Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Travel: Duomo di Milano, Milan's Cathedral - Shock & Awe

Milan's great cathedral - Duomo di Milano - sits on its same named piazza, off centre in the city with numerous ring roads forming partial and wobbly concentric circles around it like a poorly drawn target. I'm not sure if the city realigned itself to the building or vice versa but to be honest, it's such a huge structure that it's possible that there are some kind of slight gravitational force at work - actual or perceived -  causing everything in Milan to orbit around it in some way. We - Nige, Pete and I - were certainly drawn towards it on our first visit to the city, just pausing to drop our bags at our hotel before jumping on a metro heading south into the city centre.

We emerged from our subterranean metro travels on the southwest corner of the square and immediately found ourselves surrounded by tourists, pigeons and hawkers. The tourists went around with their heads in the air or a camera super glued to their fingers, like a scene from zombie movie with people shuffling around brainlessly, the pigeons quick-stepping around their feet with very little grace and certainly no dignity as they pecked at crumbs discarded on the stone slabs. But the hawkers were the worst ... because they really had nothing to sell. There were two types; the first group would offer you a free bracelet of sorts, composed of some strands of twisted plastic, while saying 'Free-Free-Free' but of course once they tied them on your arm they would then ask for a 'donation' and becoming quite aggressive if you refused. The second group gave you 'free' birdseed to feed the pigeons (Why anyone would want to encourage the avian equivalent to the rat is beyond me ...) and then ask for some money to support their family, dog, cocaine habit or whatever.

Anyhow, one end of the square was taken up with the arresting site of the cathedral and although it looked large from a distance, it's only as you start walking towards it, brushing aside the hawkers and pigeons, that you realise just how enormous it is, with those entering and exiting through the doors and the sightseers on the roof pulling the whole edifice into perspective. We slowed to a shuffle looking at the building in awe - like the other tourists I had just disparaged -  then headed towards the entrance, still marvelling at the size of the structure.

The building was started in 1386 and took over 500 years to complete. It has 135 carved pinnacles and has over 3,000 statues, (or 2,000 or 4,000, depending on your source. I didn't count them myself you understand.) more than half of them on the roof. It is crowned with a gilded statue of the Madonna, put there in the 18th century by someone with a good head for heights, as it is 108 metres off the ground. The cathedral itself can hold up to 20,000 people at a push - literally.

The main doors are massive, detailed bronze masterpieces. They must stand, or hang, at least 10 meters high and seem to depict scenes from Christ's life in an almost Art Nouveau style. The hand polished calf of one of the figures - one of the soldiers scourging Christ - shone in the sun from too many tactile touches. The marble surround was equally impressive, depicting fruit, flowers and shells, with the odd cherub for good measure, all carved in exquisite detail.

But you enter by the side doors, past serious looking security personnel, and the contrast from the bright and dazzling exterior to the gloomy almost cavernous interior is disconcerting. It took many minutes for our eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness and the low lighting levels before we could start to look around without walking into something. The lack of internal lighting is obviously to help highlight the stained glass windows, which were vibrant, backlit panels in the murky gloom. Their light falling on the pillars and statues creating more pools of colour in the darkness. Everything from the exquisitely detailed floor tiles to the distant shadowed ceiling was a triumph of splendour and decoration. We wandered around separately from chapel to pulpit, statue to crypt, pointing each other in different directions to different features when we ran into each other.

I encountered poor old St. Bartholomew looking quite morose and serious, which was understandable considering he was wearing his own skin like a comfort blanket. He was allegedly flayed alive in Armenia and then crucified upside down. (There's somewhere I must mark it off my holiday destinations.) This statue by Marco d'Agrate dates from 1562 and seems to show a worrying degree of knowledge of what's under the human skin. One wonders was Marco often to be seen in graveyards with a spade, a scalpel and a sketchpad - digging, carving and drawing with equal enthusiasm.

Each of the separate chapels within the cathedral are masterpieces in themselves, housing paintings and statues of a quality to grace any art museum or exhibition. It is impossible to get your head around the magnitude of the task of creating this place, so I sat for a minute and took in the bigger picture of the whole space. The giant supporting pillars seemed like tree trunks in some petrified primordial forest, their canopies lost in the darkness overhead, or like the set of some Tolkienesque fantasy set in a mythical, troll ridden wood, as Nige put it. Looking up at the enormous entrance doors you could imagine the effect that opening these to let in the visiting bishop or cardinal would have had on an assembled crowd. The sunlight just seeping in through a tiny crack at first and then flooding the whole space with blinding brightness, as trumpets blared and psalms were sung ...

The poor peasants must have crapped themselves.

I left the others and decided to take the stairs rather than the lift up to the roof. After a brief interrogation by the two soldier standing guard at the entrance to the stairway who insisted on me emptying my pockets, I started to climb the well-worn stairs, which wound around the tower and up to the roof. I eventually got to the top, feeling dizzy and out of breath, leg muscles aching and cursing quietly at my lack of fitness for even the most basic of tasks. I leaned at the top of the stairs, wheezing and trying to catch my breath as sprightly 80 year old American ladies bounded past me and on to the roof, looking at me with a mixture of sympathy and disgust.

