Monday, 30 June 2014
A walk through Milan
I get up at early o'clock on Thursday morning. We're supposed to be going back to the UK for a short break, and my passport is not going to be renewed in time. Which means getting an emergency travel document, and a visit to the British Consulate in Milan.
A lot of people - mainly Italians - give the train service here a hard time; but to a Brit it seems comfortable, efficient, and - above all - cheap. A return to Milan - a journey of 2.5 hours - costs me 19 euros. Next week, we'll pay not far short of twenty quid to go from Edinburgh to Glasgow, a distance of little more than forty miles.
I snooze the whole way, disembark sleepily, take a look around my surroundings and...wow...
I've been to Grand Central, New York. Port Talbot Parkway has its discreet charms. But Milan Central is something else. Compromised as it is by the profusion of advertising hoardings and shops, it's impossible not to be overwhelmed. The architectural style is a mixture of Art Deco, mock-classical and just a little bit fascist. If the Romans, at the height of the Empire, had invented rail travel, they would have built stations like this.
My appointment at the Consulate is quick, efficient and friendly. I have to say it's possibly the best customer service I've received anywhere. So it leaves me with rather a lot of time to kill. A whole day to pass in Milan, and I've not really thought about what to do...
I start with the cathedral. Well, you know what it looks like; this incredible statue-laden gothic structure. What you might not know is that it took over five centuries to complete. And what I certainly didn't know is that its completion is down to none other than - Napoleon Bonaparte! That's right, the very same fellow responsible for disestablishing and demolishing so many historic churches in Venice, who swore he would be "an Attila to the Venetians", was responsible for the final completion of this extraordinary building. Possibly due to the fact that he wanted to be crowned King of Italy there, but still. As to the building itself..well, it would be silly to say it's underwhelming, although perhaps the fact that it is just so well known tends to make one a bit blase. I take a little time to wander around inside. The interior is dimly lit which makes it a bit difficult to get a proper look at the art. The stained glass is lovely, although comparatively new, but there's also a lot of restoration work going on at the moment. The presence of fork-lift trucks and cranes is intrusive, and doesn't make me want to linger. I light a candle for Helen, and take my leave.
I walk back across the piazza. Turning back to look at the building, I notice this :-
- Samsung are contributing to the restoration, and it seems this entitles them to stick not just a big advertising hoarding but a giant video screen onto the side of the building. Venetians have been complaining about maxipubblicita for years now : they don't know how lucky they are.
From Piazza del Duomo, I start my walk through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Restoration work is going on, but it's still an impressive environment although the effect of the light is perhaps lost on a grey day like today.
This leads me to Piazza della Scala. The exterior of the theatre is actually surprisingly plain - this isn't a building like La Fenice, constructed to look like a great temple of art. Still, it's nice to see it. One of these days I aspire to make it in through the front door as well.
I have a reasonably-priced lunch at the Caffe Verdi opposite, before making my way through the elegant district of Brera. The crowds thin out, so does the traffic, and I feel cheerful and well-disposed to this city as I stroll up to the Pinacoteca.
There's the core of a great, great collection here. The problem, perhaps, is that the great works are a bit diluted by the lesser ones that surround them. Still, the major works are impressive : Caravaggio's The Supper at Emmaus; Tintoretto's The discovery of the body of St Mark; an altarpiece by Piero della Francesca. An unexpected treat in the penultimate room is an early version of Pellizza da Volpedo's iconic socialist work The Fourth Estate. But best of all, as far as I was concerned, was the discovery of a painting by Sodoma, almost hidden away. His haunting Christ Mocked is a study of an all-too-human Redeemer. He stares out at the viewer, not with serenity or pity or mercy but simply with fear. Because he knows his tormentors haven't even started yet...
Time for a drink and a sit down. The bar opposite has a decent selection of foreign beers, and I decide I'll treat myself to a Franziskaner. For some reason, this scrambles my ability to speak Italian, as I walk up to the cash desk and ask for "Ein weizenbier, bitte?". I suppose it could have been worse : perhaps if I'd decided on a Fuller's London Pride I'd have asked for "a pint of your finest nut-brown ale, stout yeoman of the bar!".
I make my way through Brera, and head to the Cimitero Monumentale. I get a bit lost on the way, which turns out to be a stroke of luck as I come across this :-
- a plaque to the memory of none other than Ho Chi Minh who, it seems, spent some time working in a restaurant here during the 1930s.
The cemetery itself is a beautiful place.
I have about one hour to spare before closing, and stroll around. It's a quiet, meditative space. In the famedio (the "hall of the heroes") lies the tomb of Manzoni, author of I Promessi Sposi, a work of huge influence on the modern Italian language :-
Many of the tombs are the work of some of the great archictects and sculptors of the 19th/20th centuries. I stumbled across some works by Medardo Rosso almost by accident. There's far too much to see in the short time available to me, but, before I leave, there's just time to find what I really came to see :-
- the family tomb of the great conductor, Arturo Toscanini.
I still have about two hours before my train leaves. I decide to walk back to the station. There's plenty of time, the weather is slightly humid but not unpleasantly so and perhaps it'll be a nice walk. This turns out to be a mistake. Central Milan is no place for pedestrians, and it's a grim trudge along characterless streets choked with traffic. After 30 minutes I give up and take the Metro. This leaves me time for another wide-eyed walk around the station and its environs (even at this hour, the area outside is full of bagmen, drunks and tossicodipendenti which makes me think that walking to the station after dark must verge on the terrifying). Time for a beer from one of the many bars, and then a long snooze on the train back to Venice, the ETD safely in my pocket. It's been a good day and, more importantly, a successful one.