founding of Chiaravalle Abbey, even if he was not present when the complex was opened.
The first abbot of Chiaravalle was Brunone, a personal friend of Bernard and his companion during his diplomatic expeditions.

The façade of Chiaravalle Abbey in MilanThe façade of Chiaravalle Abbey in Milan
The façade of Chiaravalle Abbey in Milan


Chiaravalle Abbey was founded between 1134 and 1135 in an uncultivated, marshy area with many villages which were then incorporated into the properties of the monastery. The citizens of Milan supported the foundation of the abbey from the very beginning, donating land and gathering the required funds. However, today nothing remains of the first settlement. Around 1150-1160, work began on building the church as we know it today. The brick building was built from the choir and the apse so that it could host religious functions as soon as possible and in 1221 the archbishop of Milan officially consecrated the abbey of Chiaravalle (the church). Later, the works continued with the construction of the first cloister and, in the first half of the 14th century, a bell tower was added. Between 1493 and 1497, work began on building the chapter house and the large cloister; whereas the clock tower dates back to 1368. 
In 1798, after the directorate of the Cisalpine Republic issued a decree to close down the monastery, part of the complex was demolished. Additionally, in 1860-62, the complex underwent further changes due to the construction of the Milan-Pavia-Genoa railway line. The Large Cloister, novitiate, dormitory, the abbot’s house, the chapter house and part of the cemetery chapels were all destroyed. However, between 1894 and 1896 the restoration works carried out by the Regional Office for the Conservation of Monuments began and these continued between 1918 and 1920, until 1923 when the residential area and abbey of Chiaravalle became part of the territory of Milan. In 1952, the Cistercian monks were able to return to Chiaravalle and important restoration works continued until the early decades of the new millennium.

Chiaravalle MillChiaravalle Mill
Chiaravalle Mill


Located within the monastic complex, the lovely medieval structure of Chiaravalle Mill is an ancient grain mill which has now become a multi-use centre for educating people about sustainability.
Chiaravalle Mill was built in the 12th century (the first document that certifies its existence and use dates back to 1238). The original oak wheels, moved by the waters of the Vettabbia canal, have since been lost. The granite millstones would move, milling the grains which were then collected in the basins still conserved on the ground floor. Today the Mill overlooks a large fenced-in vegetable garden. It consists of several buildings built in different ages, grouped round the original building. The restoration of the Mill was completed in 2009, enabling various activities to be performed inside. These include conventions, workshops, herbalism workshops, games for young people during the summer period and for the schools during the school year.

Chiaravalle Abbey and its mill

View from the Chiaravalle Abbey cloister in MilanView from the Chiaravalle Abbey cloister in Milan
View from the Chiaravalle Abbey cloister in Milan


The cloister can be found beside the right side of the church, where the longer arm of the cross is located. It is thought to have been built in the same period as the church, between the 12th and 13th centuries. However, all that remains of the original structure is the side behind the church and two aisles. When entering the cloister, there is a beautiful fresco above the front door portraying the Virgin and Child, honoured by the fathers who had founded the Order of Cistercian monks in Chiaravalle. To the right there is a stone which commemorates the date of its foundation - 11 February 1135 - and its consecration, in 1221. The cloister is characterised by ogival, pointed, arches on coupled columns, including some with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic patterns. An element commonly found in Cistercian abbeys are the “knotted” columns, located on the north west side, while on the southern side there is the refectory which dates back to the 14th century. The Chapter House opens up on the eastern side of the cloister, a place where decisions regarding the government of the abbey and monks were made. Inside, on the walls, three views of Milan are depicted: The Cathedral under construction, the Sforzesco Castle with the Filarete tower and a fragment of the bell tower of a church. The inside also hosts the ancient altarpiece of the abbey’s main altar, which depicts the Coronation of the Virgin with Saints Benedict and Bernard. The fine marble carved floor of the room comes from the Cathedral of Milan, whereas the abbey’s throne from the basilica of S. Ambrogio, also in Milan.

