Thursday, June 25, 2009


Il di che amor nei lacci mi prese,
Mi fe’ cangar di mia vita sembiante;
E quando Amor per forza l’arco istese
Non vale a’ colpi suoi cor di diamante:
Fugge la maraviglia a chi lo intese.
Poiché mi feci al suo signor costante
Poiché m’ebbe ferito col suo strale,
Ben par che si goda del mio male.

Gerusalemme Liberato Torquato Tasso

So just what kind of a slut was the Monaca di Monza? There that got your attention. She is Monza's 'other' claim to fame, besides the race track. Oh, Monza has other illustrious sons and daughters, The previously mentioned Theodelinda, queen of the Lombards, the terribly bourgeoise Victorian painter Mose Bianchi, (can you be Italian and yet Victorian? I think so) - he painted this picture - and Gianni Citterio, Monza's favourite home grown communist partisan (one of a very small band, I'm bound to suspect). Giacomo Puccini lived here for a year, his son was born in a small house on the road by the train station. A bit of a far cry from Torre del Lago. Then of course you've got the on-off presence of various Royal and Noble personages at the Villa Reale. Did I mention Umberto I, the only king of Italy to get himself assassinated, was shot here in Monza? Gaetano Bresci travelled all the way from New Jersey to Monza, to shoot the king, when he was waving at the crowd on his way home after a horse show. There is an ‘Expiatory Chapel' here in town, built by the people of Monza, a sort of public apology in granite. Bresci was punched to death by the guards in prison on the Island of Santo Stefano the following year.
The other worthies of Monza are all rather dusty academics, scientists, minor politicians. All of which makes the Monaca a figure of relief in the history of the city.
She was a noblewoman, Marianna de Leyva, of Spanish blood, and she wasn't born in Monza, but in Milan, in the year 1576 or thereabouts, around the time the poem above was first published. Her mother, Virginia, died when she was tiny, and she ended up in care of an aunt, pretty much forgotten by her father who went back to Spain (the dominating European power of the time)and remarried when Marianna was still a child. Left in Monza, like a lot of noblewomen of the period, she was destined for the monastery at about age 13, it's cheaper than paying a dowry, and in fact, the money promised to the convent in Monza never did get paid. Her father 'borrowed' most of the fortune she was to inherit from her mother, the rest was appropriated by her elder half-brotherand his family. Her life as a nun - she took her mother's name, and was known as Suor Virginia - was far from one of suffering and quiet resignation, though. Her father and his brother shared control on alternate years of the revenue from the levies charged on goods coming in and out oof the county of Monza. In the years when Virginia's father was the beneficiary, he put the 20something Virginia in charge basically of the whole town, making her the 'Signora' of Monza, the Lady, overseeing repairs, civic modernization, and the collection of income. Contemporary sources show she was pretty good at it, self assured and capable, and pretty popular at the convent where, naturally she was also pretty much in charge.

