There were two goals for the today’s first half – the Duomo, Milan’s Gothic cathedral and Pinacoteca Brera, one of Italy’s finest art galleries.
Given the state of tickets for attractions here, I did a bit of research last night to find out the approach to get into both places. The Duomo web site listed a price of 2€ at the door, or 8€ on-line so I figured we’d just take our chances. After coffee and croissant, we went in search of the secondary ticket office at the west end of the large shopping mall behind the cathedral. I was 2nd in line, and the tickets cost 3€ not 2 but oh well.
Walking past the primary ticket office it was clear we’d made the right call – perhaps 100 people in line. Once again, it pays to do a bit of research, this being the second time we’ve dodged a long wait by just buying somewhere else. After being wanded and searched by an attractive Italian paratrooper, bristling with weapons, we were inside.
The Duomo is the 5th largest church in the world, with nearly 120,000 sq. ft. Construction began in 1386 Rayonnant Gothic style, one more typically known for churches in France. Work continued for the next 300 years, ebbing and flowing depending on the tastes and preferences of whichever Bishop happened to be in charge. The ornate façade was finally completed in 1812 at the behest of Napoleon who had been crowned King of Italy in 1805. From there, details and refinements continued until 1965 when the last gate was completed. In all, nearly 600 years and 78 architects. It is 515 ft. long and 108 ft. wide across the nave and 302 ft. wide at the transept. There nave columns are 80 ft. tall. The crypt of St. Charles Borromeo is in the basement. Among the priceless statuary is St. Bartholomew Flayed, a life-size full body sculpture of the poor saint with his skin draped over his shoulders like a cape. The roof is home to 135 spires, 96 gargoyles and 2,245 individual statues. The church can hold 40,000 people. The tallest spire is home to La Madonnina, patron of the church and constructed of gilded copper panels on an ironwork frame. There is a nice copy of her inside the church.
We’ve been to a lot of these enormous cathedrals (including #3 in Sevilla) and there seems to be two approaches. The Spanish crush you under the weight of gold, it is present everywhere and used in every way. I assume the underlying reason is Spain’s New World conquests, which provided them a captive workforce mining that most precious medal. The Italians and French instead rely on stained glass and open space to impart a sense of wonder. The inside is truly spectacular, and contrary to the guidebooks not gloomy at all. I found it quite uplifting, for the glass work alone. Naturally you have all the bleak bible stories and lives of saints played out in gruesome detail, but overall, it was a very peaceful place. Much like Paris’ Notre Dame while being its own place as well. Nothing like the “imitation hedgehog” that D.H. Lawrence called it. Mark Twain called it more aptly “a poem of marble.”
Stop two was the Pinacoteca Brera. Housed in a Baroque palace that was built on the site of a 14th century Jesuit convent. Empress Maria Theresa evicted the Jesuits and converted the buildings to an art museum in 1773. The gallery officially opened in 1809, stocked with art work conscripted from churches and convents by Napoleon during his Italian Campaigns. His stated goal was to make the museum “The Louvre of Italy.” And he largely succeeded, it’s a wonderful place, albeit not a crushingly large as the one in Paris. The emphasis is on works from the 14th to 18th centuries, with (as expected considering the source of most of it) religious art. There are many extraordinary pieces including a wonderful Caravaggio. I liked it for two reasons – the detailed documentation of each major piece was accompanied by an interpretive description that expanded on the technical details with commentary about what you might be looking at. Secondly, like the Louvre, the map had all the major pieces listed on one side with an image, so you would have no excuse to visit and leave and later realize you had misses something important. The navigation was easy, the collection vast and the arrangement of the works followed a time order. Perhaps my favorite part though were the two storage rooms that held works not on display. Two big glass-fronted alcoves stuffed with racks holding hundreds of masterworks. I suppose we all know that every museum has a basement full of stuff, but it was very cool to finally see one.
On the way home, we stopped at a food truck to grab lunch. A couple of focaccia to go (I was lectured by the food truck guy for not saying “da portar” in the first place.) Very tasty and topped off nicely with an Italian orange soda.