The Italian excursion described in my last blog had another half, and most of that was in Milan. Milan gets a bad rap in comparison to the other large Italian cities, largely because it lost more of its fabric in the Second World War, and the rebuilding sports much of the bland utilitarian vernacular of the 1950s, but our peregrinations around this city offered more than the great Gothic cathedral.
Although it is pretty great, in both senses of the word
Not an errant nave
We took one day to visit three of the other marvelous old churches, and it was revelatory. I used to comment about Rome that you couldn’t walk a block without stumbling on a Roman ruin or a Baroque church. Substitute “Lombardy Romanesque” for Baroque and the same can be said for Milano.
You can’t even walk a block in the Duomo without encountering an ecstatic Baroque altar
This is Santa Maria della Grazie, where we did NOT see DaVinci’s Last Supper since we had not booked in advance.
This is a distinctly different architectural style, older and more often in earthy brick accented by stone, linking it to the nations to the north. If we love Rome for its grand marble palaces and churches, we can easily love Milan for these treasured landmarks, many of which date back over a thousand years.
Besides there is plenty of Baroque inside – this is an altar in San Ambrogio
Here is San Ambrogio, the patron saint of Milan. The oldest part dates to the 9th century and the towers (one for the canons and one for the monks) and hidden front are excellent examples of the Romanesque popular here. As in Rome and other parts of Europe, the buildings are thickly layered with fragments of their history, as found in the forecourt of S. Ambrogio:
Frescos and lintels and capitals, oh my!
The interior features a stunning dome, the gilded skeleton of St. Ambrose (among others) and this fabulous dome. There is a strong Byzantine sensibility in the forms of these churches, one that resonates with the ancient Roman empire in a way the Renaissance and Baroque do not, because the tradition is more continuous.
These churches will often have surviving mosaics from the 4th or 5th century, which means they are basically from the Empire, evincing a continuity of tradition rather than a rekindled one.
Detail from a Roman sarcophagus incorporated into the pulpit at S. Ambrogio. 9th century from 4th century original.
6th century column in the treasury, S. Ambrogio
4th century lamb mosaic, S. Ambrogio
And a nice Renaissance painting from a thousand years later.
It’s right near the snake column, which takes us back to the first millenium and looks like a prop from a Conan movie. You can see the sarcophagus in the background.
The courtyard by Bramante
Now, the next church, San Lorenzo Maggiore, also dates to the 4th century and was the largest building in the West at one time. The approach through the Ticino gate is fantastic, with a row of Roman columns partially enclosing the forecourt.
And a tram. That would upset Americans. Wussies.
You should see this place at nighttime it is like Woodstock or something.
By far my favorite of the wealth of treasures inside is this 4th century mosaic of Christ the lawgiver.
Notice he has no beard. It must have taken another century or two to grow one.
The Roman styling of this is stunning for those of us – namely ALL of us – raised on a Renaissance idea of Christ. Even more stunning is the mosaic on the other half dome across from this – Christ as the Sun. This one has not survived as well, but you can make out Christ one-upping Sol Invictus and taking the reins of the sun’s chariot from Apollo to launch the new day.
I love it when you can actually see one culture transform into another.
It seems only the mosaics near the ceiling survive, and they include these guys as well:
A side chapel has some more Byzantine style mosaics, which are fun to contrast against Renaissance works – I adore the wonderful layered depth of these Milanese churches – 1500 years all stuck together in one place.
And a few interior shots but when you go make sure you go the the treasury to see the mosaics and also the undercroft where you can see the Roman foundations of the basilica.
Umm, you may want to call the conractor back….
So remember what I said about Rome being a place where you stumble into a Roman ruin or a Baroque church on every other block? In Milan you have to walk maybe two blocks. Here is a Roman ruin we stumbled upon. A piece of a whacking great amphitheatre actually….
Even had its own free museum with a rare gladiator ceremonial stelae and more mosaics and sculptures from the Roman era.
Plus an amazing chorale group rehearsing and we were the only ones there…
And the fact of the matter is you stumble on Baroque (and Romanesque) churches all the time
St. Anthony Adate
Hey, and if you want the overwrought contraposto and languid emotionalism of the Baroque, just stop by the City Cemetery, which is 19th century but every damn tombstone is adorned with a massive bronze sculpture dripping with emotion.
Okay, this is a nice sentiment
Now this is a little more heart-rending..
Alright, you amped it up now please tone it down a bit…
I said DOWN, not UP to 11! Give me a nice Victorian lady in a button-up dress mourning…
…two emaciated guys lying head-to-head in full liplock. Okay, I give up.
The first monument we encountered on entering the city was the great (in both senses) Castello Sfroza, which is ginormous and full of art.
Take a break if you get tired from all the walking…
I was also struck by the level of decoration in a host of downtown commercial buildings. I mean, this city has Atlanteans by the bucketful.
Bank of Italy
Hang on guys!
That’s another church – see what I mean?
Take that, Rome!
They can do monochromatic Baroque, but in Milan they bend toward the Lombardy contrast of red brick and gray stone, like in this cute little corner castle.
The commercial building to end all commercial buildings is of course the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuel, right next to the Duomo.
Render unto Prada…they actually have binoculars installed so you can see the detail up high.
Now this is the University of Milan, view from our dear friend Francesco Gnecchi-Ruscone’s terrace. The Ca’ Grande seen here dates to the 15th century. We also went out to find some of Gnecchi-Ruscone’s work, including this block of flats north of the park, which brings us to modern Milan
And we must of course include the Torre Milano, perhaps the most Ür-PostModern building in all of Europe if you will excuse the catastrophic clumsiness of that construction.
I meant the clumsiness of the literary construction…
But the real place to visit now to see the latest is Piazza Gae Aulenti, a district full of new buldings designed in contextual relationship with one another. As is often the case in such arrangements, there is an emphasis on primary forms and their contrast, but the curves and spikes and bends and folds and colors do have a harmony in more than one view and dimension
That is the UniCredit tower in the middle. Urbanist view.
More the windswept Modernist view from the plaza itself, significantly named for a pioneering female Milanese architect.
This is what happens if you look at too much LeDoux before bed…
Green architecture much! We saw these on the train ride in and from that angle the massive cranes needed to plant trees that high were visible. Vertical Forest by Boeri Studio.
Milan is known of course for fashion, and indeed a Gnecchi-Ruscone launched the Industrial era here in the silk industry.
I went shopping with my wife, the most arduous test of love there is…
Renaissance Runway: An exquisitely flayed St. Bartholomew by Marco D”Agrate, 1562 in the Duomo.
The trams in Milan are wonderful, in part because like those in our own San Francisco, they are an encyclopedic collection of cars from throughout the 20th century.
God I love infrastructure
Somehow it all fits together
Speaking of infrastructure, there is a canal system that has become a popular destination, especially the Invigli area, lined with restaurants and boutiques, each of which has mosquito spray onhand :)
Francesco and his wife left all friends a standing invitation to drop by their house in the evening for a gin and tonic, so let us end in this evening waterside paradise at Milan’s first gin bar, Gino 12.