Milano – A Rain Day – Part I

“You brought the sunshine with you from Roma,” beamed the always welcoming Vittoria as I checked in a week ago Monday at the Hotel Star in Milano.  And indeed after several days of continuous rain it seemed that the sun had returned to warm the Piazza Duomo and it was a glorious day for strolling through Centro.  However my gift was short-lived: the next morning Vittoria suggested that an umbrella and a sweater would be more appropriate than SF15 to the day.

Peck is a food lover’s paradise however the stern warning tells you – No dogs! No Photos!  And some of the staff give a new dimension to Milan attitude – except for Bruno behind the prepared food counter who is charm incarnate. Though at those prices everyone should be.

Fortunately even in the rain Milano has much to offer – it means spending a bit of extra time studying the marvellous shop windows in the Galleria, popping into that church that I’ve always meant to have a look at, stopping off to have the senses of taste, smell and sight stimulated at Peck (and maybe even picking up one of their jars of tiny artichokes in olive oil – after having taken out the suitable bank loan to pay for it), seeking the shelter of the 14th century Mercato building to listen to a jazz band and wandering down to the Museo Diocesano in the San Lorenzo area to take a look at an exhibition with the rather intriguing title of Gli occhi di Caravaggio.

Now poor Michelangelo Merisi was largely ignored for a few centuries but has suddenly become all the rage. Just last year we celebrated the 400th anniversary of his rather mysterious death with a “Notte di Caravaggio” here in Roma – a decidedly festive all night celebration of a less than festive event – which had been preceded by the blockbuster exhibition at the Scuderie. And it would appear that his name on a poster draws the crowds in, no matter how tenuous the connection. In this case the exhibition was dedicated to painters and city-states in Northern Italy that may well have influenced the work of a home-town boy whose become a household name down South.  Though he was born in Milano most of Caravaggio’s productive years were spent in Roma, Napoli and Sicilia.  And the poster and the title may have created the (misleading) impression that we would be seeing some of his more famous works only one was on display – his powerful The Flagellation of Christ.  But what was displayed were some very fine pieces by other artists who may well have influenced him: Giorgione, Moretto da Brescia, G.B. Moroni, Tiziano, Vincenzo e Antonio Campi, Simone Peterzano, Tintoretto, Lorenzo Lotto and Giovanni Ambrogio Figino.  So though the draw may have been the bad boy of Renaissance art there was some splendid examples of many of the great artists of the period that made the exhibition a must see.  That and the Museo Diocesano itself.

Hidden of in a rather dreary section of the city – even drearier on a rain-soaked morning – the entrance to the Museo is not particularly inviting but once inside!!!!  The collection chiefly traces the history of Christian art in Milan and the surrounding areas of Lombardy and Veneto but is wide ranging for all that.  Many of the works come from parish churches in the region that are no longer used for worship or have given works to the Museo for safe keeping and restoration.   The three collections that intrigued me most where the 41 gold backed paintings on wood that make up the Crespi Fondi Oro, the Diocesan Collection of works from parish churches and items from the now defunct Museo Ambrogio.

Three wood and gilt statutes from the Diocesan Gallery of the Museo Diocesano in Milano.

One of my pet bugaboos is  people who take photos when it is expressly forbidden and I am proud to say I have never taken a “forbidden” picture.  If there is any doubt in my mind I always ask.  None of the normal signs were posted in the Museo so ask I did in each gallery – and got three different responses.  In the Diocesan Gallery the mature lady, head buried in a musical score and singing softly to herself, raised her head and an eyebrow and murmured “One would be okay, but only one!”  So one I took of three beautiful statues in wood and gilt that once graced the church of Sant’Agnese in Sommo Lombardo in the Varese district of Lombardy.  They are by a craftsman named Rolando Botta who was active in the area during the second half of the 15th century.

Santa Barbara
Santa Maria Maddalena

I find these three statues have a serenity and grace that makes me curious as to the rest of this artist’s work. Unfortunately a search revealed very little concerning him.

The Ambrogio Gallery contains older pieces from early incarnations of the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio. The Patron Saint of Milano – and I am ashamed to say that the only reason I know that is because it is the opening night of the opera season at La Scala – Ambrogio is credited with building four churches in the city. He is also credited – it would appear erroneously – with the creation of the Ambrosian rite that is celebrated in much of Lombardy. Again it was three carved wood pieces that caught my attention. These walnut choir stall dossals were the work of a team of artists for the Basilica between 1469-1471. Lorenzeo da Origgio, Giacomo da torre and Giacomo del Maino worked in carving, inlay, paint and lacquer to create these three beautiful panels. When I asked the guard if it was okay if I took a photo he shrugged and said, “Take as many as you like.”



I mentioned last week that I was reading Aesop’s Fables on my iPhone and for some reason these carvings reminded me of early wood cuts I’d seen of the old morality messages. Could they have been the inspiration for these three artists?

