THE GARDENS AT VILLA DURAZZO PALLAVICINI

Sori, 16 March 2021

Nearly a month ago, when my wife and I were walking through the local town of Nervi, I happened to notice this banner strung across the street.

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It was an invitation to all and sundry to come and admire the camellia which were flowering in the gardens of the Villa Durazzo Pallavicini in the Genoese suburb of Pegli.

We filed this invite away for possible future use, but it was only a week or so ago that we got around to going. What we discovered was more than just a bunch of camellia in flower – although we did also find that. It turns out that the villa’s gardens, which were laid out in the first half of the 1840s, are quite famous. They were the brainchild of the Marquess Ignazio Pallavicini and were designed for him by a certain Michele Canzio. This Michele Canzio was a man of the arts: an architect, an interior designer, and – important for our story – a set designer for Genova’s opera house, the Carlo Fenice theatre.  The garden he designed for Ignazio Pallavicini was composed of a series of theatre sets made up of little lakes, streams, waterfalls, various buildings of one sort or another, garden furnishings, rare plants, all inserted into general greenery. In fact, a visit to the gardens was quite openly a theatrical event, with visitors invited to wind their way up the steep hill behind the villa through gardens divided into a Prologue and Background followed by three Acts. Each of these in turn were sub-divided into a number of Scenes, with each section and sub-section having a title. So we have:

Prologue and Background
– The Gothic Avenue
– The Classical Avenue

Act I: The Return to Nature
– Scene I: The Hermitage
– Scene II; The Amusement Park
– Scene III: The Old Lake
– Scene IV: The Spring

Act II: The Recovery of History
– Scene I: The Chapel of the Virgin Mary
– Scene II: The Swiss Hut
– Scene III: The Condottiere’s Castle
– Scene IV: The Condottiere’s Mausoleum

Act III: Catharsis
– Scene I: The Inferno
– Scene II: The Large Lake
– Scene III: The Gardens of Flora
– Scene IV: Remembrance

Looking at all that, I have a sense of being trapped in a rather bad knock-off of a Wagnerian opera, with some knight errant wandering the forests of Mittel Europe searching for his Loved One. But what I feel doesn’t matter. It’s what people at the time felt that matters. They loved it. When it opened to the public (for a fee), it was an instant success. It became the centre-piece of a broader plan by Marquess Pallavicini to turn Pegli from a sleepy little fishing village on the far outskirts of Genova into a smart seaside resort where the Great and the Good from all over Europe could come to spend their winters (and later their summers). The Marquess used his political muscle (he was a Senator in the newly-formed Kingdom of Italy) to make sure that the railway being built out from Genova westwards had a stop at Pegli, donating part of his land for the station buildings as well as for an upscale hotel to house the Great and the Good who would be arriving by train and for a smart new municipal building from which the new, modern municipality he was promoting could be run. Other Genoese aristocratic families which had summer villas in the area knew a good thing when they saw it and had their villas turned into luxurious hotels. And the Great and the Good came: the hereditary princes of the German Empire, various members of Italy’s House of Savoy, various literati such as George Sand, Alfred de Musset, August Strindberg, Franz Kafka, Arrigo Boito, among others. All these Great and Good visited the gardens at Villa Durazzo Pallavicini, and where they went so did Europe’s bourgeoisie.

By now readers might be getting a little impatient and asking themselves what these gardens looked like. Let me answer them by showing a series of postcards from the turn of the century. Wonderful things, postcards. People loved to show the folk back home where they had been, and tourist spots like the gardens of the Villa Durazzo Pallavicini were more than glad to oblige. My wife has a large collection of postcards sent by her parents, grandparents, and their friends over the decades, and it’s lovely to sit down of a winter evening and browse through them. But I digress. Here are postcards of the gardens:

The Gothic Avenue

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The Classical Avenue

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The Hermitage (which Canzio rather cleverly had built on the back of the Triumphal Arch which completed the Classical Avenue)

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The Amusement Park (where visitors could take a spin on the carousels)

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The Spring

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The Chapel of the Virgin Mary

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The Condottiere’s Castle

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The Condottiere’s Mausoleum

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The Inferno (made by taking the stalactites and stalagmites from other caves and placing them here; the environmentalist in me shudders)

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You could also visit the Inferno by boat

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And finally the Large Lake

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as well as the Gardens of Flora

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Oh, and perhaps I should add a photo of the camellias, which was what brought us to the gardens originally (although this is not a postcard, since it would seem that postcard makers didn’t see the interest in having postcards of the camellias).

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As this photo suggests, we came a little too late, many of the camellias being past their prime. Quite how the camellias fitted into Canzio’s grand operatic scheme is not clear to me, but we can let that pass.

Would I recommend to readers to visit the gardens? I’m not sure I would. It’s not just that the highly artificial nature of the gardens does not chime with modern sensibilities (at least, it doesn’t chime with mine). It’s also that the gardens have suffered heavily from Genova’s modernization over the last century. To explain what I mean, I have to take up the story of Pegli from where I left off a few paragraphs ago.

Marquess Pallavicini wanted to turn Pegli into a smart seaside resort, and as we have seen for a while this plan was successful, as this poster from the turn of the century suggests.

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But in the late 19th-early 20th Century, Genova, which we see in the far distance in this poster, was spreading like a cancer along the coast and up the valleys behind it – it was the only way the city could expand in this region where the steep hills drop precipitously into the sea. To show what I mean, here is a map of what Genova looks like today. It’s expanded up and down the coast, swallowing up places like Pegli, and sent tendrils of urbanisation up into the valleys behind.

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By 1926, Genova had reached Pegli and gobbled it up. Pegli as a distinct municipality was no more.

Like all modern cities, Genova was also pushing to industrialize, and it was industrializing on the side towards Pegli. In 1915, just before Italy entered the First World War, this was the view the visitor would have had looking towards the villa.

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We have the villa standing proud on the edge of the hill, with the gardens climbing the hill behind it. In front of it are orange trees, vineyards, and other fields, all the property of Marquess Pallavicini and his heirs. A decade or so later, we have this large cotton mill down by the rail tracks, with the villa in the middle distance partially blotted out by the belching industrial chimney. There were even bigger industrial plants to the right of this photo. One in particular became a very large steel plant.

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By this time, the Great and the Good had packed their bags and were spending their winters and summers elsewhere along the Ligurian coast, or on the adjoining coast in France, the Côte d’Azur. Pegli had just become a grimy suburb of Genova. I suspect that Pallavicini’s heirs saw which way the wind was blowing, because the last owner of the villa and its gardens donated them to the city of Genova in 1928. But at least she did so with the provision that the villa be allocated to some cultural use and that the gardens be kept open to the public (Genova more or less honoured the bargain; one part of the villa has become a museum and the gardens were kept open until the 1960s – more on that in a minute).

The pace of modernization quickened after World War II. And here, to continue the story, I switch back to our visit of the gardens. We had passed through the Prologue and Background and had started onto Act I when we started hearing a low roar, which got stronger and stronger as we progressed. At some point, we reached a Belvedere where we got a beautiful, close-up view of –– the A10 motorway, which runs from Genova to Ventimiglia. This section of the motorway was built in the 1960s.

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This screenshot from Google Maps shows just how the motorway smashed its way through the hill under the gardens.

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The construction of the tunnel so badly damaged the gardens that they were closed until 1992, when they were reopened to the public after a decade of restoration. Even today, much of Act I of the gardens is blighted by the continuous roar from the motorway.

When we had climbed higher, reaching the end of Act I, we began to get splendid views over the sea –– and onto the runway of Genova’s airport.

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As the photo shows, the runway is built on the sea, a consequence of the fact, which I’ve already mentioned, that Genova lies at the foot of steep hills that drop straight into the sea – there is no nice flat space nearby where a runway could be built.  After some back and forth, it was decided to build the airport and its runway to the west of Genova, I suspect because this part of the city had already been blighted by industrialization and no-one would complain too much about it. Luckily, the day we visited the gardens no planes landed or took off – Covid-19 induced no doubt – but I presume that on a normal day the noise of planes taking off would add to the noise from the motorway.

On we climbed, and as we got the end of Act II, and the highest point of the gardens, we could enjoy a new view across the valley running alongside the gardens –– to a series of oil tanks planted on the hill on the other side of the valley. They were painted a sickly green, no doubt to claim they were environmentally-friendly. Unsurprisingly, but unfortunately for me, no-one seems to have posted a photo of these oil tanks taken from the gardens, so the best I can do is to show another satellite photo from Google Maps.

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The tanks are that group of circles, and to locate the gardens please follow the motorway as it punches its way through the hill.

The presence of oil tanks there are the consequence of another decision, taken in the early 1960s, to have Genova’s oil terminal built close to the airport (so another pleasant sight from the gardens must no doubt be the periodic arrival of oil tankers coming in to offload their cargo). The oil pipelines snake over the hills from the terminal to these tanks, where the oil is stored prior to further onward delivery to the north of Italy.

After enjoying these sights, we wended our way down through Act III of the gardens and on down to the exit. When we arrived back at the villa we went out on its ample terrace to admire the view –– and got a close-up of people’s clothes drying on their balconies. In the 1960s and ’70s, those pleasant fields of orange trees, vineyards and other crops which used to lie at the foot of the villa, and which I show above in that postcard from 1915, had been cemented over to make way for cheap housing. Here we have a view of that housing, and at the end of the avenue we can see the villa.

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No “green belt” was kept between the housing and the villa. The apartment blocks come right up to the gates of the villa.

So, like I say, I don’t think I will be recommending a visit to these gardens to anyone. I feel sorry for the enthusiastic volunteers who manned (and womanned) the gardens, I respect the spending of public moneys to restore the gardens, seen as a great example of garden design from the Romantic age, but the garden’s context has been so ruined as to blight any visit to the gardens.

 

A PUDGY CHERUB AS A WEATHERVANE

Sori, 14 February 2021

As my wife and I were walking down into Vernazza on our latest hike along the trail which links together the Cinque Terre, I noticed this on the steeple of the village church.

