Saturday, June 18, 2005

Milan: Non Timeo Adversa

Santa Maria Delle Grazie
We arrive on the dot at 8:00 am at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, home of da Vinci’s Last Supper, to disaster. They lost my reservation, the one made months ago. But as I stood there, holding firm that there must be a way, the bored ticket seller reluctantly informed us that, in a stroke of good luck, that night was Milano Live and from 11 pm to 4 am, one could line up and see the Last Supper for free. Boy, were we lucky. I think.

Wandering about the church itself was interesting. There is, according to our guide book, a Leonardo in the lunette above the main doors—nothing spectacular, an image of the Madonna with saints and patrons, but I found it amusing that everyone rushes to see the Cenacolo painting when right there, out in the heat and rain and snow, is this other Leonardo fresco that no one cares about.

The interior of the church was darkened and one tired-looking Dominican padre sat in the very middle silently watching all the tourists wander around his house. I’m impressed by the dome, which is painted and decorated with geometrics, only emphasizing the mathematical feat represented by Bramante’s circular dome placed on a cubical space. The decorations throughout, in fact have a geometric, almost mudejar design to them, which is apparently Lombard in style, but reminds me a lot of mosques.

More on the Last Supper later.


From Santa Maria, we walk through lovely little streets in mounting heat to the fourth century basilica, Sant’Ambrogio, the church of the bishop saint who is pretty much responsible for Christian Milan. All the talk of his crusade against Arianism makes me wish I’d paid closer attention in my Early Christian Centuries course. In any case, there he is, Ambrose himself, or all four feet of what’s left of him, in a glass case, flanked by two other saints who are obviously less marketable as standalones.

These reliquaries are bizarrely disturbing, as always, (a finger, a tibia, a hipbone, a pair of eyeballs… it’s like a natural history exhibit) but the crypt-like scene under the altar, which reveals some original foundations of the basilica as well, is interesting if only to consider the 1,519 years of history you’re confronted with. Then there’s the ancient Roman emperor who’s in the fancy marble piece under the pulpit. I see dead people.

There’s a beautiful sound in the church as a few singers practice harmonizing in the nave. We surmise they’re there for a wedding, since there are some spectacular lily arrangements scenting the entire church, and several very smartly dressed people are fussing about the nave.

A quick visit through the halls and we stumble over a picture of the bombed out Sant’Ambrogio from August, 1943. It’s amazing they were ever able to put the place back together. Saint Ambrose must have worked a good bit of magic on that. Which makes me wonder, do saints have to keep working miracles after they’ve been apotheosed? Or can they go on sort of Saintly vacation, maybe just work a couple of miracles, just to keep their hand in, on an at-will basis?

Museum of Science and Technology

We backtracked to get to the Leonardo da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology, mostly because it had Leo’s name on it and a few models I wanted to see, but boy, were we in for a treat.

Firstly, let me extol the virtues of being up early. At none of these places did we see more than a dozen people, although as we were leaving Sant’Ambrogio, wedding guests and busloads of tourists were filling the place up. At the Leonardo museum we were the third or fourth ones in. Now that’s heavenly.

The models, of many of Leonardo’s clever engineering inventions for flying, dredging barges, moving bridges and the like, are fun to look at and you can move some of the around, but the real terrific part is in the buildings out back, where they have real rail cars and locomotives in a hangar sized “station” and a warehouse sized space housing a masted sailing ship and a piece of a cruise liner as well as several jet planes. It brings out the kid in all of us I suspect because the sheer size and scale of things makes you just want to scamper all over everything, which for the most part, you are allowed to do.


Properly suited up (meaning I’m not wearing a trampy skirt, but one that a Hasidic rabbi would approve) we head over to the Duomo to try again.

This time, the guard barely looks at me and has absolutely no interest in my bag. We enter the cool space – this must be why Italians were religious, it was a place you could get out of the heat – and begin walking around, examining the high gothic (and High Gothic) windows. For the third largest cathedral in the world, it feels remote and not very inviting to me. I much prefer the Duomo of Florence for some reason, although this place is spectacular. It feels a bit, however, like it’s trying too hard.

We examine some of the sculpture, but decide to go up onto the roof terraces, from whence, I had heard, there were great views.

The elevator is only a euro fifty more than the stairs, so we’re taking the elevator, which is a few minutes ride up. On the roof, incredibly, you can see the spires up close and they are even more amazing than anything in the interior. In fact the whole place is so much more interesting on the roof, where you can see that detailed carving and statues, blind trefoils and elegant designs have all been placed in places that surely no one on the ground will ever see. This building is decorated over every square inch. I don’t envy the cleaners their job. It’s got to be a lot easier to do, say, Santa Maria Delle Grazie’s plain brick façade.

