Sunday, June 12, 2016

Ileana's Fly-by-the-Seat-of-Your-Pants Italian Trip - First Stop, Milan

The preparation for a trip that requires an airplane ride is a mixture of excitement and dread.  The longer the trip is, the more intense the frustration and the more stressful.  It’s not about the fabulous destination that awaits me at the other end or about the reunion with beloved relatives or people I have not seen in a long time, or the discovery of new, beautiful, and exciting places I have never seen before or perhaps enchanted places to be revisited, it is the dread of selecting and compacting days of living into one suitcase. It is freedom to be able to choose enough to suffice for the duration of the trip and, at the same time, a reality check of how much we really need to survive.

What things can I do without and what things are necessities that cannot be ignored or discounted? What do I pick for sixteen days when I am only allowed so much weight, I am taking one suitcase and a carry-on, and only so much can be fit inside? How do I choose? And will I have drugs for any potential minor emergencies that would shorten my distress and misery and prevent a trip to a foreign hospital which, no matter how modern, will fall short of the best hospitals in the U.S.?  Can I trust people who drive and park on sidewalks and consider safe driving rules a mere suggestion? Can I put up with people who balk at making change for a certain banknote or so impatient and “overwhelmed” that they frown when asked more than one question?

Will my legs carry me far and wide before they start failing in searing pain? Will our money and possessions be safe from pickpockets? Will we find suitable hotels? How many times we will get lost even with the GPS, maps, and stopping to ask locals for directions? How soaked by the rain will we be? How many tolls will we have to pay to drive 1,000 miles on the autostrada?

This trip promises to be an extraordinary adventure. We are flying by the seat of our pants, with hotel accommodations for the first three nights, after that, we are on our own. The thought had crossed my mind that we might have to sleep in our rental car except for the nagging fact that we are both tall and not exactly slender; we would have a hard time fitting into a mid-size BMW.

The late afternoon flight from Dulles to Amsterdam was relatively uneventful if you consider that we flew in Sardine Class, at the back of the plane, close to the bathroom. Even though the KLM flight attendants were smiling and accommodating, watching three movies back to back with the knees practically at our chins is not exactly our idea of comfort. And the narrow seats were very uncomfortable for my broad-shouldered hubby.  

Flying has changed so much! From the comfort of the 1980s when the seats were wider, the napkins were linen, the silverware was real, food was delicious, people dressed up to fly, there was no TSA molesting passengers and radiating them for their “own good” after making them wait in endless lines, luggage was not weighed, it did not cost an arm and a leg to buy a larger seat in business class, service was always with a smile, passengers were special people, and not the cattle of today herded into inches of space like shiny sardines, just enough room to keep them from having a cardiac incident or blood clots.

I never understood why we have to eat sauces-drenched cardboard-tasting food twice during the seven-hour flight but then flying does strange things to our brains and taste buds. And we have nothing better to do but eat, sleep, or watch movies.

Amsterdam is one interesting airport to visit, it does a very profitable and brisk business in marijuana-motif pots and other knick-knacks, tulip bulbs, wooden clogs, cheese cutters and knives, huge chunks of chocolate, and enormous chocolate bars, I am not sure what’s inside because I did not purchase one, and other dust-gathering souvenirs that everybody buys to prove that they have passed through. Strangely enough, airports make more money from concessions and souvenirs than they do from flying and airplane landings and parking fees.

I was grateful that my hubby made good on his promise four years ago to take me back to Italy on an itinerary of my own choosing. I was celebrating an anniversary of sorts, my 22nd visit to the city of art, Venice, the Serenissima. Who knows if I will ever be able to go back and wonder again the cobbled streets of my Roman ancestors! Constant pain and wobbliness are terrible things to overcome but I am willing to give it a try. I have a portable pharmacy in my carry-on and I pray every day that God will give me the strength and endurance to overcome my many physical challenges.

After Amsterdam we landed in Milan, Linate airport, not exactly the international hub of travel, a run of the mill airport, grey, dull, but easy to pass through customs. While waiting to get our two suitcases from the conveyor belt, one eager employee was yelling at me for standing in line to use the handicapped bathroom in which they usually have an actual rail to hang on to. He was pointing at the sign quite agitated. Not looking handicapped and, unless you are in my body, you would never know how much pain I am in, I yelled back at him in perfect Italian that I am in need of the rails. He must have felt badly because he came and guided me to another available bathroom that was too close for comfort to the men’s bathroom and he stood guard nearby – an old-fashioned Italian.