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I suspect it’s a little difficult for readers to see what I mean, so I throw in this close-up photo of the steeple.

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“This” is a weathervane. As I’m sure many of my readers will know, in the pre-modern world, where weather satellites didn’t exist and TV channels didn’t give you weather forecasts every hour on the hour, the function of weathervanes was to tell people which way the wind was blowing, a pretty good indicator of what the weather was going to be like. And of course peering at weathervanes went along with some of the weather-related sayings people were fond of quoting, like this one about the winds:
“When the wind is in the east, it’s good for neither man nor beast.
When the wind is in the north, the old folk should not venture forth.
When the wind is in the south, it blows the bait in the fishes’ mouth.
When the wind is in the west, it is of all the winds the best.”

I can imagine some great-great-great grandfather of mine looking up at the weathervane on the barn and saying “Aah, wind today’s from the north. Like they say, ‘old folk shouldn’t venture forth’”, no doubt using this as a good excuse to wend his way to the village pub to fritter his time (and money) away.

But weathervanes are also excellent examples of how we human beings transform functional objects into art. Take that weathervane on Vernazza’s church. If readers look again at my photo, they’ll see that the weathervane-maker turned the sail, which a weathervane needs if it is to work, into a rather pudgy angel. The things which weathervane-makers have turned the sail into, and continue to turn them into (this is by no means a dead art), are endless. I throw in here, in no particular order, some of the designs which have caught my fancy.

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The eventual owners of weathervanes will often choose designs that comment on something: their profession, their beliefs, their interests, the times they live in, even the racehorses they have bet on … No doubt it was in that spirit that Pope Nicholas I, way back in the 9th century, ordered that the rooster be the emblem used on weathervanes placed on Christian churches. It seems that Pope Nicolas was harking back to a comment made by Pope Gregory the Great even further back in time, in the 6th Century. Gregory had decreed that the rooster was the most suitable emblem of Christianity, being the emblem of St Peter – he is referring to the story in the Gospel where Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed at dawn, here captured in a painting by Francesco Rosa in San Zachariah church in Venice.

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Personally, I find this a rather strange reason to choose the rooster as an emblem on churches, referencing as it does a moment of shameful betrayal by the man who was to become the first Pope. I rather think that Popes Gregory and Nicolas were doing something which Christians had been doing since the dawn of their religion, putting a Christian gloss on what were actually thriving pagan traditions (“if you can’t beat them, join them”). For the Goths and no doubt other “barbarians”, the rooster, crowing as it does at dawn, was an emblem of the sun. What better emblem to put on churches! Wasn’t Jesus (apparently) born at the winter solstice, when the sun is reborn?

In any event, from the 9th Century on, rooster-themed weathervanes became the norm on Christian churches (which no doubt explains why, in English, another name for the weathervane is the weathercock). The oldest surviving weathervane in Europe – from the 9th Century – is a rooster which, until 1891, graced the Church of Saints Faustino and Giovita in the city of Brescia.

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And the Bayeux tapestry, my favourite tapestry and one I’ve mentioned several times in these posts, clearly shows a man installing a rooster weathervane on Westminster Abbey (the scene is actually about the burial of King Edward the Confessor; I presume the nuns who made the tapestry were adding local colour).

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Now, I’m sure that at this point my alert readers are saying, “Hang on a minute, why does the weathervane on that church in Vernazza have an angel and not a rooster, then?” Well, it seems that at some point the Church authorities relaxed the rooster rule somewhat. Other emblems were possible, although normally ones which were linked to the saint or saints to which the church was dedicated. In the case of the church in Vernazza, it is dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch. A quick zip around the Internet tells me that a weathervane emblem connected to her (completely apocryphal) life could be a dragon: one of the more dramatic moments in her life was that she was swallowed by the Devil in the form of a dragon. Dragons are popular emblems for weathervanes. Here’s a nice example.

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Or the emblem could be a hammer. She is often depicted, especially in Orthodox icons, as hammering the Devil – once no doubt she had been regurgitated alive by him. My wife and I saw a great example of such an icon in a museum in Athens a few years ago (for some reason, the Orthodox call her Marina rather than Margaret).

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Here’s a nice example of a hammer, although it’s put together with a saw (“hammer and saw”).

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But no, we have an angel. OK, I guess angels are pretty saintly and so a good emblem for a church – as long as they look serious, like this emblem (for some reason, most of the weathervanes have the angel blowing a horn).

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But no, if readers go back to my original photo, they will see that the weathervane-maker seems to have made more of a cherub. Raphael painted the most iconic of cherubs.

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And here we have a nice weathervane example (also tooting a horn; it seems that angelic figures are expected to be horn players).

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The example on Vernazza’s church doesn’t seem nearly as cute. As far as I can make out, the cherub there has gone to seed; a cherub who has spent rather too much of his lockdown time eating and drinking and not enough time working out in his living room.

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I’m not sure how the weathervane-maker got this pretty non-religious weathervane past the parish priest. Perhaps the weathervane-maker was the parish priest. Or perhaps the parish priest was a jolly fellow who liked a good laugh. I have in mind someone like don Camillo as played by Fernandel.

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The parish priest must also have calculated that his bishop would never come to this Godforsaken village during his tenure – until quite recently it was pretty difficult to get to Vernazza and the other Cinque Terre; you either walked over the hills or you took a fishing boat, neither of which I see any self-respecting bishop doing.

I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the backstory on this weathervane. In the meantime, I’ve gone back in my mind’s eye to see where I might have come across weathervanes in my life. Only one episode comes back to me, from my days at prep school (in British vernacular this being a boarding school for primary-school-age children). As I ascertained after a quick zip around the Internet, the school still exists. The only change I can see is that it has gone co-ed in the intervening years, an excellent thing. The school has taken over a building with venerable origins, as this picture of the main lawn attests.

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But the main reason for my putting in this photo is that discrete weathervane on that small tower in the centre of the photo. I throw in here an enlargement.

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It’s a rather boring weathervane, taking the shape of a flag (the first instruments used to figure out which way the wind was blowing were no doubt flags; indeed, the English word “vane” is derived from the Old English word fana, meaning flag). Nevertheless, I know that weathervane well. One year, my dormitory gave onto the roof covering the gallery (those windows we see to the left of the base of the tower). I was a naughty boy and friends with other naughty boys. We would regularly sneak out of the dormitory window at night onto that roof and go for a walk, just for the dare. Sometimes, that weathervane would be silhouetted against the moon. I see it still … aahh, the good old days!

One other memory I have of weathervanes is their figurative use in cartoons, especially political cartoons. As we all know too well, politicians are notorious for going “whichever way the wind blows” (a popular wind-related saying). Cartoonists have always had a field day with weathervanes, using them to show politicians who chop and change their opinions, “trimming their sails” to prevailing opinion (another popular wind-related saying). I remember a British cartoon mocking the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan for acting like a weathervane over the independence of British colonies in Africa. I couldn’t find that particular one on the Internet. But political cartoonists have been busy with the weathervane metaphor in the intervening years. Here are some recent examples.

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For some reason, the use of weathervanes seems to be especially popular among American cartoonists. Could it be that the extensive use of interest groups in American politics makes American politicians chop and change their opinions more frequently – and, given the pervasiveness of TV news teams, the evidence of their chopping and changing is more obviously there for everyone to see?

Politicians are of course sensitive to the charge of behaving like weathervanes. Quebecan politicians are so sensitive to the charge that the provincial Assembly has banned the use of the term, considering it a slur. I never knew politicians were quite that thin-skinned …

Well, that still leaves the mystery of my pudgy angel. Maybe, next time my wife and I are in Vernazza, I’ll drop into the church and try to find an answer.

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If I find one I will report back.

WALKING ALONG MILAN’S MARTESANA CANAL

Milan, 18 January 2021

In these times of Covid restrictions, my wife and I have been exploring hikes closer to home, hikes which allow us to more or less stay within the limits of the commune of Milan, or at least not stray too far outside of it. The latest such hike we’ve done has taken us along one of the old canals which radiate out from Milan, the Naviglio della Martesana. I fear we might have exceeded the legal limit of where we could go. In our defence, the designations of which Covid tier Milan is in has been changing from day to day, making it quite hard to know just how far we are allowed to travel outside of Milan. I trust my readers will not snitch on us!

In any event, the hike was some 30 km long, undertaken over several days, and took us from the north-east of Milan out to the river Adda, which drains lake Como. It’s not a physically challenging hike. Following a canal means no brutal climbs or descents, and the path is paved the whole way – the path is actually a bicycle path, and the only real challenge is to keep out of the way of bicyclists who race along at high speeds, their riders no doubt dreaming of fame and glory in the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia.

First, a little bit of history. Building of the canal started in 1460, under Francesco Sforza, the first of the Sforza dynasty to rule over the Duchy of Milan.

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The canal took its waters from the river Adda (which at the time was the Duchy’s eastern frontier with Venice) and carried them over the flat plain that lies between the river Adda and Milan, passing various towns and crossing various rivers along the way. At first, it finished several kilometres to the north of the city, emptying into the river Seveso, but then in 1496 Francesco’s son, Galeazzo Maria, extended it with a short new canal, the Naviglio di San Marco, and joined it up with the series of canals which encircled Milan, the Cerchia dei Navigli.

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This map shows the track of the canal.

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Alert readers will have noticed the trace of the canal is not all that straight, it zigs and zags a bit. The topography certainly didn’t require this – there was no need to go around hills and such like. The land between the river Adda and Milan is as flat as a pancake, so by rights – to reduce construction costs – the canal should have been a straight line between river and city. But all the landowners on that flat plain wanted the canal to come their way so that they could use the water to irrigate their fields. And the towns that dotted the plain wanted the canal as a source of water and to keep their moats topped up. All these different groups brought pressure to bear on the canal’s planners, so the canal ended up winding this way and that way across the plain as those who had the most influence pulled the canal towards them. Which is just as well for me and my wife; walking along a dead straight canal would have been very monotonous.