Lantern tower of Chiaravalle Abbey in MilanLantern tower of Chiaravalle Abbey in Milan
Lantern tower of Chiaravalle Abbey in Milan


The tower was built in 1329, two centuries after the monastery of Chiaravalle was built, probably by Francesco Pecorari from Cremona. The tower, 56.2 metres tall, was made of solid masonry. Its complicated weaving of floors and combinations are a throwback to the late Gothic style of Lombardy, in contrast with the stern architectural styles desired by St Bernard. 
It is composed of three bodies, one on top of another in an octagonal layout, each comprising three floors. 
The walls are interspersed by hanging arches, double lancet windows small loggias on columns, and the tower ends in a conical spire.
One of the most ancient bells mounted using the Ambrosian system, known as “Bernarda", which the monks still ring by hand using a cord that reaches the ground is in the bell chamber. The bell rings to call the monks to prayer for the liturgy of the hours and during the Sanctus of the Masses in the convent. 
The tower was modified during the 18th century, but thanks to a restoration project commenced in 1894 by Luca Beltrami and completed in 1914 by Gaetano Moretti, its original look was reinstated. In the dialect of Milan, the tower was known as “ciribiciaccola”, and traces of this nickname can be found in an ancient nursery rhyme. The term is probably a reference to the stork (cicogna in Italian), which in the past would make its nest in the tower.

Clock tower of the Abbey of Chiaravalle Clock tower of the Abbey of Chiaravalle
Clock tower of the Abbey of Chiaravalle


The clock tower pales somewhat into the background when compared to the bell tower. However, its history is extremely interesting. 
The original tower dates back to 1368 and Leonardo da Vinci mentions it in the Atlantic Code. 
According to this source, the tower interior hosted “The clock of the Chiaravalle tower, displaying moon, sun, hours and minutes”. It was an astronomical clock, designed according to the geocentric theories popular at the time, which indicated the hours, minutes and the movement of the sun and moon on different faces. 
According to some sources, in the early 19th century, the clock was still present on the tower even if it was damaged by the pillages of the French at the end of the 18th century. No further traces of it have been found since. The current clock dates to the middle of the 19th century (1826) while the five bells inside the tower can be dated to the early 20th century. The bells of Chiaravalle Abbey, which are rung manually, are dedicated to the Holy Angels of God, the deceased followers, St Peter the Apostle, the Blessed Virgin of the Holy Rosary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Indoor naves of Chiaravalle Abbey (above)<br>Choir of Chiaravalle Abbey (below)Indoor naves of Chiaravalle Abbey (above)
Choir of Chiaravalle Abbey (below)
Indoor naves of Chiaravalle Abbey (above)
Choir of Chiaravalle Abbey (below)


The interior of the church presents a Latin cross layout, with transept and apse in a straight line as well as a structure with three naves, separated by rounded arches supported on cylindrical pillars, without capitals. The central nave is the largest one and it is composed of four aisles, while the naves at the side are divided into eight aisles. The presbytery is square and hosts the main altar (1689) and the abbot’s pulpit carved in 1576 by Gottardo. It features Our Lady of the Milk in the central panel and the two saints, Benedict and Bernard in the ones at the sides. Instead, the choir is located level with the fifth aisle of the central nave. It was made by Carlo Garavaglia, master of the Baroque period (1645-1649), in walnut wood, while the panels in the back benches depict Episodes in the life of St. Bernard.  
An octagonal tholobate, supported by pendentives, is grafted on to the square dome base, while the dome itself features a striking decoration in the same colour as the light blue sky. Tearing our gaze away from the dome, we can admire the transepts. The one on the right has three chapels, the first dedicated to St. Bernard of Chiaravalle, the second to the Passion of Christ and the third to St. Benedict. Additionally, there is a sacristy near the southern transept, created in 1412 as a small chapel and subsequently enlarged and reworked from 1637 until 1708. Finally, there is the left-hand transept with chapels that date back to the 12th century, dedicated to Mary Magdalene (1582), St. Stephen and the Rosary.

Frescoes in Chiaravalle Abbey Frescoes in Chiaravalle Abbey
Frescoes in Chiaravalle Abbey


