Tuesday, 18 September 2012


Milan is supposed to be a place overflowing with the beautiful people but one of our first meetings with a local was far from beautiful. A wannabe pickpocket saw us as easy prey as we went down into the subway system. As he eased his hand into her handbag, Mary felt the vibrations from her fortunately tight zip. Turning around, she caught him red-handed, hand in bag. He mumbled an apology or at least an acknowledgment that he had been busted, a shrug of his shoulders as if to say I had to have a go. He turned on his heels and running back up the stairs from whence he had came, too fast for me to react, although I’m not sure what action I would have taken.

Milan's Cathedral.
Maybe the beautiful people were hiding from the drab sky that was our constant companion for most of our time in Milan. The moody sky suited the spiky Gothic architecture of Milan’s Cathedral, the largest in Italy. It took six centuries to complete and has been both vilified (composed “from every style in the world, and every style spoiled”) and complemented (“a supreme embodiment of vigorous effort for its architecture”) during its history. At times, the drab sky opened up, only to allow rain to fall, precipitation that thankfully cut short our visit to the Quadrilatero d'Oro, the Golden Quadrilateral. This is Milan’s fashion district, home to the flagship stores of a litany of designers like Armani and a whole host I haven’t heard of. This is an area apparently filled with jewelers, boutiques, design and furnishing showrooms and of course, a complement of the world’s most fashionable. Money (and probably a lot of it) would have been spent but the rain meant I could keep my wallet safe and sound, credit card unsheathed.

Candles in the cathedral.
We stayed at a B&B with a guy who slept on his kitchen floor with his old, deaf dog while we slept in his room. He got the combination between being eccentric and annoying just right (so many B&B owners get that wrong). Every morning, we walked through the square where Mussolini was strung up after his execution and every night, we went for dinner at a different bar along the street we were staying in, taking advantage of the aperitivo tradition. Aperitivo is basically a buffet that you can partake from after you buy a drink at a bar. Cheese, bread, salami, pizza bits, bruschetta and parmigiano cubes with vinegar intermingle on the platters with less classy sides of chips and pretzels. It’s supposed to be a prelude to dinner but if you have a couple of drinks, aperitivo acts as a good (and cheap) substitute for a larger meal. Each night was punctuated by cheers from people watching the World Cup in South Africa, into the small hours of the morning, our nightly accompaniment to sleep.

Outside Castello Sforzesco
Milan has many sights apart from fashion but the main reason we went to Milan (apart from the cheap Easy Jet flights from London) was to see the Last Supper, one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s best-known masterpieces, found in a wall in the old dining hall in the monastery of the church, Santa Maria delle Grazie. The sprawling mural is one of the enduring symbols of the Renaissance, one of the high-points of culture as well as the centrepiece of a middling piece of pop culture in the “Da Vinci Code”, the literary counterpart of “Two and a half Men” or a Maroon 5 album. It portrays the reaction of each of the apostles, momentarily after Jesus announced that one of them would betray him. Like the “Da Vinci” code suggests, the Last Supper is rich in allegory and symbolism, some real and others assumed. One of the key concepts in the Da Vinci code was that the figure to the right of Jesus, usually identified as John the Apostle, is sometimes attributed to being Mary Magdalene, which forms a central part of the plot of the Da Vinci code. However, most art scholars are of the opinion that it isn’t Mary and that it is John.  While Mary’s involvement in the mural is probably apocryphal, there is still symbolism inherent in the painting. For example, there are several references to the number 3 (like the Apostles are seated in groupings of three; there are three windows behind Jesus; and the shape of Jesus' figure resembles a triangle). Others think Leonardo used his own face as the face for some of the apostles, a possibility with some support.

