People and Places

From Italy, Part II

Posted on March 3, 2014

I’ve observed before that there are “must see” places and things in the world that fall short and disappoint when you finally see them and there are those that exceed expectation even if you’ve seen their image a thousand times. The Grand Canyon falls into that latter category, as does the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin. I was convinced that DeVinci’s Last Supper would disappoint; it’s been reproduced so often, made the object of stupid analysis in Dan Brown’s Da Vince Code, and was reputed to be faded and poorly restored. Being in Milan, we had to see it, and we managed to snag some of the few and hard to get reserved slots for a late in the day viewing.

Wow, was I wrong. The painting is on the end wall of the old convent dining room in the convent attached to Santa Maria della Grazie (itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and is much larger than I anticipated. Unlike the mob scenes at the Sistine Chapel in Rome or around the David in Florence, groups limited to about 20 are allowed the whole of the room for 15 minutes. It is a whisper quiet space.

We had a guide, David, a trained art historian and he made the work come further alive for us and helped us better appreciate both the drama of the moment (when Christ announces to his assembled apostles that one will betray him that night) and its artistic merits. Though, in truth, we could have also sat in in reverential silence. The drama of the experience is also enhanced by the security around the work, as we made our way through a series of isolating chambers in which one set of glass doors allowing progress to the next space would not open until the doors behind us were closed. The system also allows for a “leveling” of atmospheric conditions of humidity and temperature.

That process points to the extreme fragility of the work, further heightening the sense that one is seeing something that is barely hanging on, a condition created by DaVinci’s insistence on painting on dry plaster instead of wet (as was the practice with frescos, so the paint would soak into the wet plaster). He wanted the more vivid colors that the technique allowed, but his paint now sits on the surface of the wall, subject to flaking and peeling. About 60% of what we see today is his original work, the rest being filled in by restorers (the last painstaking restoration took 21 years). Yet the work still lives and DaVinci’s genius remains breathtaking. It was the highlight of our time in Milan.

For me, food always runs a close second with culture. We had dinner at a well-known Milanese restaurant, El Bellin. The hotel concierge recommended it and said, “They have Milanese food and also Italian food.” A funny distinction to Americans, but a reminder that Italy was for most of its post-Roman history a set of powerful and often warring city-states. While all Italians are justly proud of their collective heritage, they identify with their city or state. David, our guide, was smart and political and thoroughly modern, but was no less prone to city-pride. In this case, Milan as the place where the merely good become great. Mozart? A reasonably talented 14-year-old when he came to the city, but a genius upon his departure. DaVince? A clever man, but in his 20 years in Milan he becomes a genius. Mussolini? A journalist and two-bit politician, but in Milan he rises to status of fascist dictator worthy of eventual execution. Aramni? A mere tailor before making it in Milan.  David was quite convinced that Milan makes the man (and woman).

As David also pointed out, Milan remains the center of Italian finance and banking, fashion, design, industry, media, and power. It is to Italy what New York is to the US, while Rome remains a dysfunctional political center, as DC is in our country. But, in his view, the smart and rich and powerful live in Milan. The city, variously ruled by the French, Austrians, and Swiss, has the well-run and organized efficiency of northern Europe (though even the Milanese show no real understanding of, or maybe respect for, the basic concept of the line). It has little of the litter, graffiti, chaotic streets, and dirt of Rome or Naples or Sicily and reminded us more of Berlin than its sister cities to the south. Is that a good thing? The bartender at our hotel, who would look right at home in Brooklyn with his hipster beard, flannel shirt, and rolled up cuffs, was from Naples and was homesick. He described Milan as boring, less friendly, with less life and charm, and only “good for making money.”

If Milan is like New York, I suppose that it may be most like the boring Upper East Side. Our bartender has a point. Milan is only now seeing its tourism industry grow, mostly from the newly wealthy Russians and Chinese who find themselves in brand heaven from what I could tell. It has little of the romance of Rome, where one can get lost in ancient neighborhoods and find magical corners of the city. The Roman scenes Woody Allen so lovingly depicts in To Rome With Love are harder to find in Milan. Yet a “boring” part of Italy is still Italy (that is, wonderful) and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.

Back to the food. Ah, what a meal. Tagliatelle made from chestnut flour with lamb ragout. A ravioli like pasta filled with pumpkin and amaretto (almost like dessert). My favorite dish was an award winning “day after rice” dish, inspired by a traditional use of leftovers. Pumpkin risotto patted down and cooked crisp in butter, with a bit of pasta and bacon and caramelized onions in the middle. A very traditional Milanese dish that provided one of those rare “I’ve never tasted this combination of flavors before” experiences.

Also traditional were apple fritters (fried apple slices) layered with Parma ham. A great local Lombard wine and it was a meal fit for a Visconti. And not the sort of Italian food we ever see in most American cities (remember that our Italian cuisine was morphed from the south, the impoverished areas of Italy that sent almost all our Italian immigrants).

We left our amazing hotel, The Yard, this morning and were seen off like old friends. This has been one of the most unique places at which we’ve ever stayed. Only 25 rooms, it is eclectically decorated with antiques from all over Italy and America, every little space filled with everything from football helmets to water skis to antique silver to rough wooden farm tables.

Hundreds of coffee table books sit piled, most having to do with fashion and design (especially cars and motorcycles) and comfy seating areas and even a movie room invite one to linger. The rooms are each uniquely decorated (ours, called Strike – -they are named, nut numbered – had a bowling motif that included pins, balls, and antique bowling shoes). Breakfast is communal and they serve maybe the best coffee we’ve ever had.

The staff felt like family after just two days. It’s the kind of place one wants to return to whenever possible. In fact, we will next Saturday, on the eve of our flight back out of Milan. But off to catch the fast train to Florence and the next leg of our trip, a visit to Florence University of the Arts, where SNHU students are doing study abroad and a second group is making a shorter length visit. We are exploring a more substantial partnership with FAU and this visit is to set eyes on the place, spend time exploring its programs, and to meet with senior leadership.  It’s exciting to think about having our own SNHU outpost in this lovely country.

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