In line with the construction styles desired by St. Bernard, initially, all frills were banned, and all painted decoration was forbidden inside the abbey. However, in the centuries after the construction of the abbey, considerable changes were made, and Chiaravalle became a precious location for the art history world. Indeed, even today on the counter façade we can admire the main cycles of frescoes in the church (1613-1616), created by Bartolomeo Roverio and brothers Giovanni Battista and Giovanni Mauro della Rovere. The scenes celebrate the history of the Cistercians and are distributed in the main points of the building: the foundation of the abbey, the allegory of the church as a woman, with the Antipope and the Milanese bowing to her, the citizens outside Porta Romana (Roman Gate) offering the model of the church to the saint, a group of artisans busy constructing the building and two miracles performed by the Bourguignon monk during his stay in Milan (curing a child and performing an exorcism). The naves at the sides are free from painted decoration, but host a marble bust of St. Bernard from the 17th century. Two visions experienced by St. Bernard are portrayed on the walls of the presbytery: The Lactation of Saint Bernard and the Dream of Christmas Night, while the vault (1572) features the image of the Four Evangelists and Angels playing Musical Instruments in the rib vaults. The side walls of the choir (1613) feature two frescoes by Luigi Miradori: The Visions of St. Bernard: The Angels respond to the Te Deum and the Angels use golden, silver and black ink to note the fervour of the psalm-singing Cistercians on the left. Going forward towards the dome, there are paintings that decorate the base of the segments, depicting the four Evangelists, and the Doctors of the Latin Church. Sixteen figures of saints are portrayed between the windows of the dome, over the Stories of Our Lady. These works were probably by Stefano Fiorentino, Giotto’s pupil, and can be dated to around the middle of the 14th century. With an extraordinarily sophisticated composition, they depict a single theme: Our Lady’s Transit to Heaven, including the scenes of The Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin by the archangel Gabriel, the deposition of her body in the tomb and the Assumption of the Virgin. 
The transept on the right features the family tree of the Cistercian family and on the same wall are the stairs that lead to the only dormitory; above it the Madonna and Child with Angels, masterpiece of the great master of the Renaissance, Bernardino Luini (1512). In the transept on the right we can also admire the Apparition of the Virgin to St. Bernard, the Erection of Cîteaux Abbey, St. Bernard and Angels playing musical instruments and David placating the wrath of Saul. The transept on the left features the following frescoes: Bernard of Poblet killed by a Muslim from Spain whose sister he had converted, St. Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, assassinated in the cathedral by King Henry II of England’s soldiers, the Coronation of the Virgin, two Cistercian nuns presenting blessed souls to St. Bernard, the Martyr of Cistercian nuns in Poland and the Martyr of the abbot Casimiro and of the monks of Olivia in Prussia.



As mentioned before, the Cistercian monks usually chose places with very unique characteristics as the locations for their abbeys. There were two essential requisites: the location had to be isolated, far from residential areas, and it had to be near a waterway. 
Today Chiaravalle Abbey stands in the South Milan Agricultural Reserve just outside Porta Romana (the Roman Gate), near the Vettabbia, a waterway that dates back to the time of the Roman reign. However, in the years when the abbey was being built, the city was surrounded by an enormous marsh, which some sources attribute to the Archinti family. The territory could only be used thanks to the Cistercian monks’ efforts to drain it, with the strong support of the authorities and the community of Milan, to such an extent that in 1220 Frederick II of Sweden guaranteed the control of the waterway to the abbey and exempted it from customs duties or taxes. This also facilitated the continuation of the works in progress designed to reclaim and restore the land. 
Initially the waters of the Vettabbia were channelled by creating an appropriate system of canals. Ditches were dug and dams were built. Once the land had dried, it had to be adequately irrigated and so the correct amount of water was supplied in line with the demands of the seasons and the crops.
In monastic life, manual work has always played an important role and the Rule of St. Benedict placed particular emphasis on this aspect. Soon the Cistercian monks became well-known throughout Medieval Europe for their dedication and technical skills.



The important land reclamation work carried out by the Cistercian monks made it possible to cultivate land that had once been marshy and in bad condition. The monks’ dedication to the work in the fields and the recovery of the marshy areas was a characteristic common to all the Cistercian abbeys. The widespread communication network that connected the monks enabled them to exchange technical know-how and implement the same systems, despite being many kilometres apart.
The innovation that made the biggest contribution to the prosperity of the lands in the years that followed the reclamation works was the water meadow system, used by the monks to grow fodder. The system, which soon spread throughout the Po’ Valley, consisted in keeping the land permanently irrigated to enable the grass, protected by the temperature of the water, to grow even in the winter months. 
This technique enabled large quantities of fodder to be generated every year, providing huge quantities of food for the farm animals.
Very soon, Chiaravalle Abbey in Milan became a real farm, with an extremely vast range of products: milk, dairy products, vegetables, wine.   
And even today the monks in the abbey still dedicate their time to praying and working in the fields. The abbey also hosts a shop where visitors can buy their products: cosmetics, cakes, wine, bakery and many more.