Next door to the convent lived the Osio family. The menfolk - the name Osio is very close to the word for laziness in Italian, ozio - all seem to have been wild. They were known or suspected in a vast number of incidents around the county of Monza, in which their rivals were killed, robbed and beaten up. The blackest sheep, however, was Giovanni Paolo. Virginia seems to have been wise to him at first, she caught him making eyes at one of the young girls entrusted to the convent, and had a stern letter written to him, and sent the girl home, as 'non-nun material'. But a couple of years after this, when Giovanni Paolo came back to Monza after being forced into hiding for various misdeeds, after a long series of letters passed over the wall on a string, addressed to Virginia. He was a looker, but not much of a writer of love letters, it seems. A certain Father Arrigone, family friend and interested in Virginia himself, wrote a lot of the letters, Pandar-style (oh, you, google it. I'll give you a heads-up, it's nothing to do with pandas.) In the end, Virginia fell for him. Osio, not the priest. Two children were born over the next couple of years; the first died, the second, a little girl, lived with her father. Virginia got to see her every now and again in the Osio house.
Nobody said anything for quite a long time. For several years, Virginia continued her work as a teacher in the small convent, and when called on, as the Lady of Monza. She seems to have had to spend a fair bit of time coping with the faction of nuns who were not her cronies, and relying heavily on the complicity of two or three who she could utterly rely on. One can imagine the atmosphere in the building - there were only about 20 nuns all told, plus young women being educated and/or groomed for the veil. Thanks to her her closest friends, Suor Virginia continued to see Giovanni Paolo in the convent and in his house, with the excuse in part that he was thinking about becoming a cappuccino... Not that she didn't try to get over him. She kept throwing away the keys - perhaps as many as 50 - he had made for the door that separated the two houses. She had the windows that overlooked the Osio house walled up, and for a time took to drinking a 'tea' made with his excrement. Not surprisingly Suor Virginia suffered some serious health problems.
So far, she seems a fairly sympathetic figure, a woman in her mid twenties falling for a handsome neighbour, having a child with him, even under the constraints of her life as a nun, which, on the whole, was one of the few ways an intelligent woman could have some sort of career. Popes and priests often had families they took only a little trouble to hide. To paint her as an evil person under those circumstances smacks of mysogeny.
But then the story changes.
About eight years after their relationship began, one of the young women in the nunnery, Caterina de Meda, unhappy at her treatment by suor Virginia and generally not looking forward to a life in the convent, decided to tell the open secret to a visiting bigwig. They tried to talk her out of it, but she was adamant, and, the night before her big tell-all moment, Giovanni Paolo killed her, and buried her body in the hen house. They cut off the head of the girl, presumably to slow down identification if the body should be found, and they made a hole in the convent wall so that is would seem she had run away. A few months went by, but stories continued to surface. The man who had,made all those keys started talking around town, and Giovanni Paolo killed him, got himself arrested for also trying to kill some other people connected with the story. It was a hushed-up affair, the arrest, you might not be able to get away with nurder in 1600, but if you come from a powerful faminly there was a good chance you'd pay a fairly light price. But the lovers made a serious mistake. Instead of staying quiet, they started a letter-writing campaign trying to get Giovanni Paolo out of jail. Soon more important clergy heard not only about the deaths but about the irregularities in the convent, and suddenly Virginia was in the middle of a scandal. The gruesone remains of Caterina di Meda showed up. Not long afterwards, Virginia's two closest friends in the nunnery began to get worried they are going to be sucked into the general disgrace, and asked Osio to help them escape. He helped them leave the convent, only to kill them that same night, with, it seems, Virginia's knowledge. Her concern for her honour, over the lives of her friends, strikes a jarring note. It's hard to know if the accounts read this way because of the anti-Spanish bias of the chroniclers, or if she, the last of the de Leyvas, really was that haughty. Perhaps a bit of both.