There were also quarrels right from the start about which uses of the canal should get priority. As we’ve seen, the landowners wanted to use it for irrigation. But a good number of them also wanted to use its energy to drive watermills, as did the towns. And the landowners also wanted the canal as a means of transportation to bring their (mainly) agricultural goods to market. For their part, the rulers of Milan were more interested in the canal as a means of transportation to move goods and so promote the city’s and the Duchy’s economy. They also wanted it to be part of their defensive system against the dratted Venetians to the East. Irrigation tended to drop the level of water in the canal, which was a problem for navigation since the boats wouldn’t have enough draft as well as for the mills because the flow wouldn’t be strong enough to drive the wheels. But maintaining enough draft and a swift enough flow meant cutting back on irrigation, which was bad for the crops. Tempers flared, lawsuits were filed, and no doubt swords were drawn. In the end, though, a modus vivendi was arrived at, and from the 1580s onwards irrigation coexisted more or less peacefully with other uses of the canal’s waters.

At some point, the Milanese aristocracy discovered the delights of the countryside and many built villas along the canal, reachable by boat from their houses in town. So we have this painting from 1790 of one of these villas in Crescenzago (now on the outskirts of Milan), showing also the normal traffic along the canal.

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And we have here a painting from 1834 of the Milanese extension of the canal, the Naviglio San Marco, just before it joined the Cerchia dei Navigli.

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Then the industrial revolution came along. New means of transportation competed with canals, first railways then roads. The Martesana canal steadily lost out to these upstarts and was only able to remain competitive when heavy lifting was required: sand, stone, coal, wood. Here we have one of those loads being moved along the canal (shown in the-then new medium of photography).

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In the meantime, exploding populations meant that villages along the canal grew and became urbanized, as shown in this photo of the same Crescenzago which was the subject of my first painting above.

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These growing villages bled into each other, smothering the farmland that once lay between them, with the ones closer to Milan being in turn submerged by the expansion of that city, eventually becoming its outer suburbs. Much of the growth around Milan was driven by the factories which established themselves on its periphery. A good number of them were located along the Martesana canal and Milan’s other canals, as this photo shows.

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In 1929, the demand for road space to ease vehicle congestion in Milan (along, it must be said, with a need to deal with public health concerns) meant that the Cerchia dei Navigli was covered over, along with the Naviglio San Marco.

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In the late 1950s, the authorities overseeing the canal bowed to reality and decreed that the canal would no longer be used for transportation, only irrigation. Finally, in 1968, after the municipal authorities had concluded that the covers of the Cerchia dei Navigli and the Naviglio San Marco were in danger of collapsing, they decided to simply fill these in and reroute the waters of the Martesana canal into an overflow canal. This went around the inner core of the city and emptied into the dried-up bed of the Seveso river south of the city. The authorities also decided that more space was needed for Milan’s burgeoning car population and so covered another section several kilometers long at the canal’s end and turned this into a wide avenue, via Melchiorre Gioia.

And so out in the countryside, irrigation had finally won the centuries-long arguments about irrigation vs. navigation, while in Milan itself the canal had become a relic of a bygone era, slowly falling apart and becoming for all intents and purposes an open drain.

Luckily, as I’ve also mentioned in a much earlier post about an abandoned railway line, good sense eventually prevailed. Led by Milan, in the 1980s the communes through which the canal passed got their act together. They cleaned up the canal’s towpath and turned it into a cycle path, and generally encouraged their citizens to use the canal as a park. That’s where things stood when my wife and I embarked on our hike along the canal.

We started where the canal’s waters disappear under via Melchiorre Gioia.

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We turned our backs on the city and started walking out towards the distant Adda river. One of the old houses which had graced the canal in its heyday greeted us. As part of the urban renewal which accompanied the upgrading of the canal in the 1980s, its owners had renovated it and painted it a welcoming yellow.

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But already, hulking over this old building, we could see the blocks of flats put up during the 1960s and 70s as the city expanded outwards at breakneck speed. It was a harbinger of things to come, as we walked for kilometres through a jumble of old and abandoned, old but renewed, shining new, and new but already showing signs of wear and tear. Even though drawn in 1945, this cartoon captures beautifully the chaos of today’s urban reality which the old canal now threads its way through.

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Here we have one railway bridge after another spanning the canal.

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New blocks of flats giving onto the canal.

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The jumble of tiny gardens which people have carved out of spaces along the canal.

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Industrial chimneys, relics of factories which once abutted the canal.

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in the next case being recycled into a new use as a pole on which to fix transmitters of the newest means of communication, mobile phones.

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Old houses which have been lucky enough to be renovated

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Others which are struggling against the odds.

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As befits an urban backwater, and as the last photo attests, graffiti on every wall. Most of it the usual ugly, mindless initials, but some eye-catching:

– an impossibly elaborate flower turning into a person on the arch of a railway bridge

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– an amusing reminder that we are walking along a bicycle path

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– a swirl of brightness

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– square upon square of colour

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The first of the villas which used to grace the canal’s edge

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once surrounded by countryside, but now hemmed in and overshadowed by ugly modernity

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The walls again, but this time carriers of messages, most of the lovesick type:

– “I love you Vale”

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but sometimes in a more reflective, philosophical tone, which seemed apt in this urban chaos we were walking through:

– “What a shitty life”

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and a line from Bob Marley and the Wailers’ 1973 song, the aptly titled “Concrete Jungle”

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Finally, on the outskirts of Milan, the first encounter with the countryside, but an encounter showing it to be beleaguered and under threat from the urban sprawl at our backs:

– An example of one of the many crumbling ruins of farmhouses which dot the Italian countryside, victims to rural flight over the last sixty years

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– the use of the countryside as a place to flytip our urban wastes

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We passed under the ring motorway which is effectively the border of Milan. Had we broken out of the concrete jungle? Alas not. The housing continued. We passed the broken down gate of what must once have been the water gate of a fine villa but which now gives onto an ugly, messy, nondescript yard; the villa itself has vanished.

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Spanking new, neat and tidy blocks of flats, but in places which the French call quartiers dortoirs, dormitory districts, places with no shops, no amenities, nothing – just places where commuters can sleep before heading back into town to work.

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But a more rural feel began to creep in.

Cottages along the waterfront.

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And finally, after some 15 kilometres of walking, some real fields! With the snow-capped mountains glistening on the horizon.

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One of the irrigation channels fed by the canal, the water cascading away.

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The last villa we passed, and the most imposing of them all, the Villa Alari.

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Its history is a metaphor for the canal’s history as a whole. It was built at the beginning of the 18th Century on a magnificent scale, as this print shows.

 

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So magnificent was it that the Austrian Governor of Lombardy, Archduke Ferdinand, rented it over several summers and even negotiated, without success, to buy it (his mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, nixed the idea, considering the asking price too high). After passing down through the Alari family and, by marriage, into a branch of the Visconti family, it was donated by its last Visconti owner in 1944 to the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God in Milan. By then, it had lost the lands around it and with them its magnificent gardens. The Brothers first used the villa as a psychiatric hospital and then as a nursing home. In 2007, they palmed it off onto the municipality, which must be asking itself what the hell to do with the building.

Another of those large farm complexes which dot the plains of the River Po and which, like so many others, has been pretty much abandoned (it was so large it needed two photos to capture it).

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In the distance, the new housing complexes of today, feeding their inhabitants to Milan via an extension of one of the city’s subway lines – one of the new forms of transportation which took the place of the canal.

One of the few remaining locks on the canal, which are sadly firmly and irrevocably shut.

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One last look across a ploughed field at the mountains, closer now, their snow glistening in the sun.

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And we finally arrived in Cassano d’Adda, perched on the river, where we took the train back to Milan.

WOOD AND FIRE

Vienna, 14 November 2020

As befits a mountainous country with a coolish climate, Austria has acres of forests covering its many hills and mountains. As a consequence, it once had a vibrant tradition of building in wood. Nowadays, of course, wood as a building material has been almost completely superseded by stone, brick and concrete. The only places you still see wooden buildings are in the small villages which dot the countryside, wooden barns being still quite common there. My wife and I come across them quite often on our hikes, as these photos taken on a couple of recent hikes attest.

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I love these old barns. My French grandmother had one just like them attached to the side of her house. We went in there often because that was where the bicycles and the ping-pong table were kept. It was – to the small me – a vast, cavernous place. All sorts of weather-beaten garden tools and other odds-and-ends lurked in the shadows. There was a pile of hay – quite why I don’t know; my grandmother had no animals. But it made the barn smell of hay, into which was mixed the smell of beaten earth rising from the floor. Then one summer I arrived for the summer holidays, only to find the barn gone. My grandmother told me that it had been sagging sideways and threatening to pull the rest of the house down with it. But this perfectly rational explanation didn’t take away the desolation I felt at the disappearance of this wonderful building.

As I say, there was a time when many more buildings in this country were made of wood, especially in the mountain regions. A number of Austrian artists have captured them on their canvases. Oskar Mulley was especially assiduous in his painting of mountain huts and barns, partly or wholly made of wood.

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Alfons Walde also often included these buildings in his paintings, although snow was more his thing.

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Alas, as we all know only too well, wood burns very well. The older and drier it is, the better it burns, as we all learnt watching the roof of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris go up in flames.

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The previously common use of wood in construction in Austria and its tendency to burn well must explain why every municipality in this country, down to the smallest village it would seem, has a fire station. As an extreme example, a couple of days ago my wife and I passed through a small village on one of our hikes, which had not one

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not two

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but three fire stations!

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And each one is bigger than the last. Are fires getting bigger in this village, I wonder, or is it that fire engines are getting bigger and need a more spacious building to house them, or (a somewhat uncharitable thought) have municipal budgets been growing?

