Milan magnificently exemplifies the possibilities of a fully modernised Italy. What is plain to see in Milan is exactly what all Italy could achieve if only more of its people were as comfortable in the 21st century as the Milanese obviously are...
Milan is a city that presents as totally at ease with the present, and by inference, with itself…
So much of what Milanese do—how they live, what and how they produce—influences how many evolved societies around the developed world, shape and experience their own present.
So, why not Italy’s other major cities?
It seems many Italians fail to see the profits in their own land. The reasons for much of Italy’s uncomfortability with the present are many. And several more essays would only arrive at a contestable list of talking points for further discussion.
To varying degrees, over the whole country, Italy’s potential so often falls short of what it could be. It’s sad; if only for the grinding down of individual creative spirit.
But Milan shows that Italy's creative inheritance is an eternal resource.
And as an essential cog of evolved Western Europe, the Milanese can’t even spell “siesta”.
The entry into Milan via its vast railway station—Milano Centrale—is an awe-inspiring experience. It is the largest railway station by volume in Europe.
It’s built in the “Assyrian-Lombard” style—a fact I’ll just have to accept! It could even be the unique exemplar of that hybrid style!
Its expansive marble halls and cavernous side tunnels could easily swallow the Grand March from Aida with barely a burp!
The station was completed in the Fascistic era, but its style reflects its origins in the more grandiloquent age of la Belle Époque. Its showy confidence speaks to the vigorous visions of a northern–driven, newly united Kingdom of Italy.
To eyes dulled by the experiences of daily life in Rome, the first promising encounter with the station suggests so much more for Milan. It’s clean and well maintained. Its escalators and lifts are fully functioning, and it has seamless connections to buses, trams and subway lines—which even if not brand new, are clean, maintained and efficient.
Outside the streets are wide; again, clean and well maintained. There are no sinking footpaths, stinking garbage heaps, unkept gardens or faded pedestrian crossings. And all the while the trams and trolley buses keep clattering by—full of chatty passengers with validated tickets.
However, when writing about the major cities of a G7 country, no one should be reporting these vignettes as notable highlights. It’s enough to assume them as givens. But sadly, further south, these essential signatures of urban life, too often fail to achieve their essential benchmarks. in Milan, they represent welcome indictors.
In Milan, it’s easy see how the urban environment of a city both reflects and affects how people behave and interact. On the footpaths, people avoid walking straight through on-coming pedestrians; drivers are more respectful of people crossing the roads. There is overall feeling that the public space is altogether more communal.
Milan as an experience, is more than refreshing, its reinvigorating.
In this land of inexplicable and incredulous miracles, Milan is no mystery. It’s what is possible when the best of Italy—its traditions, know-how and innate sense for quality and taste—are effectively harnessed by its present-oriented citizens.
Milan could be a cosmopolitan Switzerland, yet it clearly has an Italian soul.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Around the central piazza of Milan is its Cathedral (the Duomo) and an impressive temple to commerce, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Together, this precinct wonderfully locates the soul of the present day-city, attaching it to its ancient heart.
The huge and elegant glass and iron Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was built in the period following the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy but before final Unification. It was then the largest shopping arcade of its kind and was to became the prototype for many “Gallerias” in Europe and across the world.
The Piazza itself is expansive. Pools of lingering visitors share the space with business people who tend to dash diagonally across the square, darting through flocks of disturbed pigeons.
So many Milanese in this central zone seem unconsciously well dressed. They appear to be living out their inherited understandings for cloth, cuts and construction; together, it might be called "style". Without drawing attention to themselves, they seem to know just how to put it all together, and present themselves with as understated examples of good taste.
That can’t be said for the group of Eastern European influences in the Piazza, busy self-curating their own fashion fantasia for their far-off followers.
From the centre of the Piazza, they get to choose from four innately Italianesque backdrops... complete with pigeonery extras. It’s all worthy of a 60s Vogue shoot; and now all so doable with iPhones and collagen lips. Strike a pose.
Beyond the influences, the Duomo looms large and eternal. It’s been the biggest cathedral in Italy since the Vatican seceded in dubious circumstances in 1929. It's so huge, it seems an average English abbey would fit snuggly within a side nave.
Derided as an amalgam of styles by fastidious nineteenth century critics, it is the realisation of a building planned in the northern Gothic style, in France and realised in a sunnier place, and further reflected in it use creamy off-white marble.
Despite attempts over the centuries to make it more fashionably Renaissance or to give it a Baroque make over… its hybrid Italian-Gothic style remains dominant and distinctive.
Approaching its hulking mass from the centre of the Piazza, the marbled façade slowly begin breathing as details of its statutory of saints and biblical scenes become into view. Most statues are now copies, with the originals preserved in the well-presented Museo del Duomo, to the side of the piazza.
Across the Duomo’s upper reaches, staggered spires of spindled statuary stretch competitively higher, hoping to be the first to catch the bolts of electricity that can head their way.
From below, it is difficult to determine the details and purposes of the statuary perched so precariously on the poles above. But, climbing to the roof, is to enter into an intricately interconnected sculptural terrace of elegantly thin statued spires, curved giant Gothic arches and bulging buttresses—all in pristine creamy-white marble; and ready for walking around, under and through.
Museo del Duomo
A few blocks from the Piazza, it’s easy to access examples of the eternal standards of expression espoused during the Renaissance. Maybe our self-curating fashionista influencers could take a look while they are so close.
Down a short, narrow lane is Bramante’s San Satiro. Donato Bramante introduced the precision of neo-classical harmony to the architecture of Renaissance Milan; leading its evolution away from its Gothic roots.
And while the whole church is no longer fully attributed to him, Bramante appears fully responsible for the false apse behind the alter—necessitated by a road behind.
His apse is a very early example of the trick of trompe l’oeil (French for “deceive the eye”). This refers to the game-like use of visual tricks to suggest different three dimensional spaces. It was all the rage in the Baroque.
However, this amazing false apse relies mainly on relief to suggest a depth that isn’t there. As such it is probably better considered as an example of “forced perspective”—a trick of architecture.
Nearby, in a beautifully subdued space, is the art gallery of the Bibliotheca Ambrosiana (Ambrosiana Library). The library itself is an extraordinary depository of knowledge through manuscripts, books and documents. It is the principal repository of Leonardo’s drawings.
Its art gallery contains examples of perfectly executed, conserved and presented art of the Renaissance. This fabulous store is not even the main gallery of Milan, which is the Brera. Yet any two of its rooms would provide enough riches to satisfy the desires of the national galleries of small nations (e.g. Ireland, Scotland and Australia).
And on a Friday afternoon the gallery is serenely quiet; all the better to linger to appreciate the exquisite compositions, colours and forms of the Renaissance on show. The paintings look so fresh, they could have been painted yesterday.
Ambrosiana Library: Picture Gallery
At the end of a boulevard running from the Duomo is the ducal citadel of the old ruling family of Milan, the Castello Sforza.
On permanent display there is Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pieta. To spend time with this extraordinary and humanely expressive piece, is to absorb some of the ageing Michelangelo’s understandings on death, salvation and the soul. It is all the more meaningful as it remains an artistic expression in the rough—a sculptural sketch.
As with many of the incomparable treasures of many Italian cities, it doesn’t pay to take in more than you can absorb at one time. There is such a thing as too much Leonardo.
But this brief survey of the historic centre of Milan, suggests the traditions and understandings that underly how the Milanese continue to express and project themselves today.
Castello Sforza: Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pieta
Ambrosiana Library: Leonardo da Vinci's St John the Baptist