A Mumbaikar in Milan

May 26, 2009 at 5:40 am (Katie Sahiar Dubey, Travel)

I landed in Milan in the late afternoon of a hot, sunny day. As I went about unpacking, without warning clouds gathered, thundered and rain pelted down in gray sheets. Wonderful feeling! So familiar! I rushed to the small balcony of my hotel room and stood there getting wet. Was transported to Mumbai for a few moments.

Milan and Mumbai! So many parallels! Business hub, fashion capital, migrant population, parking problems, laundry hanging out of windows, multiple tongues and friendly inhabitants. Its freewheeling commercial culture and ready acceptance of new ideas has always drawn people to it and amongst its most renowned ‘outsider’ responsible for shaping its destiny was Leonardo da Vinci. The city is what it is today because like Mumbai, it embraced enterprising outsiders. Today, while vibrant and modern, Milan is imbued with traditions which are centuries old. Its history speaking through great works of art, music and church architecture that is lovingly cared for and painstakingly renovated from time to time with generous help from corporate sponsorships.    

Dominating the Piazza del Duomo is the wonder of Milan – the Church of Santa Maria Nascente, known only as ‘Duomo’ or the House of God. It is the heart of the city with streets either radiating from, or circling it and is the second largest Catholic cathedral in the world, 157 meters long and 92 meters high with a capacity to accommodate 40,000 people at a time.

Mark Twain expressed his amazement when he wrote “What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems… a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!”

My reaction too!  Facing the statue of the mounted king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuel II and encircled by the Galleria, it dwarfed them both, subtly reminding one of enduring spiritual heights that go far beyond the material. However, this is no time for contemplation, but rather for quick thinking. One is suddenly surrounded by the ‘fast buck’ makers, mostly of foreign origin, and not a few of them Indians speaking fluent Italian. Feed the pigeons for one euro, or have a picture clicked, or else tie a thread on your wrist and make a wish! Familiar tricks, each one. So, refusing to feed overfed pigeons I moved to the massive door of the church.  Every inch of it embossed in relief, with panels depicting the life of Christ, the ascension of Mary to heaven and other biblical events. So awe inspiring was the sight that I felt a deep urge to photograph every inch of it.  Christ stumbling with the cross and being dragged to His feet. Christ being tied, before being mounted to the cross. So poignantly portrayed are the scenes that several people worship at the door itself, placing flowers on the panels. 

No wonder then that few churches in Italy took as long to build. The Duomo was built over more than five centuries, its foundation stone laid in 1386 under the patronage of Bishop Antonio da Saluzzo. In 1387 Duke Gian Visconti, who had ascended to power in the ruling family of Milan insisted on marble, in vogue at the time to create a power symbol. The cathedral was consecrated in 1418, but not completed until the 19th century when Napoleon spurred on the work to completion.

It consists of a nave that rises 45 meters, the highest Gothic vault of a church and houses the tomb of Gian Giacomo Medici, which in part was designed by Michelangelo. Opposite the Medici tomb, the 12th-century candelabra by the goldsmith Nicholas of Verdun is believed to be the greatest masterpiece in the cathedral. Fabulous creatures created with meticulous attention to detail adorn this work of art. 

Windows of stained glass that are found nowhere in the world, were executed in the 19th Century by the Bertini brothers. And then there are the stunning windows of the choir, which are considered the largest in the world. Most treasures in the Duomo’s interior, such as ivories, vestments and tapestries as well as sacred vases in gold and silver are gifts that have been donated by princes and noblemen during the centuries of the cathedral’s existence. They beautify it to date.  

The cathedral was overwhelming. Emerging through the dim vault into the blazing sunshine of noontime I drew a deep breath. Without the least bit of self-consciousness, I parked myself on a mid-level step of the cascading stairs and rested exulting in a sense of sheer freedom.  Elegantly clad high-heeled women and suited men rushed by focused on work obviously, while we, tourists, lounged around. The eye-catching life-size poster of Mojca Erdmann, the soprano singer wearing Mont Blanc sunglasses mounted by the high arch of the Galeria, spurred me to move on and explore it. 

Galeria Vittorio Emanuele is one of the most beautiful covered galleries in Europe, the first of its kind to make use of an iron and glass structure with two intersecting streets making a cruciform plan with a domed octagon at center.

The 640-foot-long north-south axis of this cruciform links the secular Piazza del La Scala on the north to the spiritual Piazza del La Duomo on the south. A triumphal arch was added to the southern end of this cruciform gallery. The Galeria was built not just to connect the squares of La Scala and La Duomo, but to represent the union of church and state, which came about after the nationalist revolution of 1848.  Tragically, Giuseppe Mengoni, its architect, fell to his death from the heights of the glass dome while scrutinizing some decorative details two days before King Vittorio Emanuele led the opening ceremony.

Avant garde shops, of every single international brand in every variety of goods is represented at the Galeria. If it’s a brand name then it stands represented at the Galeria. The hour long exploration of the Galeria left me exhausted and I gratefully sank down under the shade of a sun-umbrella at a street café. Although past lunchtime, people lounged at tables and watched the crowd as it swept in and out in waves.  A glass of Chianti and a large serving of pasta re-fueled me and an hour later, was back on my feet.

Mercifully the sun was now fairly low on the horizon and mild light flooded through the glass roof casting soft shadows around.  I wandered out through the Galeria to its opposite end and on to the Piazza della Scala.       

The statue of Leonardo da Vinci had centre stage. Pigeons mingled with tourists seated on the parapet munching or just sunning. Some of them audaciously used the genius’s head as a perch. The square plinth sported stone reliefs on all four sides of Leonardo as a teacher.  Aptly, facing Leonardo was La Scala – one of the most renowned opera houses in the world.

Teatro alla Scala, as it was originally named, opened to public on August 3, 1778.  The building has undergone several transformations since. In 1907 the original structure was renovated and given the enhanced seating capacity of 2,800.  It was severely damaged by bombing in WWII, but was rebuilt and re-opened in 1946 with an unparalleled concert conducted by Toscanini. It was spruced up once again as recently as 2002 and re-opened in 2004.        

Attached to the theatre is a museum of costumes, jewellery and an auditorium. I sank into a seat in the cool auditorium and enjoyed a documentary on the legendary singer Maria Callas singing from her various roles through her operatic life for half an hour, then strolled through the room containing her costumes and merged into the Milanese life of the past century. Finally, there were the accessories and paintings.  Disappointingly, though, the ‘Last Supper’ of da Vinci had been taken off display. 

With my immersion in the past in La Scala coming to an end, I returned to the present by heading for the Galeria with gelato on my mind. What a day I had!

– Katie Sahiar Dubey

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