After waiting in line a good 30 minutes to get our rental car, even though there were only three families waiting and four Avis clerks, we trekked to the actual garage after crossing several narrow streets with cracked pavement and barely avoiding crazy “motorini” drivers intent on mowing us down for a grand prize. The garage was dark and the parking spots very narrow. Dave had to literally climb onto the driver’s seat of a black mid-size BMW that had barely enough concealed trunk space to accommodate two suitcases and two carry-ons for the duration of our trip. On account of the narrow parking spaces, the doors could not open enough to allow normal entry if all spaces were occupied. He pulled the car out in order for me to get in.

The GPS kept sending us in circles in the roundabouts beside the Linate airport to the point that we felt like we would never get out of this circle of madness. We arrived in the suburbia called Milanofiori where conferences were usually held. The hotel, the NH group, was an elegant four-star establishment a short walk from the metro. The GPS, with an annoying British female voice, must have had old maps because we could not find the hotel immediately. I changed it to a more interesting and clear male voice.

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016 Milanofiori
Unable to find the hotel immediately, we stopped at an ultra-modern McDonald’s to ask for directions since I speak Italian fluently. A most unusual fast food restaurant, this McDonald’s offered a coffee bar with donuts, Danishes, croissants, and other delicious pastries. Three large electronic screens recorded orders, the chosen seating area, and took payment in cash or credit card. A runner would bring the food once it was cooked. I can see this McDonald’s as the model for all the areas where minimum wage job holders have protested and demanded $15 per hour, “a living wage” for unskilled labor.

Once we settled into the hotel, we took the metro into Milan, Linea Verde, the green line to the Duomo. We exited below the imposing flying buttresses of the Duomo, stark white in the sunlight. We walked around in the crowded piazza filled mostly with Italian tourists, Muslim immigrants, and a few German, British, and French tourists.  I was surprised to see a few Muslim couples take pictures of the majestic gothic cathedral, a place of Christian worship and of western civilization.

Il Duomo Photo: Wikpedia
Dedicated to Santa Maria Nascente, St. Mary of the Nativity, the Duomo di Milano is the second largest church in Italy after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome; it is the seat of the Archbishop of Milan, currently Cardinal Angelo Scola. The Italian gothic cathedral took six centuries to complete, a perfect example of beauty that cannot be rushed.

The focal point of Milan, the first Duomo called the Basilica Nuova, was dedicated to St. Thecla and was completed in 355 A.D. The construction of the current Roman Catholic basilica, built in Italian Gothic architectural style, began in 1386 and was completed in 1965. The construction group was called “Fabbrica del Duomo” and had 300 employees.  The enterprise had exclusive rights to use the marble from the Candoglia quarry and was exempt from taxes.

Even though half of the basilica was completed by 1402, work stalled until 1480, lacking money and ideas.  During this period the tombs of Marco Carelli and Pope Martin V (1424) were completed. The octagonal cupola was built during 1500-1510 under Ludovico Sforza and four series of 15 statues with characters from the Bible such as prophets, saints, sibyls were added to the interior. Amadeo’s Little Spire, a Renaissance piece that harmonized well with the gothic exterior, was added in 1507-1510. In 1552 a large organ was built by Giacomo Antegnati for the north side of the choir. Giuseppe Meda and Federico Borromeo decorated the altar with the sixteen pales. St. Bartholomew and the Trivulzio candelabrum were added.

Carlo Borromeo removed all lay monuments from the Duomo, tombs of Giovanni, Barnabo and Filippo Maria Visconti, Francesco I and his wife Bianca, Galeazzo Maria and Lodovico Sforza. I can only imagine what it must have smelled like worshipping in churches with so many dead and decaying entombed within.

As the exterior remained largely unfinished, the interior decoration continued during 1575-1585 – the presbytery, new altars and a baptistery. Wooden choir stalls were built by 1614. Borromeo consecrated the entire building in 1577 as a new church, distinct from Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Tecla.

During the 17th century, most efforts were dedicated to the façade of the church. The Madonnina’s spire was added in 1762, erected to a height of 108.5 meters. Milan has a very damp and foggy climate which often obscures the Madonnina statue at the top of the spire.  The Milanese will tell you that it is a fine weather day when the Madonnina is visible from far away and not covered by mist.

The cathedral had about 81 architects and engineers who contributed their work to its construction over the centuries. But the façade was still a long way from completion. Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the façade finished on May 20, 1805 because he was about to be crowned King of Italy. Pellicani finished the façade in seven years even though Napoleon never delivered on his promise that the French Treasury would reimburse the Fabbrica del Duomo for the expenses. To thank Napoleon, his statue was placed on one of the spires. As expected, he was crowned King of Italy in the Duomo.