The abundant production of fodder, used as animal feed, increased the quantity of milk produced by the cows to such an extent that the monks had to invent a suitable storage system. 
Historically, this is a very interesting fact, as in the Medieval age, man was conditioned by the climate and the environment in which they lived and could only follow the natural rhythms and laws of biology. Regarding agriculture and farming, this meant bowing to the dictates of the seasons and accepting the food that nature offered each month. 
Storage techniques were still very primitive and limited to simple procedures (drying in the sun or salting): milk had to be consumed the same day as it was milked, and the cheeses did not last much longer. 
After a few careful considerations and some experiments, the monks of the abbey had the idea of cooking the milk for a long time, adding some rennet and then salting the resulting cheese. This produced the hard cheese we know today. This rough, textured “cacio” (cheese) began to be produced in the boilers of the monasteries which therefore became the first real cheese dairies in history. Under the watchful eye of the monks, a new professional figure was introduced: the “casaro” (the cheese-maker), an expert in the art of producing cheese.
Due to its long ripening process, the monks called this new cheese "caseus vetus" or "old cheese", to distinguish it from other cheeses of previous traditions which were fresh and so had to be consumed quickly.
However, the people of the countryside, who were not familiar with Latin, favoured the name “grana” due to its compact consistency dotted with white grains, the small calcium crystals which remained of the processed milk. According to the province in which it was made, a term indicating its origin was added to its name. The most frequently mentioned types were those from Lodi (Lodigiano) – considered by many as the oldest – and the Milanese, Piacentino and Mantovano varieties. The fame of the “grana” produced in the area of the Po’ Valley increased as time went by and it soon became a popular cheese, the star of many of the banquets held by princes and dukes during the Renaissance. Mentions of the product can be found in a letter by Isabella d’Este, the partner of Francesco II Gonzaga and Marquis of Mantua, who sent the famous cheese as a gift to her family members, lords of the duchy of Ferrara, in 1504.
Thanks to its rich nutritional properties and the fact that it could be stored for long periods without altering its taste and nutritional values, the “formai de grana” (grana cheese) became an important foodstuff for the people of the countryside, especially during the terrible famines.

“Grana Padano” became the expression of an entire social and economic culture spanning all classes of society and finding favour with both the rich and the nobles, by then accustomed to a rather elaborate and sophisticated cuisine, and the poor, whose everyday recipes were very much simpler yet traditional.



In much more recent times, the evolution of the culture of fine food and of food habits in general have called for the need to clearly define the characteristics and details of many products that were considered the expression of more or less ancient, or less ancient history. This led to the idea of transforming what was the “generic” name of a characteristic cheese into a proper name, capable of designating a unique, inimitable cheese. Therefore, also the desire to define as “Grana Padano” only cheese produced with very specific raw materials thanks to a well-defined technique and procedure, and in a production area that is just as specific. On 1 June 1951, in Stresa, on Lake Maggiore, in Piedmont, a number of cheese makers and technicians signed an agreement in which they indicated the precise rules for naming cheeses and their specific characteristics. On this occasion the “grana lodigiano” cheese was divided into two types, today’s Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano. On 18 June 1954, based on the initiative of Federlatte (Federation of Cooperative Dairies) and Assolatte (Association of Dairy and Cheesemaking Industries) the Grana Padano cheese Protection Consortium was created, reuniting all the producers, ripeners and traders of this cheese. Then, on 30th October 1955, Italian Presidential Decree No. 1269 formally proclaimed the “Recognition of the designations with regard to the processing methods, product features and production areas”. The cheeses it referred to also included Grana Padano. However, it was only with the Ministerial Decrees issued in 1957 that the Grana Padano Protection Consortium confirmed its undertaking to supervise the production and marketing of the cheese. On 12 December 1976, the Production Specifications were renewed for the first time, so confirming the project and the objectives that drove the foundation of the Grana Padano Protection Consortium. Its purpose (as indicated from the original Production Specifications) was to protect the uniqueness of this cheese, but also to spread and promote its consumption by conveying correct information, initiatives and activities designed to support the territory in which it is produced, regulating its distribution and sale not only in Italy but also abroad. In 1996, Grana Padano was awarded the PDO - Protected Designation of Origin - status by the European Union. Following this acknowledgement, checks on the requisites needed by each wheel to obtain the fire-branded mark have been carried out by an independent party - currently the CSQA-, with the approval of the Protection Consortium and the Italian Ministry of Agricultural. Between 2002 and 2011 the Production Specifications of the Grana Padano Protection Consortium was renewed, revised and extended. In this way, approved by the Italian Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry, it ratified the continuation of its activities and objectives until 31 December 2054.