Monday, 25 March 2019

Milan: Art nouveau

Via Malpeghi, 3: Milan's finest art nouveau building

I found this walk around one of Milan's art nouveau areas on the website of Michele Sacerdoti. I am deeply in his debt. This section of his website lists three walks, but we only had time to do the first. The only flaw was that there are no pictures of the buildings, but this really did make it a voyage of discovery. The text is doubtless very informative, but my Italian is not up to profiting from it; I could at least spot the architects and dates of the buildings that caught my eye.

We started at Piazza Oberdan, north east of the Duomo, and after a brief struggle to orientate ourselves, reached the real start of the walk at Viale Piave. The first building we saw, at number 42, wasn't too impressive: heavy flower motifs, but not much else, so we headed on to Via de Bernardi 1, on the corner with Viale Piave (1905 by G B Bossi).

There were interesting motifs on the facade and a lovely three-storey window. presumably lighting the main staircase.

We ignored the next building also by Bossi as being inelegant, and turned right into via Goldoni and left in via Pisacane, where things really looked up.

We loved the fluid mouldings over the windows and front door and the band of colour across the top floor windows of number 12 (by A Campani, 1903). The iron work on the balconies was classic art nouveau.

At number 16 (by A Fermani 1902) we were struck by the front door and ironwork, but again the floral plasterwork seemed heavy and overdone.

Number 18/20, (also by Firmani, 1902) was the most pleasing so far. Zoom in to see the peacocks above each window on the first floor, with flower motifs linking the windows, and the delicate flower frieze on the top floor.

We passed by number 20 and 24 (rather the worse for wear) and turned into via Modena, to reach the junction with via Menotti. The contrast between the rather battered house on the right with the totally renovated (including removing the exterior rendering) house on the left was startling. They seemed to share the variant of art nouveau that we saw in Riga, Latvia.

Further along via Menotti, at number 1, was this building with lovely floral panels, at their best at the sides where there were balconies.

From here on we became more selective, highlighting only the best buildings. The next of which was on the corner of via Moderna and via Uberti. The most obvious feature was the blue squares, but a closer view revealed lovely flower patterns to offset them.

Next door, at via Modena 28, Casa Maggioni (1909), was another beautiful specimen. Lovely front door, iron work, windows on the top floor and yellow, almost golden, ceramic tiles.

We passed a few other less inspiring buildings to reach the triumphant conclusion of the walk, Via Malpeghi, 3 which was close to the start/end point of the walk at Piazza Oberdan. This is a fantastic building of 1905 covered with ceramic panels. The three picture below show the left side, and the two sections of the right side (it is on a corner - see the picture at the head of this post).

Conditions: hot and sunny.

Disatnce: probably only a couple of miles.

Rating: four and half stars. Some absolute gems, although quite a few fairly crude examples too.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Milan: Sights

Milan Cathedral

We started our exploration of Milan at the Cathedral, a truly magnificent building. You can see from the exterior that it consists of a nave with two aisles on each side. I was surprised to discover that it is the largest church in Italy (on a technicality: St Peter's is bigger but is in the Vatican city), the third largest in Europe and the fourth largest in the world. (I just had to look up the other two: they are Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil and Seville.)

Work on the Cathedral was started in 1386, but the facade was not completed until 1812, when Napoleon was King of Italy.

The inside of the cathedral brings home its scale and the nave + two aisles plan gives rise to an astonishing number of columns, many of which have intriguing circular capitals.

At the east end there is a wonderful wall of stained glass in rectangular panels, each telling a story. the colours are extremely vibrant and the overall effect is quite magnificent.

One of the wonders of the cathedral is that you can go up onto the roof (by lift or stairs, we opted for the lift). You emerge from the lift to look through an opening at a line of pinnacles atop the side of one of the aisles.

You walk the length of the side and climb to the main roof, above the nave. The roof slopes somewhat and, as repair work is underway, it is somewhat cramped. You can see bright new stone work inserted amongst weathered stone. Enormous numbers of photos are being taken, including by me. It is a wonderful experience - unique, so far as I know.

Eventually, we drag ourselves away and descend. Turning right out of the cathedral, we enter the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. It was started in 1861, the year of Italian Unification, when Vittorio Emanuele II came to the throne of all Italy. It is a cross-shaped arcade, four storeys high with galss barrel vaults meeting at a glass dome.