Eventually, after a series of trials involving torture and interrogation of all the parties involved, Giovanni Paolo got himself murdered. His house was knocked down and became a popula venue for ball games. A lot of balls ended up over the convent wall. They were not returned. Virginia was found guilty of "various crimes" not specified in court documents, and sentenced to be walled up in a cell in the worst women's prison in Milan, the 'convent' of S. Valeria. The cell was about 9 feet by 4 feet square. She was in there for 14 years. Then they decided she was sorry.
She spent the rest of her long life a sort of Mother Theresa to the Milanese prostitutes of the S. Valeria, "old and bent, emaciated and venerable" still fiercely proud of her de Leyva blood. I don't know what happened to the child, Alma Francesca Margherita.
The convent of S. Margherita is gone, too, swept away under the rug, like all things a small neat town might be expected to want to forget. But where the convent was, you will find a road known as the via della Signora, for Virginia, when she was the Lady of Monza, not just the monaca. And on the building on the corner, there is still a madonna and child.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Near Darkness

Voi che pel mondo gite errando
vaghi di veder meraviglie alte e stupende
venite qua ove tutto vi parla
d'amore e d'arte

The train journey from Monza is a catalogue of flat fat prosperous towns. The railway comes out of Lombardy across the might Po river, broad and grey-green and awash with willows and poplars; the first town on the other side is Piacenza. A line of plump comfortable redbrick towns follow: Fidenza, Parma, Reggio, Modena, Bologna. The smell of pigs around Modena, turns out, not legendary. At Bologna the flatness begins to ease, the hills begin, and then it's Appenine all the way to Florence, and then the rolling waves of grain to Arezzo, and the Oh! the profile of Orvieto, high above the valley residing on its great tufa cushion, and then you are at Orte, and home. Well, I am, anyway.
This is the Tuscia, which is to say the quiet farms, unexpected open cliffs, miniature torrents, and the beech and chestnut forests to the North of Rome. The Monti Cimini rise dark out of the rolling countryside: Poggio Nibbio, Monte Fogliano, Monte Venere, la Palanzana. At their heart is Lago di Vico, a cool shadowy lake, deep as history, unforgiving of careless swimmers. This is Etruscan country; the Romans, when they were contructing the via Cassia to Florence, took one look at the Cimini, and built a detour. A strange world of strange words written in stone two thousand years previously. Vicino Orsini was clearly taken with their mastery of water and stone, of their love of life and beauty, their mysterious beliefs and their fading away, an aesthetic slightly out of key, unable or unwilling to resist the tide of Roman taste.
The Tuscia is Etruscan, but it is not all the same. on the slopes of the Monti Cimini there is Vignanello with its wines and chestnuts, celebrated from as far back as the 4th century AD; there's San Martino the 16th century model village, and of course Bagnaia, more on that place another time. But the queen of towns in the Cimini, if you pay attention to the guide books, is Soriano. I've never liked it, it looks fine on a postcard, but when you get closer you discover that its fairy-tale 13th century castle has been (ab)used as a maximum security prison up until the mid 1990's, and is still in desperate need of repair. It's something of a metaphor for all these towns, arid, crooked narrow streets clogged with cars and heavy with hard faces and over-curious eyes, and everywhere, walls, walls, walls.
Bomarzo is like that. The people of Bomarzo have a reputation for being closed, even thick as the walls of the houses here, my travelling companion commented. Perhaps it's the nature of the place, all these houses thrown up against each other, like bodies found after a fire, all trying to escape from something - the briganti on the highway, passing battallions of mercenaries, the bears in the forest. Above Bomarzo, the palace of the Orsini, one of many Orsini palaces in the Tuscia, this is their stamping ground since, well, the invention of surnames.
Under the sheltering or bullying shadow of the Orsini palace, not beautiful or particularly well proportioned, simply endlessly refashioned out of the living rock of the older houses, the family DNA , the town piles and tumbles along the ridge of the hill.
But in the valley, ah, in the valley, other forces are at work.
In a time when men finished college at 14, Vicino Orsini had to grow up faster than most. He was born into a powerful family, but his early adulthood was no walk in the park; he had to fight for Bomarzo, his own miniature kingdom; through the papal courts, at the age of 19. Cardinal Alessandro Farnese helped him.