The last gate was inaugurated on January 6, 1965. However, if you look around the huge cathedral, you will find unfinished blocks, waiting to be carved.

As is the case with all historical monuments, the façade had to undergo renovations from 2003-2009 in order to clean the Candoglia marble. Every time I visited, the familiar scaffolds with draped curtains were covering the amazing façade. This time, it was open in full and brilliant-white splendor.

Modern day pollution takes a heavy toll on the old edifice and it must be maintained constantly. Funds were cut recently due to austerity measures which prompted the Duomo management to offer 135 gargoyles for “adoption.” In 2012, for contributions of 100,000 or more, sponsors could have their names engraved under the grotesque gargoyles that hide the drainage pipes.

A group of vegan protesters with gory banners of animal slaughter houses were speaking against meat consumption and the abuse of animals, urging people to become vegetarians. A few carabinieri were watching lazily from a safe distance, heavily armed.

The Milanese Galleria Photo: Ileana 2016
We had our first pizza and gelato in Savini, inside the beautiful Vittorio Emanuele II Galleria. Connecting Piazza del Duomo to Piazza della Scala, the walking mall, designed by Giuseppe Mengoni and completed in 1877, is covered by two glass-vaulted arcades which meet in an octagon.

Nicknamed “il salotto di Milano” because of its many restaurants and shops where strolling locals meet, the Milanese Galleria, which inspired the use of the term for our modern shopping malls, displays four mosaics in the octagon, representing the coat of arms of the three capitals of the Kingdom of Italy, Turin, Florence, and Rome, and the coat of arms of Milan.

The bull from the Turin coat of arms is a bit worn and damaged due to the superstition that if one spins around three times with the heel on the testicles of the bull, good fortune will follow.

The Milanese Galleria connects two other famous landmarks, the Duomo and Teatro alla Scala. At the end towards the famous La Scala theater, a most interesting museum, Leonardo3, displays the famous machines that Leonardo’s fertile scientific mind had envisioned and drawn.

Milanese Galleria Coat of Arms Photo: Ileana 2016
On our last trip, in addition to luxury retailers selling paintings, books, leather goods, haute couture, and jewelry, there was a McDonald’s appearing at odds with the famous restaurants, cafes, and bars such as Biffi Café, founded in 1867 by Paolo Biffi, the pastry chef to the monarch, the Savini restaurant, and the Camparino with its Art Nouveau style.

McDonald’s lost its lease in 2012 after 20 years of occupancy.  A lawsuit followed in which McDonald’s was asking for 24 million in damages from the city of Milan, their landlord, €6 million per year in sales lost due to the non-renewal of the lease. A second Prada store occupied McDonald’s location. The suit was eventually dropped after McDonald’s was offered the chance to open a restaurant in a nearby location. McDonald’s offered free food and drinks during the last few hours of operation in the posh location.

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Leonardo3 Museum is located at the entrance to the Milanese Galleria from Piazza della Scala. Touted as “one of the most important events of the year,” The World of Leonardo Exhibition (March 1, 2013-December 31, 2016) displays working models of Leonardo’s machines, his inventions and artistry brought to life, and the digitized restorations of his paintings.

Among more than 200 interactive 3D reconstructions, some of Leonardo’s machines are hanging from the ceiling such as the submarine, the time machine, the mechanical dragonfly, the rapid-fire crossbow, and the mechanical eagle. Additionally, there is a digital restoration of the Last Supper, of La Gioconda, and reconstructions of his musical instruments. Leonardo da Vinci’s codices are also displayed in virtual format.

Parco Sempione Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
On a rainy day, we walked not far from the Duomo, across the damp and slightly foggy Parco Sempione, one of the city’s largest parks, where the Sforza Castle (Castello Sforzesco) was visible in the background, dark and foreboding brick and grey stone weathered by time. Built in 1360-1499 by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, on the ruins of a 14th century fortification, the castle was in use until 1862. Renovated in the 16th and 17th centuries, it became one of the largest citadels in Europe. Sforza Castle was extensively restored by Luca Beltrami in 1891-1905 and it now houses several city museums and art collections fanned across the inner courtyard.

The castle has a square plan with 200 m-long sides, four towers in the corners and 7 meter-thick walls. The Visconti lords used it as city residence until they were ousted in 1447 and the castle was destroyed by the Golden Ambrosian Republic. Francesco Sforza defeated them and turned the Castello into his private residence three years later.  Torre del Filarete (Filaret’s Tower) bears the name of the architect and sculptor Filarete who was hired to design and decorate it.