The angles formed by the points of intersection are decorated with mosiacs representing the coats of arms of the three successive capitals of the Kingdom, Turin. Florence and Rome, plus that of Milan. I confess I don't know which one is depicted in my photo.

The Galleria is noticeably home to elite shops and I was interested to read that there was a controversy a few years ago when a McDonalds outlet failed to have its lease renewed despite being there for 20 years (it was replaced by Prada). After outrage and law suits a vast new McDonalds was opened just opposite one of the entrances to the Galleria and everyone was happy.

We now headed off to one of Milan's finest churches, Sant Ambrogio. It was first built by St Ambrose in 379–386 and rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the 13th century. At first sight, the cloister or atrium in front of the main facade seems the most unusual feature. The strangest however is the two bell towers. Two, separate, distinct religious communities (Canons and Monks) shared the basilica in a state of tension and both insisted on having a dedicated bell tower.

Inside the Basilica is quite plain, but the combination of stone and brick creates a dramatic appearance.

In front of the altar is an ancient canopy, whose name eludes me now.

Behind it is a beautiful 13th century mosaic of Christ Pantokrator. This is a post card as there was no realistic way of taking a photograph.

We now adjourned to the mighty castle of the Dukes of Milan. It was built in the 15th century by Francesco Sforza and is known as the Castello Sforzesco. It is a massive square structure in red brick with enormous towers at the corners and a really imposing main gate.

This is the main gate from the inside.

We briefly visited the castle in 2001 and we were astonished by how much it had changed.Compare the pictures of the courtyard below.

The castle now houses some museums (closed when we went) and seems to be the site of a classic Italian passegiata: there was a continuous and substantial flow of people walking from the front entrance to the rear one.

To complete what we thought were the main sights we visited Pinoteca de Brera (Brera art gallery). Founded in 1809, it has an astonishing collection of Italian painting up to about 1850. There are also many later items not on display and the idea has been mooted of creating a Brera Modern to display them.

Out of great range of wonderful paintings including masterworks by Bellini and Mantegna I will just pick two: Piero della Francesca's The Virgin with child, angels and saints (it id also known as the Pala Montefeltro - the donor, Federico Montefeltro of Urbino, is shown kneeling on the front right)

... and Rafael's The Marriage of the Virgin.

To complete our tour we took a clockwise walk around the periphery of the Brera to reach the secluded Orto Botanico di Brera, a delightful botanical garden (think of the Chelsea Physic Garden).

It is a delightful spot, although it was perhaps too early in the year to see it at its best.

Rating: 5 stars.

Saturday, 23 March 2019


Ponte coperto (Covered bridge)

A day trip from Milan to see the  in Pavia, famous for its covered bridge and the Certosa (Chapterhouse - i.e. a Carthusian monastery), which is 7km outside the city. The logistics by public transport from Milan were quite challenging, but we eventually came up with a brilliant plan: main line train from Milan Centrale to Pavia, local train from Pavia to Certosa di Pavia (on the line to Milan Porto Genova), then Certosa di Pavia to Milan Porto Genova. Italian railways are just wonderful!

Milan Centrale is in fact worthy of a visit in its own right. The design was supposed to be in the style of Grand Central in New York, with work starting in 1912. By the time it was opened in 1931, a fascist flavour had been injected by Mussolini. This photo shows the main hall, once the booking hall. The lights on the right lead to stairs up to the departures level.

The decorative theme seems to be the glory of the Roman empire.

We reached Pavia in 30 minutes and headed for the river and then turned left to reach the wonderful covered bridge. The original bridge was Roman, but it was replaced in 1354. The medieval bridge was badly damaged during the Second World War. Debates about whether to replace or repair were resolved when part of what remained collapse. The current is a few meters away from the previous one and has five arches compared to the previous seven and towers with drawbridges at each end. It is a fine sight, but to be honest I was disappointed that it was a kind of replica, rather than an ancient structure which had been restored, as I had previously supposed.

In the centre is a chapel dedicated to St John Nepomuk, a Bohemiam saint who was drowned in the Vltava river at the behest of Wenceslaus, King of the Romans and King of Bohemia. If this was Good King Wenceslas, I am shocked.

