Rome stands for romance, history, art, architecture and fab food. Florence is for culture; Venice is for moody beauty and atmosphere.
What about Milan?
Milan is where the technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti comes from, the little gray man whose job is to save Italy from bankruptcy. Bankruptcy seems unlikely: in the midst of this unending “recession,” Italy prospers and Milan is booming.
Muscular Milan is Italy’s biggest city, the source of a third of this fabulously rich nation’s income, the location of most of Italy’s high tech and heavy industries, the capital of the country’s fashion, business, finance and banking.
Milan is also an experiment in globalization, Italian style. It is pioneering a new brand of tourism-friendly Dolce Vita. This may be bittersweet but it looks like a way forward for aging, debt-plagued Italy.
Kaleidoscopic armies of immigrants are pouring in, opening shops and providing services, cooking, cleaning, doctoring and melding with the locals. Colorful disorder – homelessness and shantytowns included – is repainting a dour town that used to be nicknamed “the moral capital of Switzerland.”
Compared to the joyless workaholic city I lived in nearly 30 years ago, Milan is unrecognizable –except for the perennial streetcars, outsized cathedral and other hulking old buildings. It’s not only multi-ethnic, but also animistic and chaotically alive. Much of the city center is closed to traffic now and has been re-landscaped and groomed. Café terraces spill where trucks and buses once thundered along. The prospect of frivolous enjoyment of the kind reserved for Romans now energizes the streets – especially those nearest to the center of the spider web cityscape.Does anyone remember the classic neo-Realist movie “Miracle in Milan” by Vittorio de Sica, an uplifting postwar fable about survival, generosity and abject materialism, complete with the dove symbol of the Holy Ghost and the comic Totò cast as a slum-dwelling Christ figure?
Today’s Milanese miracle is profane, messy and not always comical. Most surprising for the Milanese, this may well be a post-Catholic miracle. The capital of the Roman Empire when Christianity was declared the official religion, the fountainhead of saints Ambrose and Carlo Borromeo, the historic home of Italian bigotry and site of the Duomo – possibly the world’s most astonishing, cavernous cathedral – appears to have officially relegated religion to the B List.
Business always came first. Now pious religiosity comes after shopping, wining, dining and soccer.
Global millions cheer for Milan AC and Inter, the city’s two A-Series soccer teams. Who cheers for Saint Ambrose or Carlo Borromeo? San Siro is the hero!
On a recent visit I helped a group of Indonesian soccer fans find their way to the San Siro stadium, then picked my way between passing street cars, through herds of wannabe fashion models to the cathedral, known locally as the Duomo.
The Duomo rises from the center of the spider web of Milan’s ancient streets. It bristles with spires. Topping the porcupine roof on a pinnacle is a statue of the Madonna called “La Madonnina.” She’s visible for miles, the tallest thing around, though currently her spire is under restoration – and is about to be relegated to second-tallest by Milan’s pointy new skyscraper. Maybe that’s why the Madonnina’s magic is ebbing.
Hundreds of feet underneath her in the cathedral’s crypt the embalmed body of Saint Carlo Borromeo lies in a crystal casket wearing fancy dress. At ground level an eerily realistic statue shows Saint Bartholomew flayed, holding his skin. The Madonnina, crypt and flayed saint have been pilgrimage sites for centuries. Today 99 in 100 visitors see them through a camera lens and don’t know what or who they are. Visitors wear sinfully casual clothes, babel in tongues and seem indifferent to symbols of religion and authority.
After a frothy cappuccino under the glass canopy of the Galleria – one of the world’s first shopping malls – I did the rounds of my favorite churches. Milan has dozens of gorgeous Romanesque and Baroque places of worship. Was I surprised to find them empty? Not really.
San Babila was closed for restoration, wrapped in scaffolding and flanked by an unusual Fashion Madonna.
A single Italian voice echoed in the 1,000-year-old apse of the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio as a group of baffled Chinese sought the bones of the Magi.
In the exquisite smallness of San Satiro, American art historians lectured loudly about the cleverness of Bramante in creating his false architectural perspective.
But it was the lonely priest in the abandoned pews of San Bernardino alle Ossa, the city’s repository of age-mottled skeletons, who spoke volumes with his silence. In the church’s secret ossuary, once packed by the pious, I had the skulls and crossbones to myself. It was chilling, a memento moriout of sync with the times, a message not of hope but of resignation.
Walking from church to dark, incense-scented church, I glanced up and saw the underfed fashion models staring down from giant advertising posters. Their bones looked oddly like clothed horses. Had any of them visited San Bernardino alle Ossa or seen Saint Bartholomew at the Duomo?
But these pre-modern thoughts were drummed out by the joyous ringing of streetcar bells and the voices of merrymakers partying everywhere, enjoying the unpredictable, unexpected miracle of life in Milan 2012.
Author and guide David Downie’s latest books are the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” and “Quiet Corners of Rome.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/parisand http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.