Of course, as befits a traditionally Catholic country, Austrians have a saint whom they can invoke to protect them from fire: St. Florian. Austrians should be particularly proud of this saint since he is a native son. The annals tell us that he was born in the latter part of the 3rd Century C.E. in Lorch, near Linz, on what was then the edges of the Roman Empire – the Danube River, which flows just north of Lorch, was the frontier of that Empire. Since so many Roman army units were garrisoned along the frontier his father could have been an army officer. Florian was active, possibly also as an army officer, in St. Pölten (or Aelium Cetium, as it was then called) when one of the periodic rounds of persecution against Christians broke out. This one occurred in 303–304 C.E., under the Emperor Diocletian (the same round of persecution that put paid to St. Pancras, about whom I wrote an earlier post). Without going into the details, which are anyway of dubious validity, it is recorded that Florian was arrested as a Christian. After a trial and various tortures, he was drowned in the Danube by being thrown off a a bridge with a stone tied around his neck. Thus did he become a martyr and a saint.

Sensibly enough, Florian was initially invoked to protect people from the dangers of water. At some point, though, he was pivoted (to use that most modern of terms) and used instead to protect people from fire. My theory – for which I have absolutely no evidence – is that another saint, John of Nepomuk, about whom I’ve written in an earlier post and who died in almost exactly the same way as Florian – thrown from a bridge and drowned – won the competition for protecting people from the dangers of water, leaving Florian without a role. Well of course, one critical use of water was to put out fires, so hey presto! he became the protector from the dangers of fire.

The Austrians have not only used wood to build, they have used it to carve, and their churches (and museums) are full of wonderfully carved statues and bas-reliefs. I throw in here a couple of bas-reliefs (from southern Germany in this case) which were recently auctioned at Vienna’s Dorotheum auction house.

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Naturally enough, the saints who got a place in churches tended to be people’s favourites, ones whom they prayed to regularly. Given the ever-present danger of fire, one of these is St. Florian. My wife and I came across this lovely example of a St. Florian statue during one of our hikes this Autumn, down by Neusidler See (the same hike where we picked up bagfuls of walnuts).

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We see here all the typical attributes of such a statue. Florian is dressed as a Roman soldier and gripping a banner, he is holding a bucket of water, and he is thoughtfully pouring that water over a little burning house situated at his feet. Delightful! My wife and I have come across scores of such statues during our wanderings over Austria’s hills and dales. In fact, we came across a fresco of him on the wall of a house just this afternoon.

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One statue of St. Florian which we haven’t seen, though, and which I have put on my bucket list stands in the town of Bad Tölz in Upper Bavaria. The statue was set up in a square, in front of the town’s tax office. Since the statue gave its back to the tax office the sculptor thought it fitting to have the saint flash his bum to the tax men, to show them what he – and the rest of the town – thought of them.

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I think we can all sympathize with the citizens of Bad Tölz, especially since St. Florian’s feast day is 4th May, a few days after 30th April, which for many in the world is the deadline for turning in their income tax returns.

By extension of his duties as heavenly fireman, St. Florian is the patron saint of many trades where fire was once used: bakers, brewers, coopers (the staves which coopers used to make barrels were steamed to make them pliable), potters, forges, soap boilers (who knew that was once a profession?). He is also, naturally enough, the patron saint of chimney sweeps, which, dear readers, contrary to coopers, soap boilers, and the rest is not a profession that has disappeared – not in Austria, at least. They are alive and well and thriving here.

When my wife and I first came to Austria, we were struck by these young blokes we would see (there have also been some young ladies in recent years) walking the streets and wearing this strange outfit: black overalls with a white head covering.

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Upon enquiry, we were told that they were chimney sweeps. Chimney sweeps?! Well, both my wife and I have been around the block a couple of times (I won’t admit to how many) and neither of us have any memory of our parents calling in chimney sweeps. I don’t know about my readers, but to me the term “chimney sweeps” conjures up a Dickensian vision of little boys being forced to climb down narrow chimneys by a nasty master and getting stuck and dying.

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At a minimum, chimney sweeps should be dirty-looking, like coal miners.

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In fact, they should have died out along with the coal industry. But no, these Austrian fellows are around in large numbers and are lick-spittle clean; they don’t give the impression of ever getting within a mile of an actual chimney. What is going on here?

I don’t want to be uncharitable, but I rather get the impression that we have here a great example of a union using its political muscle to avoid extinction. The way I see it, when chimney sweeps saw that their days were numbered, they got the governments – municipal, for the most part – to pass laws requiring homeowners to have their chimneys – used for gas water heaters for the most part these days – as well as the water heaters themselves checked at least once a year by a “chimney sweep”. As a homeowner in Vienna, I have had the doubtful pleasure of having Viennese “chimney sweeps” come over, solemnly open a little trap door in the wall, perfunctorily have a look in, declare all to be well, and require to paid handsomely for this service. And on top of it all they expect a tip at Christmas! This year, I found this “service” particularly grating because just a few days before the “chimney sweep” had come around we’d had the water heater maintained by a man who spent a good deal more time on the job and got paid proportionately a good deal less. But we can’t get out of it, because if we were to have a fire – Oh St. Florian, spare us this disaster! – and if it turned out to have been due to something the chimney sweep would have checked if we had called him, then the insurance wouldn’t pay – they have you over a barrel (made by one of those coopers who have since disappeared).

Not wishing to end on this sour note, writing about chimney sweeps reminds me that in the old days, when they really did sweep chimneys out, they would have cleaned chimneys connected to those wonderful tiled stoves which they used to have here in Austria. Some places actually still have them. We came across one this summer while staying in a hotel on a hike near Innsbruck; the stove is at the back of the room in the picture.

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As readers can see, they have a bench around the bottom where one can sit with one’s back against the stove wall keeping nice and warm. I understand people would even sleep on these benches. But what is really lovely about these stoves is their decoration. I throw in a few pictures of such stoves.

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Once, when we were looking for an apartment in Vienna to rent, my wife and I were shown one with such a stove. For one mad moment, we thought of taking the apartment just for the stove. But good sense prevailed; it would have been too small, the children wouldn’t have had their own rooms. Sometimes, though, my wife and I reminisce about that stove we never had. Another thing on our bucket list.

A MAGNOLIA BEHIND THE CATHEDRAL

Milan, 9 March 2020

A virus stalks the land,  it goes by the name of Covid-19.

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For weeks it has been spreading quietly, behind our backs, skipping from hand to hand, riding on droplets we cough out. Now it is out in the open. The patients are pouring into the hospitals. The hospitals are struggling. The frailest – the old, the weak – are dying. The government has enacted drastic measures. Here in Milan, we are in lock-down. No-one can enter or leave the region without a good and serious reason, no-one can even move around within the region. The government exhorts us to stay home. In fact, if we have even a small temperature it orders us to stay home. If we are infected, we are to go to the hospital only if we can no longer breathe. These are anxious times for us all.

True to the philosophy behind this blog, I have been looking around me for beauty and the peace it can bring the anxious soul. I have found it, in a magnolia tree behind Milan’s cathedral.

As a previous post of mine attests, I love magnolias – who does not? I discovered this particular magnolia tree a few years ago. It grows on a small lawn tucked away between the cathedral’s gothic apse and its southern transept. Last year, I happened to pass by when it was in full bloom. Here, I took the photo with the apse behind.

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Here, I took it with the transept behind.

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On impulse, I decided to watch the tree cycle through the seasons, finding excuses to walk this way from time to time. The next time I came by it was summer. The flowers had given way to thick foliage.

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As a previous post attests, I have a weakness for this shade of green, but I found the contrast between the green of the leaves and the white of the cathedral’s stone particularly stunning.  So entranced was I that I snapped several photos of this symphony of green and white.

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Shortly after taking this photo, we moved up to Vienna for the rest of the summer, and the autumn took us to Japan once more. So it was only in the dead of winter that I saw the tree again. I saw it at night, its skeleton of branches barely lit by the lights illuminating the cathedral.

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The delicate tracery of the cathedral’s gothic windows took pride of place.

And now, in these dark times, I have gone back to see the tree in flower once more, to draw solace from it.

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SAN LORENZO ALLE COLONNE

Milan, 1 April 2019

Many, many years ago – it must have been the Easter of 1976 – I visited my wife-to-be in Milan during the Spring holidays. After the dark, cold Scottish winter we had just endured in Edinburgh, the tepid spring temperatures in Milan were a godsend. On my first day there, my wife(-to-be) took me on a walk around the district. We rounded a corner and I found myself confronted with this:
It was even more striking closer up: a froth of tender green partially masking the ruddy red of brick in the walls of a venerable-looking church topped off with a very fine dome.
I took these two pictures from the same spots a week or so ago. Nothing much seems to have changed in the intervening 40+ years.

It was a vision – after that cold, dark winter – of the coming of spring that has remained with me ever since. I put my eventual decision to “pivot” away from grey, rainy, cold UK towards sunny, warm Italy down to that first spring visit to Milan and in particular to this vision of tender green on brick red.

A walk around the back of the church through a little park made the church look even more interesting.
I have always been very fond of this seemingly higgledy-piggledy pile of venerable-looking buildings, all in that warm red brick so common in this part of the world. Over the intervening 40-odd years, whenever I’ve been in Milan I have always tried to find a moment to come back to this spot to admire the view.

The church is just as interesting on the front side. There, the first thing that meets the eye is a row of very worn Roman columns.
They enclose one side of the piazza in front of the church, a piazza which is as orderly as the back of the church is disorderly. Facing the columns, the church’s facade rises up to the church’s imposing dome, adopting the clean lines of classical-looking architecture.
The canon houses on the other two sides of the piazza continue this projection of orderliness, balance, and harmony.
As a finishing touch, in the centre of the piazza stands a statue of a Roman emperor, calmly gazing down on passing visitors.
Meanwhile, in the near distance those same visitors can make out one of Milan’s few remaining gates in its Medieval walls, the Porta Ticinese.
This church is the Basilica of San Lorenzo. It is a very ancient church; the latest archaeological digs put its foundation at the end of the 4th-beginning of the 5th Centuries. Its history is not nearly as orderly as the piazza in front would have us believe; the disorderliness of the back is a better metaphor for its passage through the centuries.