More fighting followed. Vicino - it means near, and neighbour, in Italian. His given name was PierFrancesco, the origins of the nickname I cannot tell. He was a reader, and, even if not on the scale of Federigo di Montefeltro, a lover of books: he would have had access to the library at Caprarola, and certainly would have had his own copy of the major works like the Divina Comedia, the Roman de la Rose, the pastoral poems of Poliziano and so many others, and the Classics of Latin - things of practical interest like Caesar's Gallic Wars and Pliny's letters, describing in vivid and much-copied detail the gardens of his villas in Tuscany and in the hills of Rome. There were items of thoughtful and fantastic Greek literature which during this time was gradually coming to the surface, Ovid's Metamorphosis first and foremost, an trailing tail of transformations and transgression. Pegasus, his hoof still striking the rocks of Mount Helicon and creating a gush of poetry in the world, is one of the first statues you encounter in the garden. Everywhere inscriptions in red letters, red like the red stain on the necropoli of the Etruscans; notes and mottoes, some proudly explicit, many others veiled in the secret meaning and mythology of the Bomarzo Orsinis.
On top of these, he would have read Orlando Furioso, written just 50 years before his birth, the 'corrective' Gerusalemme Liberata, both so appropriate for Vicino's career. Like the characters in those poems, he became a soldier, which means a working man, a condottiero one of the many Italian soldiers for hire, charging around the peninsular and bits of France and Spain, from Perpignan to the Pas de Calais, in the mix in exchange for a fee or a share in the spoils. He became close to the playwright, poet and translator of Virgil, Annibale Caro, over in Montefiascone. He became a husband; in an age where marriages had everything to do with politics and little or nothing with love, he found both, at 21, with Alessandro Farnese's cousin Giulia.
He saw things. The value of friendship, the ferocity of war, the pointlessness of loss.
Somewhere in all this, he began his garden at Bomarzo.
The mid 1500's, in Lazio, is the Age of the Garden. Villa Lante and Villa d'Este, The houses of the Medici and Alessandro Farnese's own masterpiece at Caprarola, on the other side of the Cimini mountains, were all taking shape. Along lines. With emphasis on proportion, on technicalities like water spouts and perspactive. Tight formal spaces for dignified walking and showing off giving way, but only just, to areas of more abandon, hideaways for the jetset to flirt and play away from prying eyes. Everyone thinking of Pliny's villa, or rather his letters describing it, and showing off the remains they dug up as they built their new versions of the villa. In the Tuscia, Etruscan sarcophaghi, eyed with suspicion in the Middle Ages, suddenly become in vogue, as benches and ornaments and horse troughs. of At Villa d'Este and at Hadrian's Villa, which had recently been rediscovered just to the South of Rome, the souvenirs and allegories are on show like coffee-table trophies, laid out to impress and cow visitors. Well, maybe I will tell you more about that another time.
Bomarzo is not like that.
This is Bomarzo's trophy, an open mouth in a green stagnant sea, the weight of the world on its head...
There used to be a formal garden here too, you know; like Villa Lante or Villa Aldobrandini, one of those not quite knot gardens, with low hedges of box or privet, lemon trees in containers, gravel paths. None of those gaudy colonial interlopers, begonias that you see today, though. At best a spot of coloured glass on the ground among the gilly flowers and marigolds. But that was all lost hundreds of years ago, and now lies under the sweeping lawns of the picnic area.
The Sacred Wood, the carved, careless wilderness remains.
Vicino made a place in the wood, 'sol per sfogar il cuor' ... simply to let one's heart out. A forest left to itself, with figures carved out of the living rock, much as the Etruscans had done two thousand years before. The the oversight for the park 'of monsters' as it is also known, was in the hands of Pirro Ligorio. Not a plantsman, but a good eye for a valley, and an architect, really, before the age of the fancy corner office. The monsters are eveywhere, dragons and lions, dogs and deformed giants and demons, even the heroic Orlando is in full fury, ripping the Orco in two. Hard to tell, though if the monsters are snarling or laughing, as if the mood is eternally changeable, open to the interpretations of firelight and shadow and afternoon sunlight. And torchlight.
The garden's most famous element is the Orco, the giant face, mouth open wide, tw teeth bearing down on those brave enough to walk in. Which is every visitor. There's a photo from the early part of the 20th century, when the garden reached perhaps the lowest point in its fight for survival, it shows a young shepherd living in the orco. I stepped inside and discovered it's actually a pretty big space, there are benches and a large stone table (from the right angle it looks like the tongue of the monster) and the room has such a high ceiling you could easily put up a sort of shelf bed. But taking a picture inside is no easy task, here instead is the spooky mask that you get when you take a picture without a flash...
Ligorio certainly had a lot of input on this garden, taking charge of the daily operations, the practical details and the essential task of putting together a team and having his trusted workmen follow the plans laid out, instead of taking the line of least resistence as workmen always do, this certainly was an important element in the creation of the garden. But this is Vicino's garden, and Giulia's too.
The first most beautiful thing is the sound of the wood. The wind in the leaves, and the rustling river, a siverblack scar running down the rocky face of the valley. The sound took me by surprise, and the size of the statues too. They are perfectly proportioned to surprise and delight, to draw one in close enough to look carefully and think about the meaning behind each; the tortoise with a tower on its back, the war-elephant devouring a man, the open tomb, the Three Graces traced into the cliff.
A pleasure park, then, full of the souvenirs of travel - travel through books and through Europe, through the loss of friends, like Orazio Farnese, and freedom too: Vicino was locked up by the Germans for two years after a battle in Northern France. The path of a personal philosophy born among the Cimini hills, shaped by faraway places, deep and delightfully unashamed brought into existence a garden of delights and terror so closely married that it becomes impossible to tell them apart, like the woods themselves, moving from shadow to light with the changing breeze of as one's imagination.
For two years Vicino's fate lay in the balance. He was imprisoned in far-off Germany, and there was no knowing if he would return. Giulia was left to watch over her husbands interests, guarding them from the greedy eyes of his brothers and half-brothers. Her legacy she summed up in a building, an original creation, the casa pendente. It is not a natural disaster, like the tower of Pisa, the house is built on a crooked rock, symbol of the circumstances in which she found herself. Out of the questionable materia prima, she manages to bring forth a house: una casa, un casato worthy of her husband.
She died young.
Vicino went on adding to the garden after her loss, but the accent changes. From the under the canopy of trees the path among the sculptures winds uphill and out onto a sunny lawn to a monument at odds with the rough and riotous pagan rocks below. The lawn exposes the secret of Bomarzo: that the sacred wood is only a pretending to be wild. The real wilderness is aldilà over there, beyond the gate, real, banal, unmagical, plebean.
In sight of the edge of the world of magic, with cerberus in the hollow at its side, like the sleeping woman and her dog further down the hill, Vicino built the Temple to Divine Love, half Greek and half Roman in design, in memory of his wife. But when one reaches the portico, one discovers she is not here. Her bones are in the family vault, in Bomarzo, with everyone else. The temple is empty, she is gone, Divine Love is an open space, its walls are beautifully useless and cannot contain her, and love is nothing that can be put in man-made walls, nor can all the magic of the rocks nor all the wisdom and the philosophy the honour and the power of the garden, none of its glorious ambiguity is able to transform this last and greatest certainty.

