Thursday, May 28, 2009

Milan Part Uno: Pretty Buildings

Milan is one of the northernmost cities in Italy and has a reputation for not really being Italian. Personally, I thought this made it a great segue into Italian culture as we graded from the stodgier Swiss-and-German influenced north to the vespa-and-mob dominated south. The problem with our strategy was Milan is a tough city to really enjoy. It has a few remarkable sights, but it’s difficult to really revel in great art and architecture when the bars close at eleven and the drinks cost seven euro. So, I will spare you the frustrations of wandering the “fashion district” that was remarkably difficult to find and skip to the good stuff (the buildings for now):

The Milan Duomo. In 1386 the archbishop of Milan saw the gap in the middle of the city, left by the old Roman basilica (Roman courthouse) and later cathedral which had recently burned to the ground. He decided to fill the gap with a hip new structure in the French Gothic style. Nearly six-hundred years later (in 1965 they declared it complete) it stands as the symbol of Italy, and is one of the most memorable huge churches I’ve seen recently, and you can scroll through these posts to appreciate how many huge churches I’ve notched on my belt. The building is wide, the architect missing the memo on a narrow nave fronted by two massive bell towers, with small-ish windows pocking the façade. The girth of the place allows it to gleam. The white and pink marble was cleaned and the scaffolding only removed a few months ago, marking the Milan Duomo as one of the only non-scaffolded churches I’ve seen in my wanderings.
The interior is cavernous. Because it’s so wide, the light from the narrow stained glass windows barely make it to the edge of the pews, let alone the center aisle. Not a great spot to get hitched.
Here the interior looks a little brighter than it was thanks to a stead pew and an extended shutter speed. But it still feel like spelunking.

A few windows stood out including one from the ‘20s showing the expulsion of Lucifer, and the gargantuan windows behind the altar. Each of three was divided into small blocks, a comic strip of the Old Testament, a comic strip of the New Testament, and a final group showing holy people. Because it was divided into so many complicated scenes, the windows lost a little of their grandeur. They were actually more impressive from the outside where the swirling marble frames created a massive, cohesive whole.
Windows that are kind of hard to appreciate as the distance increases, but the scale stays constant. This window depicts holy people doing holy things.

The exterior of the stained-glass windows was almost more interesting than the colored panes.

The final standouts of the interior were an intricate 12th century candelabrum packed with biblical imagery, and a grotesque statue of St. Bartholomew carved by Marco d' Lopez, one of Da Vinci’s students. The apostle was skinned alive then crucified in Armenia for being an outspoken Christian missionary. He is now tastefully the patron saint of tanners. I’m sure he would love to hang out in a leather workshop if he could meet and mingle today.
A massive 12th century masterpiece. The base is about five feet wide, and a couple dozen candles would have stood about 15 feet off the ground. Dragons support the base with demons yanking on their teeth and ears. In the filigree are scenes from Genesis and allegorical stuff about the Earth.

The statue shows Bartholomew before his martyrdom is complete. He holds the Gospel of Matthew and placidly gazes into the cathedral with his skin casually thrown around his shoulders. D’ Lopez had clearly taken up the illegal practice of human dissection, because the statue has all the right muscles in all the right places. Wow art can be disturbing.
St. Bart modeling 50 AD's favorite fashion accessory at the first Milan Fashion Show.

As I said, the interior is not why you go to the Duomo. You go to climb to the roof. Hundreds of spires and flying buttresses soar over the building, each crowned with a different holy person. You get a great view of the city and can appreciate the intricate detail on every block of stone. Little vignettes and angles are incised in each cross-beam and capital. I almost typed that they’re mostly ignored by tourists, but you have to ignore most of the masons’ efforts, or you would never get off the roof.

Carvings that arch over a nondescript pathway. How many hours does it take to carve something like that? Now you know why it took 500 years to pull this off.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II: One of the prototypical shopping malls. It was built in the 1870s to celebrate Italian unity (Emanuele II was the first king of Italy). Steel and glass domes and ceilings cover designer stores so chic I’ve never heard of them.

The main attraction is the mosaic work. Allegories of the four continents look down on the central mosaic which has symbols of each of the major Italian cities. I forget which city he represents, but one of these mosaics depicts a small white cow. For good luck, you put your foot on his crotch and spin. Everyone does it - tourists, school-kids, locals – they all spin on the poor animal. The best place to watch the spectacle is to settle into a chair at McDonalds, where you can get a beer for 2.50 E. Beverages at any other café in the Galleria would have set us back 8 or 9. Thank you Mr. Steves.

As Josh and I enjoyed the novelty of McDonald’s beer, an older woman next to us shyly interrupted and pointed at us. We heard some Italian and the word “Gee-mon-ee” followed by an interrogative pitch-change. I nodded. It’s a bad habit. When someone starts speaking to me in a foreign language, I default to affirmation. I suspect this will get me into trouble at some point in the near future. In this case though she simply looked satisfied with my “Si.” Only later did I realize “Gee-mon-ee” was “gemelli” or “twin.” We got frustrated. Sure we’re both blond and have blue-ish eyes. We look like brothers, but don’t look identical. For one, I’m significantly more attractive than Josh. Maybe all Americans look the same to the Italians. Next...Art! Opera!

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