Like many ancient churches in the lands of the old Roman Empire, the church was built atop a Roman temple. This aerial view of what Roman Milan probably looked like has been put together by some clever fellow.
San Lorenzo was built over that square grey temple close to the amphitheatre which readers can see in the bottom left corner. This is a close-up of what the clever fellow thinks that temple might have looked like.
My guess is that the columns now standing guard over the piazza in front of the church were reused from this temple. But it’s just a guess; no-one seems to know for sure where they came from. What is sure is that stones from the nearby amphitheatre were dragged over for use in the foundations of the church.

That reuse of stone and columns strongly suggests that this was an imperial basilica – you needed imperial permission to mine old public buildings for their stone. It’s further believed that the basilica was built close to an imperial palace – at this time Milan was the imperial capital of the Western Roman Empire – as a counterweight to the four basilicas which St. Ambrose, the powerful bishop of Milan, had been busily building in Milan (and which still exist today, although in much modified form).

We don’t know for sure what the first church looked like, although archaeological excavations and the sparse written records have helped the experts form an opinion. Based on this, some other clever fellow has come up with this cut-away drawing of what the first church might have looked like.
Very little remains of this complex today: the four towers (two are visible in this drawing), the two octagonal side chapels, and the recycled Roman columns at the front. What also remains is the ghostly outline of the central part of the church, a very striking space composed of a large square with each side having a shallow apse, and with a wide circular deambulatory corridor around that central space.
Anyone who visits many churches, either for religious reasons or – like me – to admire their art and architecture, cannot but be struck by the uniqueness of this space. Very few old Christian churches have this kind of floor plan.

The drawing above doesn’t give any indication of the decoration of the church, but if this was indeed an imperial basilica then the interior would have been richly decorated with mosaics. If we had been lucky, if San Lorenzo had passed through the centuries relatively unscathed, we might have been able to admire something as glorious as the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna.
But it was not to be.  Almost all of San Lorenzo’s mosaics are gone, swept away by water leakage, poor maintenance, rebuilding after fires or structural failures, and changing tastes. What little is left is tucked away in one of the old octagonal side chapels, the chapel of St. Aquilinus. The best conserved mosaic is this one, depicting Christ among the Philosophers.
A much more damaged mosaic is tucked away in another corner of the chapel. Experts believe this to have shown the Christ-Sun in his chariot (presumably borrowing from the classical representation of Apollo in his chariot moving the sun through the sky) – one can still see the horses’ legs against a golden background.
Two fires and an earthquake did it for the first church of San Lorenzo, with the central dome probably collapsing. Major rebuilding programmes took place in the 12th and 13th Centuries to rebuild the dome in “modern” style. While the basic plan of the church was left untouched, various other things were added: a few more side chapels and no doubt other things here and there. No-one seems to have committed to paint or paper this newer version of the church. The best we have is some miniatures painted by Cristoforo de Predis in a book of 1476, Leggendario libro della fine del mondo. They show Milan as background to scenes drawn from the New Testament. This one in particular, which depicts Jesus returning to Nazareth where he is presented with a paralyzed man, has Milan standing in for Nazareth. The paralyzed man is being brought out of the Porta Ticinese, which has the old medieval walls attached to it as well as the defensive moat in front of it (now a busy ring road), while in the background we see the church of San Lorenzo with its fine new dome.
The interior decorations were of course also renovated, this time in the “modern” fresco style. Again, if we had been lucky, we might have found ourselves today gazing on something as glorious as the interior of the Collegiata in San Gimignano:
But no. As time went by, these frescoes were also attacked by their enemies: water, fumes from candles, neglect, structural damage, and changes in taste. In the final indignity, someone decided to whitewash over what was left of them to make nice white walls. In the last fifty years or so, modern conservationists have scraped away the whitewash and have revealed some scraps of the frescoes that adorned the church:
Of the first generation of frescoes, we have a Descent from the Cross
St. Helena, holding that same Cross, which she is purported to have found in Jerusalem
The Virgin and the Christ child, enthroned
Later frescoes were added, or substituted the earlier ones, like this Last Supper from the early 16th Century.
Things were definitely not helped by the dome collapsing again in 1573. Once more it was rebuilt, and that is the dome which I admired 40 odd years ago and which we still admire today. But one can imagine that the collapse of the dome brought down a lot of the interior decoration with it and putting it back up again put paid to a good deal more.

Meanwhile, things were changing around the church. At the beginning, the church had been outside the city, but when the city expanded its walls in the Middle Ages, it had been brought within the city boundaries. With the greater protection this afforded, people had decided to build houses all around San Lorenzo. These pressed right up to the church’s walls. In fact, in the front of the church, houses had invaded the space between the church’s front doors and the old Roman columns so that these were now completely isolated from the church, as this painting from about 1815 shows.An exception was the back of the church. There, the ground was marshy, being low-lying and the point where several streams and canals met. As a result, an open no-man’s land was left there, which during normal times was used by the city’s tanners. As anyone knows who has been anywhere near a tannery, the smell in the neighbourhood must have been overpowering, so it was not a place that the good folk would have wanted to live. Tanning was still going on here in the 1830s, as this painting from 1833 attests – note the skins stretched out to dry in the foreground.
To make matters worse, it was on this no-man’s land that until the mid 1800s the city’s authorities carried out their executions, and of course executions included all the hideous tortures that the poor bastards were subjected to before being allowed to die. This print shows vividly what could await those being executed in this space – San Lorenzo stands as a mute witness in the background.
Definitely not an area for the good folk to have their houses! And so the area behind the church was what we might politely call a lower-class neighbourhood, or impolitely call a slum. In the late 1800s, the city authorities decided it was time to spruce up the area. So the no-man’s land was upgraded to a piazza, piazza Vetra, houses were built along its edges and buildings were built in the piazza to house weekly markets. This one, for instance, was built in 1866 for the weekly market in dairy products. We see behind San Lorenzo looking on benignly.
In the first three decades of the 1900s, the city authorities cleaned up the area further. In 1911, as this postcard shows, there were still houses located between the old Roman columns and the front door of the church.
In the 1920s, the city fathers decided to give San Lorenzo back its piazza, and by the 1930s the houses were all gone. In keeping with the period’s desire to stress Italy’s glorious Roman past, a copy of a bronze Roman statue of the Emperor Constantine was placed in the re-formed piazza; no doubt Constantine was chosen because he was the co-author of the Edict of Milan which proclaimed religious toleration throughout the Roman Empire and which led to Christianity becoming the official religion of the Empire.

The city authorities were also busy behind the church clearing the slums but what really did it for that area were the Anglo-American bombings of Milan in 1943 and 1944. The church itself was unscathed but whole swathes of housing were destroyed.
The damage was so extensive that the authorities decided to simply clear away the rubble and create a park. This is what the complex looked like by 1960.
Nothing has really changed since except that the tram lines have been shifted to the other side of the columns.

What of the interior? Did grand paintings and sculptures take the place of the frescoes which disappeared? I’m afraid not. Walking around the church, one rather gets the feeling of being in the church’s attic: various pieces plopped down here and there, many of dubious artistic value. Here are some pictures to show what I mean, from the good
(a Pietà in polychrome terracotta from the late 18th Century)
(a baptism of Christ; the author is not given, nor is the date, but from the style I would guess late 16th Century)

to the bad
(I don’t know why so many Catholic churches insist on having these horribly sucrose statues of the Virgin Mary; the church has a few more statues of this type dotted around)

to the downright ugly
(it took me a few minutes to figure out that this carved wooden statue was meant to be Pope John XXIII).

I must confess to a certain melancholy when I walk around the interior of San Lorenzo. What splendours we could have had, if only the church could have slipped through the ages unscathed! I console myself with not quite a splendour but at least something lively and fun to look at, murals that have been recently painted on the walls surrounding one of the canon houses.
I’m not really sure what the artist is trying to tell us, but they bring a smile to my lips whenever I see them.

OTTO WAGNER

Vienna, 2 September 2018

There is an Austrian architect who is spoken about in reverent tones by his compatriots: Otto Wagner, who lived from 1841 to 1918.

The Austrians claim he was a precursor of all modern architecture, his motto being that form should follow function. Now, I’m not an architect so it’s a little difficult for me to evaluate this claim, although my gut tells me it’s an exaggeration. But I’m not here to delve into the roots of modernism in architecture. I’m just interested in the buildings that Wagner designed, because as readers will see in a minute he did design some rather striking ones. Luckily, he didn’t build all that much and most of what he built is here in Vienna. So, a few weeks ago, armed with a slim book listing Wagner’s buildings and accompanied by my long-suffering wife, I crisscrossed Vienna, determined to inspect as many of his surviving buildings as possible.

What follows is an album of Wagner’s buildings. Since, apart from one exception, we were not able to visit them inside, the focus is on their exterior. As a consequence, the external decorations play a large part in my commentary. I have ordered the photos chronologically because it’s interesting to see how Wagner’s style developed over time.

This building, an apartment building close to the town hall, was finished in 1882. I suppose apartment buildings were exciting commissions to get, these being the new palaces of the up-and-coming Viennese bourgeoisie.

I can’t say the building excites me much. It looks very similar to countless stodgy buildings that litter the city centre, for instance this one which stands on the same street.

The same is true of this building, constructed in the same years (1882-84), originally as a bank and now, I think, owned by the Ministry of Finance.

If anything, this building is even stodgier than the last, but I suppose bankers were not interested in architectural virtuosity. Something sensible, solid, and conservative was what they were after.

I have to think that these last two buildings did not reflect Wagner’s inner self, but the need to make money meant that he bowed to the desires of his clients. I say this because two years later, in 1886, he built a house for himself. This surely must reflect what he really wanted to build, and what we see here is a rather florid take on an ancient temple of some sort.

I suspect that the house may not originally have looked quite so florid as it does now. Some 45 years ago, when the house was half ruined, the prominent Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs bought the property and turned it into a museum to himself. It’s full of paintings like this.

I rather suspect, therefore, that Fuchs went overboard on his coloring scheme for the house, Wagner’s palette having been somewhat more sober.

A year later Wagner was putting up another apartment building. Although it is still quite traditional-looking, it seems to be not quite as stodgy as the first one. For one thing, he’s eliminated the heavy-looking window sills and generally made the decorations “flatter” and less obtrusive.