One detail that hadn’t dawned on me from below was that every single spire has a saint perched atop it. Thousands of saints all over the darned place. You’ve never seen so many saints. With all that holiness, you’d think it wouldn’t be hotter than hell up there.

Teatro Arcimboldi

After the Duomo escapade, we seriously needed a shower, so back to the hotel to freshen up and change and get ready for La Scala Ballet. I had asked at the tourism office about the way to get there. Apparently a shuttle runs from the end of the Piazza when there are shows at the Arcimboldi, (“Ten minutes,” she says) otherwise, it seems no one would go there since it’s so far out in the middle of nothing. I also asked if there are places to eat out there, which she assures me there are -- “plenty of restaurants…”

Well, the ride takes half an hour and when we arrive, there is one overtaxed coffee shop and one closed restaurant with a bar that’s open and which will, of course, be happy to serve us overpriced panini. What choice do we have?

The area is something like La Defense in Paris. Industrialized and impersonal – you can just see the city officials trying to drag businesses and people out to create a “new community.” The theater is very modern – nothing out of the ordinary, although the sound is good, and the ushers wear pewter-colored medallions on heavy chains around their shoulders, like burghers of the city. It has a picture of La Scala on front to remind everyone that they had really wanted to book a show at the old theater, hadn’t they?

The ballet was quite good – more on that in an official review-- and we lucked out in that it was an evening that Massimo Murru was dancing the Rite of Spring. The real evening though, had just begun.

Meanwhile, back at Santa Maria delle Grazie

The line must have formed at 6 pm when the place closed for evening. We rushed back to see the Cenacolo, chugging our way expertly through the streets, only to discover that about 500 other people had the same idea. I’m heartened though – the line is no longer than the security checkpoint line at Oakland airport, and they’re letting 25 people in every ten minutes instead of every fifteen minutes. A quick calculation shows that if we’re willing to hold fast, we will definitely get in to see the painting. At what hour? Well…

It seems that the line is mostly natives -- not tourists, who, no doubt, have gone to bed -- even though tram after tram packed tightly with Milanese are headed for the Piazza Duomo at 11 pm, for the open air concert. And not just young people – I see a pack of older women heading out, and a motorcade of what seems to be the Milan equivalent of Dykes on Bikes goes by. No wonder the woman at the ticket office was reluctant to tell me about this. Who wants tourists crashing your party?

Without even hesitating, we get into the line, which has circled back through the piazza and is lurking around the trees. I wonder if my Dad, at 71 is going to hold out after a harsh day of heat and walking and theater, but he’s tough, and he’s determined to see the painting. “For anything else,” he says, “Probably not. But for da Vinci….”

I run across the street to buy some water and juice –overpriced, naturally, but I’m beginning to wonder if anything is normal price in Milan, or if a bottle of water always costs three euros – and we settle in for the waiting, still dressed in our nice theater duds. I don’t feel overdressed, even in this crowd, but I do notice that what I’m wearing certainly doesn’t fit me well enough and that my shoes have no style at all. I comfort myself with the knowledge that at least I polished my toenails properly, which turns out to be important, as everyone on the line has plenty of time to examine each other’s feet.

The marathon line creeps slowly forward, buoyed by each advance, and miraculously we make it in. Of course “in” means passing through countless gate/lock enclosures inside the building – a portcullis swings shut behind us and a glass door miraculously opens in front of us. It’s like being in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. One clever man behind us notes that if we don’t all make it into one enclosure, the next set of doors won’t open. So, all those people who pushed to the front of the group are still going to have to wait for us in the back. It’s lovely and cool inside though and when we finally arrive in The Room, it is impressive for the size and sheer emptiness of the space.

I realize again how important it is to see things for real, in situ. The fresco itself, which is larger than I would have imagined from pictures, is in horrid condition -- restoration or no, it is positively in shreds. The Madonna in the doorway at the front is in better shape – here you can barely make out the faces of some of the disciples. But had I never entered that cool room, I’d never have known how big it really is, how strange it feels to stand in front of it, the way that it repeats the architectural elements of the windows in the refectory, and most peculiarly, how it creates an extended, almost exhilarating, sense of space so cleanly in what is really not a large hall.

In the end, at 2:15 a.m., as we are shooed out the door by an unseen THX-1138 voice, I think, yeah, definitely worth it.

On the way back to the hotel, after riding a packed Metro at 3 am back to Citta Studi, we passed a bronze plaque on the wall with a lion and the words “Non Timeo Adversa” -- I do not fear adversity. Indeed.

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