for those who have had the patience to come back and read this again, I thank you, abd blame blogspot, a dreadful line and an ... interesting day job for making it such a long haul...

Monday, June 8, 2009

San marc

Un mare di macchine dove un tempo passavano le barche: ecco piazza San Marco oggi, una bella e ampia piazza di Milano nel quartiere Brera, una delle più belle della città.
Mi sono trovata qui per caso, uscendo dalla pinacoteca Brera alla ricerca dell'entrata all'orto botanico. Mi sono del tutto confusa e, chiedendo aiuto al cameriere del piccolo ristoriante dove mi sono fermata a mangiare un'insalata caprese, cominciavo a temere d'averlo immaginato il giardino che cercavo. 'ma cerca i giardini pubblici?' mi ha risposto, regalandomi un'occhiata strana, come se andare al giardino pubblico (ammesso che esistesse) fosse un atto sconcio per una donna come me. Chissà, pensavo, cosa si fa nei giardini pubblici milanesi: forse è territorio di George Michael. Comunque le indicazioni che mi ha dato sembravano del tutto sbagliato. Milano davvero ha pochi spazi verdi, proprio come aveva affermata una signora svizzera incontrata sul treno quella mattina.
Ho girato un po' sotto il sole delle 15.00, tanto desiderosa di trovare se no l'orto almeno una panca o il piedistallo di qualche colonna all'ombra dove riposare un pochino. Infine ho ceduto al solito bar, ma i bar dopo pranzo sono sempre pieni di gruppetti o coppie, e ci si sente - o almeno io mi sento - quasi in colpa, sedendomi a prendere il mio espresso solitario. Una cosa bella ha Milano, in qualsiasi ora della giornata, anche sotto il sole scottante, c'è sempre movimento. Donne con sporte pesanti, dirette a casa, giovani col cell incollato all'orecchio, uomini in giacca e cravatto, con occhi cupi intenti su quel spazio che per un attimo hai occupato prima di passare. Io ho preso il caffé e mi sono di nuovo avviata. Camminare fa nascere la voglia di camminare in me, pare. Da quando sono qui non faccio altro, i piedi non mi fanno mai male, né la schiena, neanche i ginocchi, solo il cervello desidera fermarsi un po'.
Palazzi belli ma non nobili qua, sembrano quelli costruiti negli anni venti, una specie di complesso di case poplari. Chissà. Anche qui al centro la gente che lavora deve avere dove vivere, no? Non tutti possono fare il pendolare. Per il resto, alcuno bei bar e tutto pulito, rimesso a posto, bello. Caldo, certo, ma bello una piazza da vivere, anche di giorno, di notte dev'essere molto meglio.
Questa piazza era acqua cento anni fa. Il Tombon de San Marc, si chiamava in milanese. Faceva parte della rete dei canali di Milano, un'altro giorno ti racconterò i navigli, ma oggi soffermiamoci qua. Era una darsena, parola difficile per me, vuole dire dock or basin, un bacino allora, quasi si può dire un parcheggio per le barche, un punto in cui si poteva far riposare i cavalli che tiravano le chiatte. Qui si scaricava i rotoli enormi di carta per la stamperia del giornale milanese, nato durante la belle epoque, il Corriere della sera - abbastanza lontani gli uffici dei redattori, ma questa era una zona sia elegante che lavoratrice, e i canali erano un ricordo perpetuo degli operai e la manodopera necessaria a mandare avanti il bel mondo lombardo.
Si può immaginare gli odori: fieno e cavalli, carta acqua fango sudore, le barche, dette cobbie, basse nell'acquea, per poi tornare a galleggiare alto una volta liberate dal loro carico. E i rumori: saluti e gridi, notizie che arrivavanno insieme alla sabbia dalle città su Lago Maggiore. E il pianto di chi scopriva un cadavere, nella sciuma, il scumm del tumbun, questa la pronuncia milanese.
Tombone, Tombon, o tumbùn, si chiamava, per la presenza del cimitero dal quale scappava ogni tanto un cadavere, o per i poveri affogati, spariti nelle acque nere dei navigli grazie al bere o alla nebbia o a qualche disavventura, per poi riapparire in questo ristagno. Una fossa in ogni senso della parola, dunque. Ma non solo. La bella chiesa barocca di S. Marco contiene molti tesori in marmo ricordi di un patrimonio che nasce nel '200. Da bambino, Mozart fu ospitato per tre mesi nella canonica di S. Marco, e qui, per ricordare il primo anniversario della scomparsa di Manzoni, Giuseppe Verdi diresse per la prima volta la sua messa da requiem.
Ecco una poesia d'epoca: il sentimento illuminista, quasi dickensiano, inorridito e schifato dall'idea di una Milano arrettrata nei confronti di altre città europei, Parigi e Londra e Berlino forse senza capire che, come in quelle città, il 'grande Milano' - i palazzi eleganti, il giornale informativo, l'identità milanese stessa - non poteva nascere senza gli aspetti più ... mortali e puzzolenti come la darsena...
Sul gorgo viscido
chiazzato e putrido
sghignazza un cinico
raggio di sol;
quali augei profughi
fantasmi lividi
mesconsi, riddano,
levansi a vol.
Son baldi giovini
spenti, con vacue
forme, son vedove
tristi beltà;
carcami squallidi
di vecchi, macabre
parvenze, ruderi
Quante speranze
cessar le danze,
quante esultanze
fransero qui!
Che mondi vividi
di luce e iliadi
d'affanno il baratro
cupo inghiottì!
Singhiozzi e rantoli,
ghigni frenetici,
empi monologhi,
beffardi suon',
ritmo satanico,
dal gorgo erompono;
il gorgo brontola
la sua canzon.
O gorgo, o luteo
gorgo magnetico,
o sciame lugubre,
che vuoi da me?
Voglio i dolori
gli spenti amori,
gli altri livori
che porti in te.
0 Scendi con essi!
Ne' miei recessi,
tra i freddi amplessi
ammaliator'della sirena
che l'incatena,
tace la pena,
cessa il dolor.
Gorgo maligno,
torvo, ulivigno,
0 gorgo sanguigno,
vaneggi tu?
Se un giorno amante
ti fui, l'istante
volge incostante
quel tempo fu.
Invan mi affascini,
gorgo; le torpide
malie mi prodighi,
sirena, invan;
la luce adoro,
amo e lavoro,
mi canta un coro
lieto il doman.
Ah! Se mai languano
nel cuor le imagini
care che irradian
mila via fatal,
e della vigile
fede che accondemi
0 i gufi stridano
il funeral,
soavi tossici,
tremendi fascini,
a me l'oblivio
chiamami, o gora;
quella che fia l'ora;
non vano allora
l'appel sarà.