We have to wait another seven years, to 1894, for the next building, yet another apartment block, but this time with a swank shop on the ground floor (currently a Nespresso shop). At least this was now in the chicest part of town, a stone’s throw from the cathedral. Perhaps it’s my imagination but I rather fancy that the building has further lightened up from his previous attempts in the genre. Certainly, the windows on the facade take up more of the total space than before, and the attic-like structure on the roof adds yet more glass to the whole. But all in all, same-old, same-old.

From 1894 to 1900, Wagner was busy on various stations for railway lines that were later to become part of Vienna’s subway system. These are much chattered about here, although I can’t say that I find them particularly elegant to look at. They don’t hold a candle to Hector Guimard’s Metro stops in Paris, for instance. One station in particular, actually a waiting room for the Imperial family when they were on their way to Schonbrunn palace, gets a lot of press.

So does the pavilion at Karlsplatz, where the Art Nouveau style that was coming to the fore at the time bursts forth – I rather feel that I’m in fin-de-siecle Paris or Brussels when I see this little building.

But I also want to insert here a picture of one of his other stations made for mere mortals like me.

These stations are squat and rather bare, I have to say. The dull green paint which has been used on the metalwork doesn’t help.

Thereafter, things begin to look up, at least from my perspective. In 1898, Wagner completed two buildings, apartment buildings again, side by side, on the quays of the river Wien which on this stretch had been covered over. On one side, we have the so-called Majolica House. As its name suggests, the facade of the building is covered by large ceramic tiles, depicting a floral pattern in the form of a vast flowering tree. I suppose we could say that this design connects to the William Morris school.


Next door, Wagner opted for what I would say is a more typical example of Vienna’s form of Jugendstil, the German world’s version of Art Nouveau: more sober floral decoration but a more extensive use of gold leaf (this style always leaves me with a slight sense of decadence, I find).


In the previous year, the most famous building in the Jugendstil style, the Secession Building, had burst onto the Viennese scene, creating much brouhaha among the chattering classes.

Over the next decade or so, Wagner was very busy. Following the style of his last building, between 1902 and 1907 he built the Church of St. Leopold high on a hill overlooking Vienna.


The references to the Jugendstil are strong in Wagner’s church. Not so with the Imperial and Royal Postal Savings Bank, which he built between 1903 and 1912.

Here, he cut out the curvaceous and glittering side of Jugendstil, opting for rigorously straight lines, a white-light grey colour combination, and minimal decoration.

I suppose to avoid monotony in the building’s facades he stamped every facing stone with a circle in low relief (an idea which readers can see, going back to the previous photos, he also used, although with less intensity, on the exterior surfaces of St. Leopold’s church).

The overall effect of all this is quite striking, particularly when you contemplate the facade and then turn round and look at the Ministry of War building, constructed during the same period.

The overly decorated facade of that building jars after the stripped down decoration of Wagner’s building.

While working on his church and postal savings bank, Wagner was also commissioned to build various elements of the Vienna canal system. The most interesting of these is what was originally a bathhouse and is now a restaurant, built in 1906 or thereabouts.

It is here that we first see what I consider Wagner’s signature design: straight lines with an accent on the vertical, minimal decoration but what there is of it of an abstract nature and colored of dark blue.

The effect is really quite lovely, although here it is rather overshadowed by the nondescript buildings behind it and the overpowering graffiti that covers many of the surrounding walls.

A few years later, in 1908, Wagner built a pavilion for sufferers of Lupus disease in the grounds of the Wilhelminen Hospital (it seems that Vienna was then at the forefront of research into this disease).

I have first shown a photo from the time because when my wife and I went to have a look we found a building which seems rather down on its luck.

Lord knows what it is now used for. The fact that its original name has been clumsily covered over suggests that it is no longer used for Lupus sufferers. I have to hope that the signs of construction works around the building herald a renovation. It would be sad to lose this building. Here again we see the use of minimal decoration dominated by blue on white, or at least on pale.

Wagner returned to the apartment-building theme in 1909-11, when he again built two apartment buildings next to each other. The building that most immediately seizes the attention sits on the main road

While following the design principles of his last couple of buildings, this time Wagner opted for black on white. To my mind, the contrast is too strong. Something on the grey side would have been better. The building behind it, on the side road, is more faithful to the blue on white design but is plainer, no doubt as befits a building tucked away from view.

Perhaps the most striking detail of the two buildings is the garage door, a great nail-studded steel affair.

And finally we come to the last building Wagner built, in 1912-13, so a few years before his death. It was another villa for himself and his family, built right next to the first. I see in it the distillation of his latest style and is, to my mind, the most beautiful thing he built.


I would gladly live in it. Someone does – it’s still a private residence. But not visitable, as we were informed, when I tried my luck and asked someone coming out of the front door.

__________________

Photos: all mine, except for the following:

Otto Wagner photo: https://www.pamono.it/designers/otto-wagner
Ernst Fuchs painting: http://benedante.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-surreal-madhouse-of-ernst-fuchs.html
Court Pavilion Heitzing: https://www.pinterest.at/pin/450148925226765989/?lp=true
Karlsplatz pavilion: https://vivent.at/orte/otto-wagner-pavillon-karlsplatz/
Secession building: https://www.dreamstime.com/vienna-austria-august-secession-building-exhibition-hall-built-joseph-maria-olbrich-as-architectural-manifesto-image103293489
St Leopold Interior: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vienna_-_Otto_Wagner%27s_St_Leopold_Church_-_6854.jpg
Postal Savings Bank: https://arthive.com/artists/5998~Otto_Wagner/works/517471~The_front_faade_of_the_Austrian_Postal_Savings_Bank_sterreichische_Postsparkasse

BRUGES AND BRICKS

Vienna, 5 July 2018

My wife and I have just returned from a whirlwind tour of Belgium with a cousin of mine and his wife – the battlefield of Waterloo, Tournai, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Louvain (or Brugge, Gent, Antwerpen, Leuven, to give them their Flemish names), all in a mere six days. (in case any reader asks himself or herself, we left Brussels out because we had all been there before). I think the next couple of posts will be about various aspects of our trip (the exact number depending on how strongly my creative juices flow).

In this post, I want to focus on bricks. These became a source of fascination for me in Bruges. For those of my readers who haven’t yet been to Bruges, I should state that Bruges is a brick city par excellence. Much of it has been built in what is called the brick Gothic style, of which this – a picture of some street in Bruges – is a typical example.

Actually, I would call it the Dutch style. I know I’m entering a minefield here, since many Flemings would be indignant at having something of theirs called Dutch, but I’m afraid to say that I visited Amsterdam before I visited the lands of Flanders so for me the style is indelibly linked with the Netherlands. Perhaps, to try to avoid landing myself in the middle of local quarrels, I could call the style the Hanseatic style since our brief forays into other Hanseatic towns suggest that this is a style common to them all. (In passing, I should say that I was surprised to learn that Bruges was part of the Hanseatic league. I hadn’t known that it had extended this far south. I have made a mental note to buy myself a book on the Hanseatic league).

But actually it’s not the style of brick building that fascinated me in Bruges. It was the colour of the bricks. To put this in context, I should say that my feelings about brick colour have been very much shaped by the brick buildings in the UK, where bricks first impinged themselves on my retinae. Although it’s no doubt a gross exaggeration, I would classify British brick colours as pleasant, unpleasant, and frankly awful. In the pleasant category, I would put the country’s older brick buildings. Christchurch Mansion near Ipswich in Suffolk is a fine example.

Readers will note that the brick is not too red, you could almost say it has pink overtones, and the colour is pleasingly non-uniform.

In the unpleasant category, I would put just about every brick building put up in the UK since the Industrial Revolution. This picture of an old brick chimney – icon, I would say, of the industrial revolution – can stand in for this type of brick.

To make the point even more strongly, though, I also throw in a picture of an old factory

of one of the buildings in the original red brick universities (in this case Sheffield)

and of a row of normal houses.

Readers will note that the red is harsh, strong, crude, and that the bricks are much more uniform in colour than the older bricks. As far as I can make out, the much stronger red colour comes mainly from the bricks having been fired at higher temperatures, although it could also be due to the original clay holding more haematite (the iron mineral which mostly turn bricks red, although nowadays dyes – rather depressingly – are increasingly being used). As I understand from the little bit of technical literature I have boned up on, higher firing temperatures were used to make the bricks stronger and so more usable in larger structures. But I also read – though can scarce believe it – that at least in London redder bricks were used to make the buildings more visible in the fog (Peter Ackroyd’s Biography of London is given as the source of this nugget of information. I shall check it in my copy in Milan).

As for the frankly awful category, I would put all those bricks which are an unpleasant off-white. My grandmother’s old house in London can stand in for the genre.

But this brick was used extensively throughout London. Here’s a part of Waterloo Station.

It’s not just yesteryear that they used this brick. I throw in a picture of a modern use of bricks with this sickly colour.

I know there are readers out there who will indignantly tell me that it’s a beautiful colour, but as they say, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and in my eye that’s sick colour.

Now, after my trip to Bruges, I can add another brick hue to my pleasant category – indeed, perhaps I should create a new category, “very pleasant”, for this hue. This picture is an example of the type.

As I hope readers can see, the buildings in this case give off a very definite orange “glow”. A somewhat hasty study of such buildings as we moved from one place to another has led me to conclude that the colouring comes from a brick which indeed has more orange than pink hues but also from a savant mix of this brick with bricks of the hideous sick colour the effect of which is to give rise to a paler orange than might otherwise be the case. I throw in pictures which I took of some other buildings with the same light orange hue.



Very nice …

And oh, by the way, Bruges is a very pleasant place to visit. A bit overrun by tourists, perhaps, but at least in June still acceptable. Don’t be fooled by such idiot titles as “the Venice of Flanders”. The place has a few canals but in no way do they compare to Venice.

