Monday, January 9, 2012

A Milano Surprise

Milan was to be a convenient location for meeting our children – nothing more and nothing less. But when we found ourselves with an extra day because of our early arrival from Morocco, we decided to take the train in to wander the city on a cursory half-day tour. We had done absolutely no research on what to see and boarded the Milano Malpensa Express blind. All we knew was that the city was a center of haute couture, had a magnificent Duomo and was home to La Scala, the world-renowned opera house. On the train ride into town, I studied the map we’d picked up at the hotel to sketch out a route and fortuitously stumbled upon the notation that Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is in Milan. Shame in us that we had no idea it was under our noses, but what a lucky surprise! Surely a day that starts with such an auspicious discovery must turn out well. We arrived at the train station and headed straight for Santa Maria delle Grazie, a 15th century church and convent in whose refectory the masterpiece is housed, a few short blocks away. We promptly bought two advance tickets for the 3pm visit (each viewing includes just 25 people and is for only 15 minutes) and tickets in hand, headed towards the center of Milan for lunch, the Duomo and La Scala.

We first came upon the Duomo di Milano, which I found quite appealing. It was a confectionary vision from Oz, flamboyant yet graceful and topped by a forest of delicate, soaring spires. Adjoining the Piazza del Duomo was the elegant, black and gold Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the upscale, shopping arcade built in the late 1800s to provide direct, sheltered access from the Duomo to La Scala. The structure is composed of two perpendicular glass-vaulted ceilings that intersect in an octagonal dome and cover the streets below. We learned that this construction was much larger in scale than any of its predecessors and was an important step in the evolution of the modern, enclosed shopping mall, many of which use the Milano-inspired term, Galleria in their names.
After a pizza lunch under the soaring Galleria skylights, we headed to the Piazza della Scala, hoping for a brief tour of the opera house. But once we arrived in the piazza, we were met by a dense crowd, were held back by a fence restricting access to La Scala and bumped into Carabinieri with every step. Clearly, something was going on. We soon learned that the performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni that evening would launch the new opera season and that Italy’s glitterati, including Mario Monti, the new prime minister, would be there. The inside of the theater was off limits for the day, so we had to content ourselves with a view from the street. This was actually fine with us, however, since we were a bit tight on time and didn’t want to be late for our 3pm appointment with Leonardo.
We arrived at Santa Maria delle Grazie with plenty of time to spare and to study the information about The Last Supper posted in the entryway foyer. Apparently, the convent had been severely damaged by US bombing during World War II. Several amazing black and white photographs are displayed, including one of the partially destroyed dining hall – the roof blown off – and The Last Supper exposed to the elements. The painting came to within a few feet of being completely destroyed. At 3 o’clock straight up, we were lead with the other 23 visitors in our group into the refectory of the convent. Keenly aware that we had a brief 15 minutes to enjoy da Vinci’s mural masterpiece, we did our best to take in the setting and the details of the painting since no pictures or video were allowed. We struggled to push aside the pop culture baggage we brought along (the references in Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code to the mural’s depiction of the sacred feminine, Mary Magdalene, the Holy Grail, et al.), so that we could simply marvel at the magnificent work of art in front of us. It was difficult, however, to completely disregard the notion that the figure to the left of Jesus was not actually John but Mary Magdalene, given the individual’s visibly feminine characteristics. Covering much of one of the walls at the end of the refectory, The Last Supper measures 15 feet high by 29 feet wide and did indeed take our breath away. We had seen the image that depicts Jesus announcing to his 12 apostles that one of them would betray him, reproduced a multitude of times over the years, but to actually see it as and where da Vinci painted it was remarkable. Fifteen minutes was hardly enough time to satisfy us, but just as we were ushered in, we were briskly escorted out.
Our one day in Milan was an unexpected treat, capped by its highlight, our serendipitous encounter with The Last Supper

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