Filippo Turati 1886

Anche i gufi cita... possiamo dire non era un fan dei navigli. Ma alla fine dell'ottocento, un nuovo mondo automobilistico sta per cambiare la città per sempre. Infatti la darsena non sopravvisse molto a lungo dopo il vergare di queste righe. Rimpianto da chi vorrebbe vedere uno specchio d'acqua qui al centro della città, chi come me si sente il bisogno si un pochino di verde tra tutto questo asfalto e mattonato, chi forse immagina quanto sarebbe bello avere una terrazza, un ristorante proprio qua, a due passi dalla Brera e le botteghe d'arte, accanto ad alcune delle strade più frequentate dai turisti. Non sarebbe male.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Tunnel vision

The less time you spend in a place, the easier it is to sum it up with confidence in a few lines. Milan in my head starts with this and this, both from Totò Peppino e la malafemmina my all-time favourite Totò film. Add to those two clips the arbitrary judgements of friends and acquaintances, throwaway one-liners, and you get a general sense of 'German', 'grey, cold and foggy', 'industrial and not very green' 'modern', 'full of models'. Which all turned out to be true except for the foggy bit, we are, after all, in the middle of a heatwave. German, or Austrian, not in a strudel und sahne sense, but that everything and everyone works, and seem to allow others the same priviledge without a lot of unnecessary confusion. Not very green, definitely, but not in an ugly way,... anyway I am getting ahead of myself.
They go on a lot here about how ancient Milan is, a Roman and even pre-Roman city, for a time the capital of the Empire (a pretty short period of time, but still..) and then how this a place where 'one breathes Paris'... perhaps Milan is the sidekick, the co-star, the passive aggressive sibling of Rome, a city with absolutely no problem in being its schizo-uncoordinated, messy and prodigal, self-centred self. Milan is built to work, to resolve issues, to move on: Rome is built to be visited, to be problematical, that's Rome's thing, to be admired, hated, never ignored. One has the sense that Milan is the 'sensible one' still waiting to be recognized as such. But what do I know.
The main things to be seen here, from my point of view, are a few Lombard, a lot of gothic and romanesque architecture; the renaissance castle, via Montenapoleone in the heart of the fashion district, the Last Supper, some art galleries, and the cathedral of course. The Pirelli building, and 60's architecture by the yard, not really my thing, but who knows.
Milan is 11 minutes from Monza, by train, a train filled with ugly girls who spent the entire journey exchanging stories about how they had been mistaken for 'much younger women'... I think the prize for lames story was the 20 year old girl whose neighbour had guessed her age as 18. I think there is a special hell for eavesdroppers, and it consists in being exposed, powerless, to the inane conversation of people under 25, who share at the top of their lungs the news of how they've discovered gravity and reinvented the wheel. Still they could have been talking about World Issues, so I consider myself as having been let off lightly.
The Brera was at the top of my list of places to go, also the orto botanico which is part of the same complex. I'm particularly interested in gardens and botianical ones most of all. Milan city centre is a very simple piece of topography, you just go to the most findable monument first, and that, of course, is the Duomo, visible from a large percentage of the city. Add that to the fact that everything is clearly marked, you can't really get lost. There's only a handful of metro lines, and they seem pretty idiot-proof, and on the platform, there's a nice big TV screen with news, although, this being Berluska's stamping ground, I wondered if it was a Foxy channel, ie skewed news for the masses, a sort brainwash-while-you-wait arrangement. There was no time to make a judgement, the train arrived in businesslike manner, and four stops later I was at Piazza del Duomo.
This is the big brother of Monza's duomo, also built in the 14th and 15th centuries, also but even more in International Gothic style. From far away you can see it has about a million statues on the pinkish grey marble front, almost a cross between a pup tent and a confectioner's nightmare, with pinnacles. Not to mention the madunina... and in another post there'll be space to put more pictures. If you enjoy the overly exuberant cathedral facade you'll love their website it is an exact etherial match.
Heat, like odour, works in a very specific part of the memory. The heat of the day is often the first thing you forget, you remember being uncomfortable, or the inconveniences of the hot weather, but the sun on your skin, that is only properly recalled the next time you find yourself in the same situation. Not a humid heat, like we get in the South, but as intense as a hairdryer. There was a line coming out of the cathedral at least 300 people long, so I immediately gave up on going inside. The square in front is elegant and airy, despite the rays pressing down on us. For some reason, instead of selling the usual trinkets, the African streetvendors were all giving away some sort of coloured strings to be tied into bracelets.
To the left in this picture, the Mother of all Malls - the Galleria. Italians use the word to mean Galley but also Tunnel. Named after Vittorio Emanuele II, the first King of the United Italy (and if you think Vittorio Emanuele is a mouthful, his full name was Vittorio Emanuele Maria Alberto Eugenio Ferdinando Tommaso... the number two though in terms of the Kingdom of Sardinia, which is actually the ruling house of Piemonte, no, this is getting too complicated for this blog... ) It is not, as some think, the 'first' galleria, not even in Milan, there's a much smaller, plainer, earlier one at San Babila. This Galleria, however, was the brainchild of Giuseppe Mengoni and dates from 1865... think Liszt and Yeats, Browning and Verdi and Wagner, the assassination of Lincoln and Rockefeller's first oil refinery. It's not If it makes you think of the Crystal Palace, that's no surprise (unless, of course, you don't know what the Crystal Palace is) - the two are only six years apart. Burlington Arcade in London is the copy-cat version. Ironbridge was also an inspiration, and, in turn, Mengotti's design, linking two of Milan's most fashionable streets under a canopy sufficient to protect elegant shoppers from the worst indignities of Milan's weather, is said to have been one of the places that gave Gustav Eiffel an idea for a tower. The city of Milan, booming in what has come to be known as the second wave of the industrial revolution (trains and all that jazz) set up a competition for an original building to celebrate the city's new wealth and status, Mengoni's design beat an impressive 176 other architectural proposals. The King, for whom pretty much any new construction was being named in Italy at the time, did not come to the inauguration of the Gallery; Mengotti later threw himself off the top of the building, some say out of disappointment at the royal snub. Seems a bit much, to me.
The octagon, at the point where the two tunnels cross, was the 'salon' of Milan, where the city's VIPs came to see and be seen. Of course now the VIPs are mostly Varied International Passersby. Four floors contain are all kinds very elegant restaurants and internationally famous shops prestigious offices and some residences tucked in here too, although I wonder how long it takes for the shine to rub off living in a mall, even a historic mall - this is the place to go if you want sunburnt English people to step on your foot, or large families with absolutely no peripheral awareness to walk in front of you ar 0.05 miles an hour.
Eclectic art reighns, from the lunettes high on the walls to the rich pavement which features the coats of arms of Milan Turin Rome and Florence. They're Italy's four 'capitals... Turin was already the capital and home town of Vittorio Emanuele, before the unification of Italy in 1860. During the years it took to get all the city-states on board, Florence was the provisional capital, when at last Rome was removed from Papal control, it became the definitive seat of government. So what, I hear you say, is Milan in there for? Well there were about 5 minutes when under Napoleon, Italy was a 'new Kingdom' (you guessed it, with him as Emperor) and Milan was the new capital of that...
The mosaic of the coat of arms of Turin (the King's city) has a bull on it, and it's considered lucky to put your heel on the bull's family jewels and spin three times. There was a line.
What shops? The one that ticks people off is, of course, MacDonald's, it's sort of the Al Fayed of the Galleria. Well, I gotta run, more soon...