There was one other piece from the Visconti collection that took my breath away – a massive carved, painted and gilt redoes from Antwerp that filled one wall at the top of a staircase.  Unfortunately when I approached the guard this time I was sternly admonished that no photos were allowed anywhere in the Museum. Now I know better than to argue with someone in their own little domain so I held my peace. Though I was sorely tempted once his back was turned I didn’t break my own rule.   I was sure there would be a post card or even a pamphlet about such a major piece – sometimes I should stop being so damned Anglo-Saxon and take the bloody photos!

14 giugno – San Eliseo – profeta

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Heads You Lose

Today is the Feast of Saint John the Baptist – one of those secondary feast days in the church calender that becomes a major celebrations in some regions of not just Italy but the World. As an example in Québec June 24th has always been a major celebration of Saint Jean-Baptiste the patron of the province. It has since taken on a slightly more nationalistic nature but the traditions of the older celebration still hold on.

You have to admit that the story of John the Baptist is a pretty good one. Its got everything – religion, sex, politics, sex, political descent, sex, intrigue, sex, death and did I mention sex? Its no wonder it’s attracted writers, artists, composers, choreographers and movie makers.

In paintings the child John is normally seen with the Madonna, his smug little cousin Jesus and his mother Elizabeth. Often he’s holding a lamb or a cross and when he gets older is dressed in camel skin. However this sculptor seems to think he started his career as an ascetic – howbeit a chubby well-fed one – early in life.

The story of Salome dancing for her step-father Herod on his birthday and, at the insistence of her mother, demanding the head of John has been expanded from a few lines in two of the gospels. She is not even mentioned by name but historically it is known that the daughter of Herodias was called Salome.
The idea of Salome as an icon of dangerous female seductiveness is an old one that became more entrenched in our modern sensibilities with Oscar Wilde’s play and later Richard Strauss opera based on it.

The Feast being celebrated today is his birth – which is exactly 6 months before Christmas, no doubt to jibe with the story of Mary’s visit to his mother Elizabeth. The Beheading – a much lesser Feast in the calender – isn’t celebrated (?) until August 29.

All the photos here were taken in the Bode Museum during our trip to Berlin late last year.

24 giugno – Natività di San Giovanni Battista

A Good Friday Meditation

Again one of the small treasures, of so many, in the V&A collection was this altarpiece from Lombardy. Attributed to the del Maino brothers it would have been created in their workshop in Pavia. It was made for Sant’Agostino, Piacenza where it remained until 1841. The predella addresses the Nativity while the upper piece traces the events of the crucifixion. Back in my days as an avid record collector I had the wise counsel of my friend Alan when it came to buying things. Alan worked at Sam the Record Man’s and had a coterie of people that he would advise on what they should buy. If Alan said “buy it” I bought it and was very seldom disappointed. Back in 1975 he suggested that I purchase a Archiv recording of a little known Passion by Francesco Corteccia, a Florentine composer at the time of Cosimo di Medici. As with most Passions written for the period the story is told by the Evangelist (in this case John) and the words of the crowd and meditations between events were sung by a choir. The spoken sections are in Florentine dialect and the choral in Latin. I find the sound of Arnoldo Foà’s voice has a beauty that is as musical as that of the choir.

Unfortunately I had problems with focus on some of these photos so though it is not of the highest quality I still wanted to share it with you as a meditation on the art of the wood sculptor, the composer, the actor and the musicians.

03 aprile – Sabato Santo

A Palm By Any Other Name

Even though I live across the river from Big Ben and the Boys I tend to forget my religious feast days other than Christmas. Oh I know I post a saint-a-day but that’s from a fun little website that reminds me that today is San Gontrano or at least it would be if it hadn’t been displaced by a greater feast.

This morning as I trundled through the Galleria in Milano towards the Metro I noticed people carrying bundles of olive branches tied with ribbons. If the bells that began sounding at 0730 hadn’t been enough to remind me then those little bundles did the trick – today is Palm Sunday. The day when tradition tells us Christ road into Jerusalem on a donkey to the welcoming cries of the populace who spread palm leaves before him.

Despite what the Italians call it palms are not much in evidence here – except those carried by the clergy in procession. The congregation gets blessed olive branches. Why olive branches and not palms? I’m not really sure – but according to the GB’s article in Italian Notebook it may just be that that olive trees are more plentiful? I know that back in my church going days in Toronto we always had full palm fronds for the clergy and choir and small palm crosses for the congregation.

And in Poland colourful artificial palms are made of woven husks entwined with dried flowers and carried in procession. In some cases the fronds carried in procession are over 30 meters high. Our housekeeper Christine would always bring us blessed palms like the ones on the right.

In villages in Germany and, as I discovered on my visit to the Medieval and Renaissance galleries at the V&A, England it was not uncommon to have a figure of Christ on a donkey carried or wheeled in procession. Often the procession would wend its way through several villages with the figure being handed over to each village in turn until it ended back in its home parish.

This example of the wood carvers art from the Bode Museum in Berlin was created in the Lower Rhine Valley. It was probably brightly painted when it first appeared in procession in the late 1400s.

28 marzo – Domenica delle Palme