___________________

Bruges street: https://www.gettyimages.at/detail/foto/old-street-with-crow-stepped-gable-houses-in-bruges-stock-fotografie/578469816
Christchurch mansion: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g190725-d1575683-i74779233-Christchurch_Mansion-Ipswich_Suffolk_East_Anglia_England.html
Old factory chimney: https://www.istockphoto.com/at/foto/alte-industrielle-gemauerten-schornstein-gm932649592-255603992
Old factory: http://www.antiqueslink.com/antiques/antique-archaeology-492420.html
Firth Court, University of Sheffield: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2889648
Brick houses: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accrington_brick
My grandmother’s house: https://www.buildington.co.uk/london-sw7/40-montpelier-square/40-montpelier-square/id/3544
Waterloo station: By Alex.muller – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4350988
modern use of london yellow stock: https://wienerberger.co.uk/inspiration/tower-bridge
Bruges houses: my photos

PIAZZA DUOMO, MILAN

Milan, 7 March 2018

My wife and I frequently have to go up to Piazza Duomo, Cathedral Square, in Milan, where we visit a little store in the underground station to do our printing. We can’t be bothered to buy a home printer, and anyway we need excuses to leave the house – one of the early lessons of retirement.

Our usual route takes us through the back streets, coming out at the piazza’s north-east corner. This is the sight that greets us:

I’m very fond of this view, because it encapsulates something like a thousand years of Milan’s architectural history. There are some even older bits of architecture scattered around the centre of the city, but at this point in time they really are just bits – some mosaic-covered arches here and there, from Milan’s early Christian period, tucked away at the back of what were once 3rd-4th century basilicas; short stretches of the city’s Roman streets, preserved in odd corners of underground stations; that sort of thing. Milan’s visible architecture really only starts in the early 1000’s AD.

Which is more or less where I want to start unpicking my photo. I invite my readers to zoom in on the campanile poking up at the back of the photo.

This is the campanile of the church of San Gottardo, built around 1336 by order of Azzone Visconti, then Lord of Milan. Azzone dedicated the church to Saint Gotthard because this saint was invoked by those who suffered from gout and stones, and poor Azzone suffered from both. The campanile shows the typical details of the Gothic-Lombard style: red brick combined with white marble, the latter often used in a series of small columns at the top of the tower, but also used to pick out details. Here is the campanile from behind, where this lovely combination of red brick and white stone is seen clearly.

The campanile is particular in another way, in being octagonal. It is not unknown for campanili to take this shape, but the campanile of San Gottardo, in its slimness and height, is a particularly elegant example of the form. In its current format, the campanile has no clock, which is a pity because at Azzone’s orders it originally carried Milan’s (and probably Italy’s) first public clock. This caused so much excitement at the time that for centuries afterwards the area around the church was known as Quarter of the Hours.

Next in time is the massive white Duomo, the city’s cathedral, to the left in my photo.

Actually, the building took centuries to complete, so it’s a little difficult to know what century to assign it to. Going by overall style, we can say that it belongs to the late 14th, early 15th Century. And in fact the decision to build the Duomo was taken in 1386 – so some 50 years after San Gottardo was built – by the-then archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo. It was to take the place of a baptistery and two existing cathedrals – the “winter” cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore and the “summer” cathedral of Santa Tecla (a combination I have never heard of before). Antonio da Saluzzo was thinking big; he wanted a very large church worthy of the great city of Milan. But he was still thinking traditional; he had in mind a brick and marble church along the lines of San Gottardo. But that idea was nixed by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, who had just taken over the lordship of Milan (through a treacherous attack on his uncle Barnabò, who died shortly thereafter in prison; poisoned, it was whispered, by his nephew). Milan, ever since the Roman Empire, when it became the capital city for a while, looked north across the Alps towards the Empire’s border on the Rhine as well as south. Gian Galeazzo wanted to use the new cathedral to firmly anchor Milan to northern Europe through the use of its architectural styles, which at this point meant late gothic in the Rhenish-Bohemian style. Not only did that mean a different architectural style to the ones then in vogue in Italy, it meant a stone-faced building. So the Duomo that we see today is at its core Lombard, made essentially out of brick, but northern European in look because it is faced with stone. And what a lovely stone it is! A white marble with pinkish hues from the quarries of Candoglia close to Lake Maggiore.

To get the style he wanted, Gian Galeazzo imported French architects, who already then behaved in that typically French manner, poo-pooing on the building techniques of their Lombard masons and generally pissing them off. Neverthless, things moved along, and by the time Gian Galeazzo died in 1402 (but not before becoming the first duke of Milan by paying Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia, King of the Romans, 1,000 florins for the privilege), half the church was complete. At that point, the whole building programme ran out of steam. Things crawled along for another century and a half, until Cardinal Carlo Borromeo took over the archbishopric. There was a spurt of activity for several decades until his death, at which point worked slowed to a crawl again. There were endless arguments about what style the facade should have, and numerous designs were proposed, accepted, then abandoned (something which seems to have been a general problem in Italy, as an earlier post of mine attests). This photo shows what the Duomo looked like in about 1745.

As readers can see, not only was the facade of the Duomo a mess, the cathedral itself didn’t yet have that forest of spires which give the building its distinctive look today. It took Napoleon to get the city to make the final push to get over the finish line. In 1805, he wanted to be crowned King of Italy in the cathedral and he wanted it to look worthy of this solemn ceremony. He made the rash promise that the French State would pay for the final works. This never actually happened, but the promise that someone else would pay galvanized the community and by 1819, when this painting was made, the Duomo looked pretty much how it is today.

Work still continued, and strictly speaking even today it is not finished; there are places where statues are still missing. But when the final door in the facade was installed in 1965, a mere 600 years after work was started, the Duomo was officially declared to be finished. Oof!

Next in time, we have the building standing in front of the campanile of San Gottardo.

Unfortunately, because of the city government’s bizarre idea of planting palm trees in the piazza, one can now hardly see the building in question from where I took my photo, so let me insert here another photo which I lifted from the internet.

This is the so-called Palazzo Reale, the Royal Palace, although it almost never had royalty staying there. Since the earliest times, this was the area where the government buildings of the Comune and then the Duchy stood. As rulers of Milan and the surrounding territories succeeded each other – the Viscontis, the Sforzas, the French, the Spaniards, the Austrians, the French again under Napoleon, back to the Austrians once Napoleon was safely locked away on St. Helena – they or the Governors they sent added, demolished, changed, extended, and remodeled the government buildings and the lodgings they inherited to fit their needs and their egos. You would think that the result would be a hodgepodge, but actually a remodeling carried out in the 1760s gave the building its defining characteristics both inside and out. The facade that we see in my photo, the first example of the neoclassical style in Milan, is the fruit of that remodeling. Its architect, Giuseppe Piermarini, had a really hard time with the work. His purported client was Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Este, a younger son of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (and brother to Marie-Antoinette, who lost her head in the French Revolution). Maria Theresa had packed him off to Milan to marry Beatrice d’Este and to be Vienna’s governor of Lombardy. Ferdinand had dreams of Piermarini building him a residence worthy of his status (at least as he saw it) and a building that would rival the other stately piles going up around Europe (he particularly wanted to compete with his elder brother’s Schönbrunn summer palace in Vienna). But Piermarini’s real client, because she was paying the bills, was Maria Theresa. She was famously cheeseparing and anyway didn’t see her younger son’s position in quite as grand a light as he did. She just wanted him to suitably represent the Austrian Empire in Lombardy and to leave all the decision-making to Vienna. Somehow Piermarini managed to satisfy everyone without getting the sack or having a nervous breakdown and came up with the austerely elegant building that we see today.

The building experienced numerous further vicissitudes. Its moment of greatest glory was under Napoleon, when Milan was the capital of the Kingdom of northern Italy. After the Austrians came back in 1815, Milan went back to being capital of just Lombardy. With Italian unification, the building was handed over to the House of Savoy, but they rarely used it and eventually sold it to the municipality. It got badly damaged during a bombing raid in World War II. It now houses various museums and exhibition spaces.

Then we go to the building on the far right of my photo.

This was part of a rebuilding campaign decided on in 1860 in the wake of Italian unification. In their enthusiasm, the city fathers proclaimed their intention of radically redesigning the piazza in front of the Duomo, making it bigger and grander, and of creating a new major avenue to celebrate King Victor Emmanuel II, first king of the newly-united Italy. I suspect this urban remodeling plan was also seen as a way of cleaning up some embarrassingly leprous zones of the city centre. For instance, putting up the building in my photo, the southern Palazzo dei Portici, allowed the municipality to clear away a whole neigbourhood located there which went by the name of Rebecchino and which was full of petty criminals and other louche types who preyed on the pilgrims and other assorted tourists who visited the Duomo. The remodeling of the piazza in front of the Duomo took from 1865 to 1873. Its most famous element, which you can’t see in my photo, is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, which runs from Piazza del Duomo to the piazza in front of the Scala theatre.

But more significantly, I think, the whole piazza in front of the Duomo now has a harmony and elegance which it definitely lacked.

For once, a rebuilding programme decided by a municipal government has left us with something better than what it replaced, especially after a much later municipal government decided to ban advertising billboards on the building opposite the Duomo, Palazzo Carmini.

Which brings us to the final building in my photo, the one squeezed in between the Palazzo Reale and the Palazzo dei Portici.

Again, I think readers need another photo from closer by and without those silly palm trees in the way to appreciate the building.

It is a building in the Fascist style, the competition for its design being held in 1937 and construction of the winning design starting in 1938. I don’t know if there is a formal definition of the Fascist style, but these buildings tend to have a “Roman” look to them: the use of white stone facing and of semi-circular arches. They also tend to have little external decoration other than massive, heroic-looking statues and bas reliefs. I don’t know if De Chirico was a Fascist, but many of his paintings have such building in them.