'Asthma,' I lied as one Italian lady took pity on me and gave me a drink of water and perhaps the last rites, as she seemed to be waving her hands over me in a religious fashion and speaking rapidly in Italian. Only then did I remember where I was perpetrating this deception and that the chances of a lightning strike were considerably higher up here regardless of any other outside influences.

She left me to it and I eventually regained my composure and started to take in my surroundings. The level of detail, even up here, was astonishing. Every nook, cranny and pinnacle had a carving of some description on it and I wondered had there always been access to the roof for the public. If not then this was all done for God to see - presumably. I remember seeing a documentary on early Irish Christian chalices once and the presenter asking some historian why a chalice would be so elaborately detailed underneath where no one could see it. 'Ah, but God would see it!' was his smiling reply, so maybe this was something similar. Or perhaps they were just showing off a bit, as only Italians can do.

I was also surprised that the carving varied so much - from saintly figures to gruesome, gurning faces, and evil looking gargoyles, this place had the lot. Then I caught sight of what looked to me like a stylised, almost Sheela na Gig-like relief on one of the archways I was about to pass under. It stopped me in my tracks - I was surprised that a carving of this type would be on this large cathedral in Italy.

Proper Sheela na Gigs are a figure of debate and conjecture as to what they represent. They are somewhat graphic carvings of a female figure that leaves little to the imagination. I had seen and read about them in various articles and books but thought of them as a mostly Irish phenomena. They are said to represent either; fertility symbols; a survival of pagan worship; a warning against lustful thoughts; protection against evil; or any number of other suggestions that have been thought up by historians over the years. The fact is, nobody seems to know for sure. What a similar figure was doing, flanked by two Pan-like characters with wings, on the roof of the Duomo I don't know. The figure was a little flowerier and less blatant than those I had seen back home but I still wondered what it represented and why it was here.

I suddenly became conscious of the fact that I was staring at a carving of a naked woman. This was reinforced by the tuts of a group of small, wizen English women who had to squeeze past me as I stood on the narrow walkway. I half expected a slap of an umbrella on the back of the head as they passed by but luckily it never happened and I moved on.

There were gargoyles to channel water on the side walls and plenty of other grotesque figures as I walked around. I wondered were these to ward off evil spirits, which seemed to me to be hedging your bets a little and tipping your hat towards paganism ... although maybe, like the Sheelas, we'll never know their real reason for being in such places. Or perhaps I need to read more about Gothic architecture.

The front section of the roof was quite crowded with people, many were strolling around carefully but there were plenty of sun bathers here too, lying on the large slabs of stone that made up the roof itself and taking in the rays. Maybe we hadn't travelled that far from our pagan, sun worshipping past after all? This probably explained the Ray Ban sign, not to mention the rest of the billboards, which could be seen from most vantage points of the roof. On a clear day you can supposedly see the Alps from here but today was a little hazy so the horizon just blended and blurred into a grey nothingness.
I stood and stared up at the Madonna statue that crowned the building, wondering once again how it was hoisted up. I was tens of metres above the ground and the statue seemed as high up again, its gold finish glinting in the hazy sunshine. You could see how it would be a beacon for the worshippers of Milan, visible and sparkling in the sunshine from most areas of the city, before it became the built up high-rise sprawl it was now.

The roof was becoming crowded now and after a final look around, I headed back towards the stairs to descend back down to street level. I was about to begin the easy, gravity-aided descent when I noticed that the walkway also wound around to the back of the church. All the visitors seemed to be heading to the front so I walked against the tide, past the elevator and around the back to the east side of the church.

It was quiet and empty here; no other souls seemed to venture in this direction, preferring the safety in numbers and Piazza view that the west end offered. This was a tranquil oasis right in the heart of the city. I looked out across the void to the balconies of the apartments on the other side of the street. They were almost touching distance from here, their pretty potted gardens had a wonderful view back across at the Duomo, which was as well decorated on this side as on the front. The only sound that could be heard was the occasional dentist-drill-sound of metal on stone, as the conservators worked overhead on scaffolding, and the barely-muted music from their radio, the sound of which seemed a little out of place here.

I spent ages on this side of the cathedral, by myself and lost in thought and admiring the scenery, from the carvings and detail on the building to the view over the rooftops. I turned a corner and caught sight of one of the building I hoped to visit - Torre Velasca. At 100 metres high this medieval looking building with its top storeys jutting out over the floors below, seemingly only support by diagonal props, towers above its neighbours. Built in the 1950s and resembling a siege tower or fortress, it didn't really blend in with its surroundings, as I looked at it over tiled rooftops. But as out of place as it looked I still liked how it stood there, perhaps defiantly shaking its fist in this direction. It could be quite an interesting place to live.

Time was marching on and I would soon have to find the others, so I headed once more to the stairs, on the way staring across at the beautiful people who occupied the balcony of the restaurant of  La Rinacente, one of the poshest department stores in Milan or Italy for that matter. No one looked back at me, they were in their own place of worship I guess.

Back at ground level I went looking for the others, my thoughts on pagan statues and sun-worshipers, wondering where we would eat and what to sacrifice to satisfy our hunger ...

A pigeon maybe ...

 (Visited 2009 - excerpt from a shelved project)

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