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Rondanini Pietà

O ombra del morir, per cui si ferma
ogni miseria a l'alma, al cor nemica,
ultimo delli afflitti e buon rimedio;
tu rendi sana nostra carn'inferma,
rasciughi i pianti e posi ogni fatica,
e furi a chi ben vive ogn'ira e tedio.
Rima 102 Michelangelo Buonarotti

It was his last obsession: "Il Cristo con un'altra figura di sopra" - The Christ with another figure above. Mary, it would at a guess, but the point at which the statue remains, the face and body are rough-hewn and indistinct, the second figure remains open to interpretation, in the inventory taken of the contents of Michelangel0's studio on his death at about 89 years old. The statue was valued at about 30 scudi, the yearly wage of a modest school teacher, or, to put it another way, about half the sum Daniele da Volterra spent on wood to build a scaffold for the PGing of the Sistine Chapel, that same year.
Michelangelo was never still, it seems. His final years found him back once again in Rome to work on the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican, yet found time to make three versions of the Pietà. The other two are in Florence, This was the last of the three. Even in very advanced years - especially for a period in which to live to be 60 or 70 was considered extraordinary - Michelangelo continued to accept and to squabble over commissions. Not least the news that his work in the Sistine Chapel was about to be revised; although knowing that a close collaborator was going to censor the naughty bits may have helped. Perhaps he was immune, after so many battles with patrons and Popes. Perhaps not.
Unfinished, this Pietà, because out of time. Like many of his poems, the statue seems a dialogue with death, not a glorious passing or a final judgement, but with the failing of the light, the loss of power, the melting back to dust. On the Medici tombs at S Lorenzo the detail of faces of Dawn and Twilight, Night and Day remain unfinished, slightly vague, an allegory of the fading of day escaping notice, until it is too late. Here, death and loss seem frozen in time and in the act of creation. Halfway between an emerging and a fading back into the earth, one wonders if the figures are coming towards us out of the marble, or receding back into it, losing their hold on a defined existence outside the rock.
Two figures, sharing this fate, fused at the torso. Marks on the statue show that originally the upper body of Christ was detatched. In his final version, the two come together in a single gesture of support given and taken, the smooth muscular legs of youth giving way, relying on the power of the rough hewn stone. The faces are unfinished, lined, worn, for all the centuries set in permanent pity, for telling the same story over and again, resigned to the inescapable fate of loss and of being captured in that act of losing, the slipping away of things irreplacable. Mary's left hand rests lightly on his heart, a reminder of the fusion between the hand and heart of the maestro himself: "non si possono esercitare in modi che ben vada l'arti manuali, perché la mano è lo strumento delle arti." Limbs and arts, gli arti e le arti here are inseparable as they had been throughout Michelangelo's life: limbs painted, sculpted and celebrated in poetry, the hands that brought them into being, now at the end of their great career.
The Pietà was not a commissioned piece; Michelangelo's servant Antonio del Francese got it as a keepsake, on the death of his master. Shortly afterward it disappeared for a couple of centuries, to reemerge during the 1700's in the collection of the powerful Marquis Giuseppe, the last of the Rondanini family, when his palace in via del Corso was sold in Rome. Cleaned up, the statue has remarkable power. The commissioners of the City of Milan bought it. I am not sure what that says about Milan, it seems a very acquisitively New World gesture to me, snapping up a trifle of the artist's work; or so it must have seemed at the time, covered in grease and dirt. Today the statue is hidden behind a semicircular screen in the lowest part of the Scarlioni room, the last item in a succession of Ancient stones that begins with the Romans, to end on this very Roman note. If you're curious, to see the rest of the room, you can click here .