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Ludovico Sforza hired artists to decorate the castle, among them Leonardo da Vinci, whose frescoes decorate several rooms. Bramante painted frescoes in the Sala del Tesoro and the Sala della Balla. Leonardo painted the ceiling of the Sala delle Asse with vegetable motifs.


The castle was damaged by assaults from various French, Italian, and German troops. In 1521 the Torre del Filarete exploded, following placements of mines around its foundation and having been used as a weapons depot.

Francesco II Sforza restored and enlarged the fortress when he returned briefly to power and adapted part of it as residence for his wife, Christina of Denmark.

The Spanish dominated the castle next and it became a citadel with a garrison of 1,000-3,000 men ran by a castellan. The external fortifications were 3 km long, covering an area of 25.9 hectares. When the Austrians of Lombardy replaced the Spanish rule, the castle remained a fort with trenches dug around the castle during Napoleon’s rule. Most of the outer fortifications were demolished during the Cisalpine Republic.

Napoleon's Forum Photo: Ileana 2016
On the city side of the castle there is a semi-circular Piazza Castello with radial streets bound by the Foro Buonaparte. On the wooded side of the castle there is a parade ground known as Piazza d’Armi.

Torre del Filarete
Photo: Wikipedia
After Italy was unified in the 19th century, the castle became the property of the city of Milan. That is when the former parade grounds were transformed into Parco Sempione, the largest parks in the city.

Heavily damaged in 1943 by the allies’ bombardment of Milan, the castle was reconstructed after the war by the BBPR architects for the purpose of housing museums. Currently, the Sforza Castle has exhibits antique art, arms, sculptures and furniture, decorative arts, musical instruments, prehistoric and Egyptian archeology, the quarters of the Spanish hospital, and the Leonardo hall.

Photo: Gaston de Foix
Ileana Johnson 2016
The Museum of ancient art houses 2,000 pieces of Late-Antiquity, Medieval and Renaissance sculpture in Lombardy. Containing Sforza and Spanish era decorations, the museum displays an armory, the funerary monument of Gaston the Foix, the funerary monument of Barnabo Visconti, and the famous Rondanini Pieta by Michelangelo, his last and unfinished work.

The picture gallery contains about 1,500 works by famous painters like the Venetian Canaletto, Giambattista Tiepolo, and Francesco Guardi.  Among them are wooden bas-reliefs and sculptures in terracotta and marble. Canaletto’s famous “A view of the wharf of Venice” graces the halls of the Pinacoteca.

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The Vinciana Collection holds 5,000 volumes, including manuscripts, and over 2,000 photographs on Leonardo da Vinci. It is the most important place for research on Leonardo.

Milanese tapestry
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The Art Library contains 91,000 volumes with some rare and antique editions. The library catalogue is available on-line.

The history of personal archives of famous archeologists and numismatists is found in the Archeological and Numismatic Library. Founded in 1808, it contains 33,000 modern volumes, 1,125 antique volumes, 700 titles of periodicals, audiovisual materials, and historical archives.

Bernabo Visconti Tomb
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The Trivulziana Library and City Historical Archive is a historical preservation library that owns 180,000 volumes, including manuscripts dating back to the 8th century and the most famous Notebook by Leonardo da Vinci.

Works of engravers, ceramists, sculptors, gold and silver smiths, armourers, and tapestry weavers made from glass, brass, gold, silver, porcelain, and silk brocade are displayed in the Museum of Decorative Arts.

Walking a few blocks from the park, there is a famous but simple church, Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie (Holy Mary of Grace) which houses in the refectory of the convent the mural of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper. Its official name under UNESCO’s World Heritage Site is Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with "The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci.

Santa Maria delle Grazie is a Roman Catholic Church designed by architects Guiniforte Solari and possibly Donato Bramante. Bramante was in the service of the duchy at the time, but there is scant evidence of his connection to the project which was finished in 1497, fourteen years after the groundbreaking ceremony.


Santa Maria delle Grazie Sacristy, the Last Supper location

Santa Maria delle Grazie

Santa Maria delle Grazie main entrance
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Francesco I Sforza, Duke of Milan, ordered its construction and the church became a burial site for the Sforza family. Ludovico Sforza’s wife, Beatrice, was buried there in 1497.

An altarpiece by Titian, with Christ receiving the crown of thorn, was installed in 1543 in the Chapel of Holy Crown. In 1797 French troops looted the painting which is now housed in the Louvre.