Santa Maria delle Grazie, the home of the Last Supper
Da Vinci spent about four years on the painting, starting in 1495. He used an experimental technique of oil and temper on dried plaster, a fragile technique that partially explains the rapid deterioration of the painting. By 1517, it was starting to flake, by 1566 it was described as being ruined and so deteriorated that the figures were unrecognizable. By 1652, the painting was so poorly regarded that a doorway was cut through the middle of it, removing Jesus’s feet, (this was later bricked up in later restorations). After this indignity, it was used as a stable by Napoleon’s troops in 1796. He was said to have asked his men to respect the piece; they responded by pelting it with clay, throwing stones at it and used a ladder to climb up to scratch out the Apostles’ eyes. The refractory has been used to store hay and later served time as a prison. A flood covered the painting in mould. In 1943, during the Second World War, the building was hit by Allied bombing, blowing the ceiling off. Miraculously, the painting escaped mostly intact, protected by sandbags that prevented the painting from being struck by bomb splinters, although it was left exposed to the elements for three years. Despite being one of the world’s most famous pieces of art, the Last Supper has been poorly looked after.

Inside Castello Sforzesco.
The painting was affected by non-malicious activities as much as malevolent ones. Restoration attempts started as early as 1726 where missing sections were filled in with oil paint before the whole mural was varnished. In 1768, a curtain was hung over the painting to protect it; instead, it allowed moisture to get trapped on the surface. This meant that whenever the curtain was pulled back, it scratched the flaking paint, damaging the painting even more. In 1770, the Last Supper was largely repainted; the artist had redone all but three of the faces when he was stopped due to public outrage. In 1821, Stefano Barezzi, an expert in removing whole frescoes from their walls intact, was called in to remove the painting to a safer location; he badly damaged it before realizing that it wasn’t actually a fresco (maybe not so much of a fresco expert after all). Later attempts proved more successful. From 1901 to 1908, Luigi Cavenaghi first completed a careful study of the structure of the painting, then began cleaning it. In 1924, Oreste Silvestri did further cleaning, and stabilized some parts with stucco. From 1951 to 1954 another clean-and-stabilize restoration was undertaken by Mauro Pelliccioli. However, by the late 1970s, the painting had deteriorated further. This led to a major restoration project from 1978 to 1999.       
The restorations sometimes went awry.
 This project aimed to permanently stabilize the painting, reversing the damage caused by dirt, pollution, as well as damage caused during the well-intentioned but misguided restoration attempts of the 18th and 19th century. This was largely successful but to ensure that the painting wouldn’t be unduly exposed to degrading environments, access to the Last Supper is now tightly controlled. Not wanting to risk missing out, we had booked our place a few months in advance to secure our spot. The room has had its windows bricked up, to allow light to be limited in the climate-controlled environment. Visits are now limited to 15 minutes with only 25 guests allowed at a time.  While it seems a long time, 15 minutes is about right for viewing this masterpiece. It gives you time to get over the familiarity of the mural, being as it is one of the world’s most famous pieces of art by one of the world’s most well-known artists. It gives you time to take in its scale which can surprise. The Last Supper is a 4.5 metres by 8.5 metres depiction of the New Testament. It gives you time to see subtle aspects of it that you haven’t noticed before. Given the content of the painting and the betrayal by Judas, Da Vinci was able to impact emotions of confusion, indignity and betrayal. This, together with its degradation, led Aldous Huxley to call it “the saddest work of art in the world”. Despite the deterioration, abuse and misguided restorations that have no doubt diminished the piece, the content and composition of the Last Supper still draws you in. 15 minutes gives you just enough time to sit and relax and time to ponder what, if any, mysteries Da Vinci may have hidden it before you get a last glance back as you walk out off the room, walking slowly as you are told your time is up and politely asked to leave, perhaps looking up at the fresco that lies opposite the Last Supper on your way out. This fresco must be one of the world’s most ignored pieces of art. Painted in 1497 by Donato Montorfano, it is a piece rich in detail and generous in scale known as Crucifixion, which as its name suggests, depicts the scene of the crucifixion of Jesus. How unfortunate that your most famous work is almost entirely ignored by visitors with only eyes for one piece of art in the room. And then, after 15 minutes, you leave the refractory with only memories to take with you (photos in this tightly controlled environment are of course forbidden).
Montofano's Crucifixion.
The painting may still have secrets to give up. As we approach the end of 2012 and the time of a new Mayan era, a Vatican researcher, Sabrina Sforza Galitzia, claims to have broken the Da Vinci code. By looking at and analyzing the "mathematical and astrological" puzzle, she said that Da Vinci foresaw the end of the world in a universal flood that would begin on March 21, 4006, and end on November 1 the same year. Save the date.