Monday, June 1, 2009

more monza

Recession? What Recession? Walk the city centre of Monza, and you'd never guess that there are places in Italy hurting for jobs, at least at first sight. The city is a rich corner of one of Italy's richest regions, with a right-wing administration to match its wealth; the neo-fascist Alleanza Nazionale with their leader Gianfranco Fini who always reminds me of Spock, usually cringing at some unfortunate remark by poor old Berlusconi, the Bush of Italy, several members of Forza Italia, the party of the aforementioned Mr. B., and the rest coming from Italy's answer to the BNP the Lega Nord. These are people (especially the Lega Nord) who take great pride in Getting Things Done, stuff like planning a Park and Ride on the edge of town, and having it finished by the weekend. Excellent. If you think you hear the distant sound of trains running on time, you may be right... Political buzzwords are always biographical, here spreco is the hate-word, waste. It is a nice wide open term, a general condemnation of waste through corruption, waste through mismanagement, waste through handouts to the undeserving. Careful people, these monzesi, cheap might be going to far, but certainly not given to the sort of chaotic and florid spiritual and material generosity the South.
At the same time, this industrious yet quietly unindustrial town is in the process of breaking away from being part of Greater Milan in favour of being a provincial capital in its own right, Monza e Brianza, I'm not sure why they feel the need to tack on the Brianza bit, it's not a 'twinned' city as in the case of Massa and Carrara, but rather the name of this little bit of countryside around here. Perhaps it speaks to a sense of pride and independence, this is, as we saw earlier, the city of the Iron Crown.
The river Lambro runs through Monza, that's the Lion Bridge you see above (built right at the end of the Austrian Period, in 1840, when a new military road was being built through town) and beside it, shown in the next photo, the Lega Nord stand. It's election season in Italy, once again another long drawn out series of smug-looking men on ugly posters, and most Italians are fascinated, mostly on a verbal level only, by politics. This booth seemed to invite fear and loathing in passers-by, which surprised me; and apparently about two hours after I took this picture, there was some open hostility that turned into a pushing match, quickly quashed by the police and 'kept out' of the local paper. Make of that what you like.
In piazza Roma, on the main pedestrian street leading away from the duomo, is the swankiest cafe in Monza, I think the double tablecloths may have been ahead of me in transmitting that piece of information. Monza is Old Money, combined with new ideas, the Comune just launched its online services. Comune is Italian for common and also means the City Hall, the local government offices, their slogan is Cosa abbiamo in comune which means 'What do we have in common?' but also 'What do we have at City Hall?' The idea that the local government might in any way be there to serve the public seems a radical departure from business as usual in Italy. Here the idea of the comune is highly valued, as it recalls the period in Italian past (ands something of a heyday in Monza's history) when autonomous mini-city states flourished and fought against the evil forces of imperialism and foreign dominance. Themes very much alive and well today.
I was a bit shocked, by all this 'what can we do for you' from local government, this is not the face of Italy I expected, but then I went to cash my traveller's cheques at the bank, where a man with a long face and a posto fisso (= he can't be fired unless he kills the Bank Manager) took one look at the 'chore' of doing his job, and, instead of smiling and just giving me my money, rolled his eyes almost out of his head and sighed like a steam engine. Aah now that I recognize.
Here in the picture is the place where people could sign up for internet access tot heir personal account in the comune making it possible to register for things like a place at school for the kids, business permits and licenses, proof of changes in residence and medical care, and of course pay taxes, taxes taxes.
The city hall itself is an imposing 18th century monster of a building, but to make the process of signing up more simpatico, the Comune opened shop in the old market building, the 13th century Arengario which recalls similar buildings in Germany and England too: it made me think of the one in Ledbury. The word Arengario comes from the German Harihrings, the ring of the army, or meeting place. Downstairs under the arcades there's room for a market, and upstairs a huge room once used for town meetings and now set aside for exhibitions and special events. It's been pulled at and primped over the centuries of course, the spiral staircase in the tower for example dates from 1903, Lord knows how they went up it previously. I particularly enjoy the pulpit-like parlera with its little flag; it was from here that the The Arengario represents in a historical sense the civic heart of the city, while the duomo is the religious heart, and it's interesting to note that while the two buildings are close to one another they are build in such a way thet neither has a direct view of the other, two worlds close and yet studiously apart.
Anyone who knows about the Lega Nord will have heard reference made to il Carroccio, which is a slightly mysterious medieval war-wagon, adopted and transformed into the political band wagon of the nationalist, and northernist party of Umberto Bossi. (another great name for a politician, don't you think? He comes off as extremely bossy).
Historical documentation on the carroccio of the medieval period is a bit sketchy, but there's no shortage of modern interpretations of the war waggon, and its purpose as a rallying point for the troops, a reference and a refuge depending on how the battle is going, the place where the commander, medical assistance, even the funds of the army, were kept. Here's an example of one of the many sites that spells out this movable feast of unification... On top of all that, it was the symbol of defiant independence, pride and general go-gettability. Here's a plaque from Monza cathedral on the subject...