Interior of Santa Maria delle Grazie
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Most of the refectory was destroyed in the night of August 15, 1943 by an allied bombing raid which hit the church directly and the convent. The walls that hold the Last Supper survived because they were sandbagged. Appointments must be made months in advance in order to view the mural.

The Old Sacristy (Sacrestia Vecchia) designed and built by Donato Bramante, is the residence of the Dominican Cultural Center (Centro Culturale Alle Grazie). Conferences are organized and hosted by clerics on issues of spirituality, philosophy, art, literature, and sociology, concerts and exhibitions. Past themes of speeches held by professors include “The Church as a Reconciled World,” “Unity and the Trinity of God,” “The Mystery of Christ,” and “The Theological Faith and the Essence of Christianity.”

Bramante’s Sacristy is a rectangular room with a chapel space at one end even though the sacristy is where religious vestments are kept. The 15th century cabinets where such vestments were stored are no longer there. The vaulted ceiling was painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the same blue with golden stars as the wall of the refectory.

Parts of Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus with sketches and notes are kept in the sacristy and displayed since 2009.

A beautiful fountain, potted flowers along the walls, and small trees decorate the center of the cloister. The cloister connects the main church with the sacristy.

Cloister inner courtyard   Photo: Ileana Johnson
Because I did not make arrangements months in advance to view Leonardo’s Last Supper, I was not able to see it. I was so close! I traveled so many thousands of miles, walked slowly through Milan and in searing pain, like a penitent. I just leaned against the non-descript and simple outside wall, closed my eyes and imagined what it must have looked like on the other side. No amount of cajoling was going to earn me an entrance ticket or a peek on my pilgrimage quest. So, I cannot describe first-hand what it would have felt like and looked like to me. The Last Supper is still a mystery.

La Scala on a rainy day Photo: Ileana 2016
Teatro alla Scala (La Scala) is one of the most famous opera houses in the world. Inaugurated on August 3, 1778, the premiere performance was Antonio Salieri’s Europa riconosciuta (Europe recognized). In the past 200 years, the best operatic voices in the world have appeared on the stage of La Scala. I must admit that I’ve always imagined my beautiful daughter Mimi, with her inimitable mezzo-soprano voice, performing at La Scala.

La Scala in 1900 Photo: Wikpedia
The venerable building is home to La Scala Theater Chorus, La Scala Theater Ballet, and La Scala Theater Orchestra. An associate school, La Scala Theater Academy, professionally trains in music, dance, and stage management.

On Saint Ambrose Day, the feast of Milan’s patron saint, the season opens at La Scala on December 7. Tradition dictates that all performances must end before midnight, including long operas which start earlier in the evening.

A museum accessed through the theater’s foyer, exhibits collections of paintings, drafts, statues, costumes, and papers documenting La Scala’s history.

On February 25, 1776, after a carnival gala, Teatro Regio Ducale was destroyed by a fire. Wealthy Milanese who owned private boxes (palchi) in the theater petitioned Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Este for a new theater. The first plan was rejected but the second plan was accepted by Empress Maria Theresa. Because it was built on the deconsecrated grounds of the demolished church Santa Maria alla Scala, the theater received its name from this church. The theater had about 3,000 seats and the stage was one of the largest in Italy.

To offset building expenses, private boxes (palchi) were offered for sale. Noble and wealthy Milanese used La Scala as a place to see their friends and relatives, be seen, and listen to music. The main floor (platea) had no chairs – spectators watched the shows standing up. There was no orchestra pit, the instrumentalists were in plain view.

Above boxes was the gallery (loggione) where the middle class could watch the performance. The gallery was always highly critical of opera stars. Tenor Roberto Alagna was booed off the stage in 2006 and his understudy had to replace him mid-scene, even out of costume.

La Scala also hosted a casino with gamblers sitting in the foyer.

The fear of fire was ever-present. The theater was illuminated by 84 oil lamps and a thousand throughout the theater. Several rooms had hundreds of water buckets to put out fires in an emergency. Oil lamps were replaced by gas lamps and then, in 1883, by electric lights.

La Scala underwent major renovations in 1907 and a controversial one in 2002-2004 that improved the sound system and allowed opera-goers to follow the libretto in the original language, in English, or in Italian. The 1907 renovation established the current 1,987 seats.

The 1943 bombing severely damaged La Scala, but it was rebuilt and reopened in 1946 with a concert conducted by Arturo Toscanini, composers Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, and soprano Renata Tebaldi.

Many famous operas had their first productions (prima) hosted at La Scala. Verdi did not allow his work to be played there for several years because, as he said, his work had been “corrupted” (modified) by the orchestra.


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