Milan—Italy As Grand Gestures, Innovation, And Design

Milan. We like it. Quite a lot. Some guide books tell you Milan isn’t really Italy and many tours exclude it from their itineraries. Maybe, they mean it’s not the Italy they have romanticized. Nor Italy of the renaissance or baroque periods.

But Milan is Italy as:
• Grand gestures;
• Innovation and design;
• Unabashed consumerism; and
• The grubbiness and excitement of modern life.

Much of what it does and has done seems over the top: The massive Duomo is the largest church (by volume) in Italy. Though St. Peter’s Basilica is larger, it’s in the Vatican, an independent city-state. This Duomo is also the second largest Cathedral in the world in a Gothic style (after the Duomo in Seville, Spain). But only in the structures that first catch your eye.

If you look closer, you’ll see elements of other art periods. It took six centuries (1386 to 2009) to build Milan’s Duomo and each new builder left his mark on it. That mark represented the prevailing style of his time.

Started in the flamboyant French Gothic style known as rayonnant (examples: Ste. Chapelle and Notre Dame in Paris), it’s adorned by hundreds of intricate spires, thousands of statues, and radiating rose windows. Maybe, more than you’d see in other Gothic churches. You can inspect its decorations—the most elaborate I’ve seen in a Gothic church—if you go up to its roof. From there, you can watch the life on the street or catch glimpses of the cathedral reflected in buildings around it.

Just as over the top is the Milanese Galleria. Built in the 1860s, it may be the first shopping center in the world. It houses some of Italy’s oldest businesses. Walk through it from the Piazza del Duomo and you’ll find yourself at another piazza where La Scala is located. It is the world’s premier opera house.

Commercialism is rampant in and around the Duomo. I’ve never seen billboards as many or as big as they have here. All touting one product or another, many of them made in Italy . On our visit, a gigantic screen constantly flashes colorful advertisement videos featuring the young and beautiful.

When you get hungry after going up the Duomo’s roof and you’re watching your tourist dollars or a craving for American hamburger hits you, walk a few paces to the largest McDonald’s outlets in Europe . Three of them are concentrated within a few blocks.

What may be the greatest Last Supper painting is also in Milan, some distance from the Cathedral. Leonardo da Vinci was innovating on fresco techniques when he painted his Last Supper at the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Sadly, modifying age-old techniques could lead to unhappy results. Italy had to start an ongoing restoration of da Vinci’s painting twenty years after he completed it.

If all that is not enough, Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan (1494-1499) and the patron of Leonardo da Vinci, left Sforza Castle as a gift to the city. It’s built like a fort and now houses museums.

Florence—at least in its old center—is a treasure trove of art, a veritable museum not to be missed. We can’t help being in awe of it. But we do sometimes wonder what would happen if the tourists stop coming.

Milan, on the other hand, is NOW. It has a smaller share of Italy’s art, but the present life pulsating within it matters more than those precious remnants of history.

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