This particular building goes by the name of Arengario, which is an old Italian word first used in the Middle Ages to describe municipal buildings. The root of the word, “aringare”, is the same as the English word “harangue”, and in fact Arengari were buildings from which the municipal authorities addressed (or perhaps harangued) the local citizenry. In later centuries, the term Arengario fell out of use, presumably because municipal authorities couldn’t be bothered any more with the direct democracy of addressing the people. But since the Fascists, Mussolini in the lead, liked to harangue the luckless populace, they brought the word back into use. As a result, a number of Facist-built Arengari, Milan being one of them, are to be found throughout Italy. I presume the idea was that the Fascist cadre would adress Milan’s citizenry drawn up in the piazza below.

The winning design actually had as its overall objective to balance the triumphal arch at the beginning of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele directly across the piazza, which is why there are two more-or-less identical buildings flanking the road which passes through them, rather than just the one you would need if all you were interested in was haranguing the crowds. The idea was that the road between the buildings would lead to another piazza (today Piazza Diaz) where the country’s modern (Fascist) companies would build their headquarters.

In the event, World War II intervened, construction was halted, what had been built was damaged during the bombing raid that damaged the Palazzo Reale next door, and the municipal authorities found themselves after the war with a damaged, unfinished Fascist building on their hands. The balcony from which the Fascist haranguing was meant to have taken place was quietly demolished and the rest of the buildings were completed by 1956. After various uses, the building next to the Palazzo Reale now houses Milan’s museum of 20th Century art. I highly recommend this museum to any of my readers who happen to be passing though Milan.

Well, that finishes my little tour of Piazza Duomo. Without wanting to sound too much like the local tourism office (which used to be housed in the Arengario), I highly recommend my readers who come to Italy to stop off in Milan before they hasten on to Florence, Rome, and Venice. A stop in Milan can be highly rewarding – in my case, it got me my wife.

________________

Overview and zoom-in photos: mine
San Gottardo: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_di_San_Gottardo_in_Corte
Duomo 1745 circa: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Milano#Contesto_urbanistico
Duomo 1819: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piazza_del_Duomo_(Milano)
Palazzo Reale: http://ciaomilano.it/e/sights/preale.asp
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galleria_Vittorio_Emanuele_II
Piazza del Duomo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRUXl0wyvLY
Palazzo Carmini, 1970s: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palazzo_Carminati
Arengario: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/339177415661775996/?lp=true
De Chirico painting: https://www.arteallimite.com/backup_2017/en/2016/07/la-pintura-metafisica-de-giorgio-de-chirico/

ROCKY OUTCROPS

Milan, 28 January 2018

I’ve just come back from Yangon, where I was giving a training course on the implementation of cleaner production methods. An interesting topic, but not actually the subject of this post. It so happens that on the first night I was there I stumbled across this picture.

This is Popa Taung Kalat, a monastery perched atop an old volcanic plug some 50 km away from Bagan. I immediately sent my wife a WhatsApp asking why we had not visited this place on our visit to Bagan. The question was rhetorical since I know the answer: we didn’t go because neither of us knew that Popa Taung Kalat existed until I came across this photo.

Which is a great pity, because I have a certain fascination for places perched on knolls, buttes, tors, or other rocky outcrops, especially if they sit in a flat plain and are visible from miles around. My wife and I recently spent a very pleasant evening in a similar place to Popa Taung Kalat, the small town of Laon close to Reims, when we did our tour of French battlefields of the First World War.

In this case, although it sports a magnificent 12th-13th Century cathedral

the outcrop’s original use by the Gauls was martial rather than religious; they built a fortress on the top. The outcrop’s military vocation continued for centuries thereafter. Given its position, this is not really surprising. Whoever commanded Laon controlled one of the major entry points into the Île de France.

Polignac, in the Auvergne, is another rocky outcrop where military considerations seem to have been paramount in its original colonization. The Velay family built the first castle in the 11th Century and continued to live there and rule the surrounding country for some six centuries.

Edinburgh, too, where my wife and I met more years ago than I care to remember, when we were both university students there, sports a magnificent castle atop an ancient volcanic plug.

Here, though, that rather special effect of being able to see it from miles away is lost, the old sight lines having been obscured by the urban jumble that has spread out from the historic core of the city which lay huddled at the base of the castle or which clustered along the long road, the Royal Mile, that led down from the castle to the royal palace below.

A similar stony promontory lies close to my French grandmother’s (now my sister’s) house near Mâcon, the Roche de Solutré, one which I spent many happy hours in my youth climbing.

It was first used by our ancestors 20,000 years ago to kill wild animals in large numbers. They would drive the poor beasts up towards the edge where, in their panic, they would fall off to their deaths below, to be butchered on the spot. The archaeological finds gave the name Solutrean to a phase in the Upper Paleolithic. But coming back to our martial theme, it is of greater interest that a certain Raoul de Bourgogne built a castle on its top in 930, and his descendants used its dominating position to harass those passing by and demand protection money. Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy, finally decided that enough was enough and ordered its destruction in 1434. Popular jubilation was such that several people were killed in the crazed desire to rip the castle apart, stone from stone. Since then, no human constructions have gone up on the Roche; as the picture above shows it only sports vineyards on its lower slopes, vineyards which, I may say, make excellent wines – Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran, Mâcon-Solutré – and which have made millionaires of the local viticulturists.

Thousands of kilometers away, in Sri Lanka, another outcrop similar to that of Popa Taung Kalat, Sigiriya, is now the site of peaceful gardens.

There was a time, though, back in the 5th Century, when it was a fortress built by King Kashyapa. But it seems he was also a lover of the arts. There is only a small piece of fresco left now in a concavity

but apparently the whole western side of the rock was once frescoed. It must have been an incredible sight. Perhaps for the good of his soul King Kashyapa turned his palace over to monks at his death, who installed a monastic community. They stayed until the 14th Century, then moved on. It’s a pity that the last time I was in Sri Lanka the country was still being torn apart by the civil war, making travel outside of the capital Colombo risky. Who knows, one day maybe I’ll go back there with my wife and we can go and visit this enchanting place.

But actually, coming back to where I started this piece, at Popa Taung Kalat in Myanmar, while I understand the cold logic which drove warlords to view these outcrops as natural fortresses, I prefer the more mystical impulses which have driven men, and sometimes women if they have been allowed to, to perch a monastery, a church, or just a simple hermitage on top of such outcrops, where they can pray in peace far from the madding crowd. It’s given us some wonderful blends of nature and architecture. There are the Orthodox monasteries in Meteora in Greece.

There is the chapel of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe in Le Puy-en-Velay, in France, which was first established in 969.

There is the little hermitage/monastery in Katskhi, Georgia.

The last picture makes me think of Simeon Stylites, the 5th Century Christian monk who, it is reported, spent some 30 years on top of a column, and who started quite a craze in holy men perching themselves on columns. There is of course no picture from the period but this is an imaginative rendering.

As for his column, this is all that is left of it after centuries of devout pilgrims chipping off pieces as relics.

Over the ages, monks have shown an enduring enthusiasm to climb up to inaccessible places to be left alone, leaving behind wonderful creations in the process. When my wife and I were in China, we once visited the Hanging Temple near Datong, a Buddhist monastery literally clinging to the side of a cliff.

The monks had excavated a series of caves in the cliff face, connected by a series of suffocatingly narrow internal staircases or alarmingly rickety walkways pegged to the rock, and then had clamped a temple facade onto the exterior. The effect is quite magical.

Meanwhile, in Cappadocia in what is now Turkey, Christian monks had also burrowed into mountain sides to create their communities far from the world.

Some of the churches they dug out of the rock still carry their frescoes.

And up in the Ethiopian highlands monks have built their churches high up on cliff faces, like the Abuna Yemata Guh church in Tigray province, which can only be reached after an arduous climb

and some sphincter-clenching shuffling along narrow ledges with long, long, long falls if you take a false step.

But once there, you are greeted with delightful frescoes in the Ethiopian style.

How much trouble those monks went to to get away from it all! I can’t complain since they created such wonderful places for me to visit one day. But surely they could have made their lives a little bit easier and still managed to pray and contemplate to their heart’s content. But hey, who am I to judge? The contemplative life never attracted me; the real world, with all its troubles and vicissitudes, but also with all its joys and satisfactions, is much more my scene.

____________________

Popa Taung Kalat: http://www.wondermondo.com/Countries/As/Burma/Mandalay/PopaTaungKalat.htm
Laon: https://www.tourisme-paysdelaon.com/Cote-histoire/Historique-du-Pays-de-Laon/La-mutation-en-ville-prefectorale
Laon cathedral exterior: https://www.taringa.net/posts/info/18971189/A-que-no-sabias-esto-lince.html
Polignac: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/33272295
Edinburgh Castle: https://erasmusu.com/en/erasmus-edinburgh/erasmus-photos/princes-street-gardens-and-edinburgh-castle-75483
Old print of Edinburgh: https://phrenologyandcrime.com/2014/08/31/edinburgh/
Solutre: https://www.geo.fr/environnement/france-nature/les-paradis-nature-de-bourgogne/solutre-rocher
Sigiriya: http://www.gocaribou.com/blog/2015/7/4/the-cultural-triangle-of-sri-lanka
Sigiriya frescoes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigiriya#Frescoes
Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece: http://www.touropia.com/meteora-monasteries/
St-Michel de l’Aiguilhe: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Le_Puy-en-Velay,_%C3%89glise_Saint-Laurent_et_Aiguilhe_PM_48569.jpg
Katskhi Pillar Church: http://orthochristian.com/89130.html
Simeon Stylites: https://www.vimaorthodoxias.gr/theologikos-logos-diafora/agios-simeon-o-stilitis/
Remains of the column of Simeon Stylites: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Saint_Simeon_Stylites
Hanging temple, China: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanging_Temple
Cave churches of Cappadocia: https://www.expedia.com/things-to-do/full-day-tour-of-cappadocia-region-goreme-open-air-museum-with-lunch.a395058.activity-details
Cappadocia cave church frescoes: http://www.aydinligoremetravel.com/goreme-open-air-museum/
Climbing to Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN67Zsxx-Vo
Arriving to the Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_GxzdGS84M
Abuna Yemata Guh inside: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2823326/Abuna-Yemata-Guh-church-sky-Ethiopia-world-s-inaccessible-place-worship.html