Sunday, June 19, 2005

Milan: Museum wanderings

Pinacoteca Ambrosiana

Sleeping in very uncharacteristically late (i.e. 11 am), we get up in a leisurely fashion, promising not to run ourselves ragged today.

The first target is the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. My usual museum instinct, left over from wars at places like the Uffizi and the Louvre, is to get there at the moment the doors open. You then have two hours over blissful emptiness to enjoy the art before the buses start unloading. As it turns out, hardly anyone was at the Ambrosiana, which is a little bit of a shame, because it is a terrific collection of art founded in the 16th century by Cardinal Borromeo in a beautiful palazzo setting. But we’re not complaining.

There is, in the original collection, a fine Leonardo portrait of a composer, but I think the more interesting thing is looking at how highly influential he was on all the art that followed. I’m impressed too, by the Cardinal’s appreciation of Flemish International Gothic art, which is one of my favorite periods. Looking at his collection, you can completely trace the advance of Flemish techniques, landscape and symbolism into the regional art. They have a still life of fruit by Caravaggio on the wall and for the first time, I realize that there is a direct line through all the religious painting -- which increase over the centuries in the amount of symbolism packed into their frames -- to the still lifes – Caravaggio’s is a meditation on the passion of Christ as represented by the fruits he chose to paint, and the withering of the leaves.

The house itself is also blessedly air-conditioned which makes it a million times nicer to walk though, and on the way, we bump into other visitors, who are impressively informed about the art. My Dad is wondering if a painting of the Annunciation, which also depicts in the background a saint lounging like a bum on a street corner next to a lion, shows St. John the Evangelist or St. Jerome. A visitor sitting next to us helpfully explains that it is St. Jerome meditating on the miracle of the Annunciation, and sketches us a little background. I try to imagine the same conversation occurring in San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, and fail.

Castello Sforzesco

From there we walk along the via dei Mercanti towards the Castello Sforzesco, and happily, though many things look closed after the previous night doubtless blowout bash, there is a festival of Swiss cheese going on in the street, and we get to sample everything from Emmenthaler to Vacherin. Unfortunately it puts me no closer to ascertaining whether the sketchily labelled cheese we bought in San Francisco really was raw milk French Vacherin or a Swiss Vacherin.

We’re trying not to overdo things again, so we head into the castle (that makes the trip sound much easier and shorter, and leaves out all the moat/bridge/portcullis parts) and resolve to seek out just Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pieta, which is housed there. And maybe the da Vinci plank room. But no more. But if we see some interesting armor on the way, that would be fine too.

The Pieta is remarkable, not just for the organic swoop and curve of the back, or for the mysteriously disembodied right arm that tugs at Christ, but for the scarring that mars the faces and torsos. Apparently Michelangelo intended it for his tomb, but um… displeased with how it was going, he attacked it and bashed the hell out of the faces, almost erasing them. They look like slightly resentful ghosts that can’t emerge from the stone. Nevertheless, the modeling on Christ’s legs, the only really finished looking part, and the sad accusatory stance of the figures is so astonishing you think, surely he meant it to look this way, as some sort of indictment.

Navigli District

From the castello we Metro down to the much-talked about Navigli district in the southeast of town. Hip, hot and happening is the impression I get. But apparently this is not at 5 pm. Well, maybe hot. Which it is. Deathly hot.

Every storefront in the district is, of course shut tight and the whole place looks like a depressed canal-side version of Oakland. With more yellows. We wander dejectedly along the canal, stared at by Milanese, who are doubtless wondering why these tourists insist on being out in the afternoon sun.

A pass by Sant’Eustorgio reveals that we are too late even to see the Portinari Chapel, so we give up and head to a sort of semi-open looking place on a barge in one of the canals. We must look really tired and pathetic, because the wait staff lets us in, even though it’s not open yet, and they set us up at a table next to the canal where there’s a breeze blowing and the sound of lapping water constantly.

It turns out to be the perfect place, and as we watch the entire district come to life, we happily down wine and Milanese specialties, and finally look relaxed.

After dinner, a miraculous change has come over the whole place – it’s like the entire canal has blossomed colorful umbrellas and literally hundreds of people are wandering the area enjoying the legendary happy hour. Vendors line the canalside and satiated young people lounge at the hundreds of tables that have mushroomed up everywhere. Much drinking, much lounging, this on a Sunday night. I certainly can’t blame them.

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