This is the view downstream along the River Ticino (a tributary of the Po) seen from the centre of the bridge.

We headed then into the city to get a feel for its character. Rather quiet and modest, would be the summary, with no major sights. We found the red brick cathedral, begin in the 15th century, which was quite impressive. It is built on the central or Greek Cross plan: the nave is the same length as the transepts.

After a refreshing drink in a cafe on the main street, we came to the fine church of Santa Maria del Carmine. It is considered to be one the best examples of Lombard Gothic architecture. It was begun in 1374.

As we headed back along quiet streets towards the station we emerged onto the main street and admired this art deco surprise.

A little further along was a large house on the corner of the Piazzale Minerve with fabulous decorations around the windows.

Piazzale Minerve is teh intersection of several roads, but it dominated by the massive statue of Minerva, named for the Roman goddess of War and Wisdom. The Greek equivalent would be Athena.

The statue is magnificent but also rather over the top, which almost guarantees that it dates from the period of Mussolini's rule - 1938 in fact. The architect was Francisco Messina.

We soon reached the station and were lucky to immediate get a train to Certosa di Pavia. It is about a km around the walls of the the Certosa to reach the frescoed entrance.

You go through the entrance passage an emerge into a rectangular courtyard with buildings on both sides and the quite magnificent church facing you the end.

The church was commissioned by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the first Duke of Milan, in 1396. The initial architect was Marco Solari, later succeeded by his son and grandson. It strikes me as quite unusual for the name of the architect of a church of such antiquity to be known. The nave, two aisles and transept were built in the Gothic style, but the facade is in the Renaissance style by a new generation of architects.

The carving of the marble facade is exceptional. I will just pick out one panel, to the left of the portal, showing Adan and Eve and the serpent. It is a bit battered, but is work of great delicacy.

Before going in we looked around the side to see the transepts, in beautiful red brick with delicate round arched arcades.

The inside is splendid with extensive murals, especially in the transepts and choir (no pictures are allowed). We joined a guided tour, which was sensitively delivered, but our Italian wasn't up to the job. It seemed to mainly involve descriptions of the subject matter of the frescoes and marbles, but with little attention to their dates or the artists who produced them.

Neither could we get at the Small Cloister (though photographs suggest it is very lovely). We did see the well-named Grand Cloister however, the largest I have ever seen - it measures about 125 by 100 metres. The pavilions around the edge house the monks' cells.

Conditions: hot and sunny.

Rating: five stars for the magnificent Certosa, four for the city.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Milan: Porta Nuova

We have just arrived in Milan and rather than visit the nearby Duomo (the plaza in front of it is jam-packed - it is a Saturday, when presumably the number of tourists is at a peak), we have headed out to Milan's newest attraction, the redevelopment of the Porta Nuova district. We leave the metro at Garibaldi and above is the view that confronts us: two sky scrapers with a plaza between them.

We head towards them from the station and are amused to be confronted by an old style tram: it seems out of place in this temple of modernism.

Before entering the plaza we continue along Corso Como to reach the Porta Nuova itself: a rather splendid arch flanked by a pair of pavilions. (I couldn't get them both in without cluttering the foreground with cars and people.) It dates from 1810 the old city walls when it seems that old city gates were torn down and new gates erected in a ring much further out.

From here, we headed back along Como and up a walkway leading to the plaza, with an intriguing building suggestive of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in the background.

The plaza contains a mixture of shops and bars. What struck us most was that it seemed that most of the people there were Italians rather than tourists like us.

We now enjoyed a close up view of the Unicredit Tower. At 231m (758 ft) it is the tallest building in Italy (for comparison, the Shard in London is 306m high). The architect was César Pelli.

And then walked past this interesting low-rise structure, made of - or at least clad in - wood. It seemed to be empty and we wondered what its purpose would be.

At this point we spotted a sign on the boarding in front of the next area to be developed. It allowed us to discover that we were part of the way along a walking route through the development. This was great as it encouraged us to complete the route.

It seems that Porta Nuova has won an award for redevelopment schemes - and was being compared to the High Line in New York and the Las Ramblas in Barcelona. To be honest, we found this a bit far-fetched. The wonderful High Line, which we walked in 2015, presents itself as a linear park, while the original Rambla goes back a long time in history, while the early 19th century extension northwards from Plaza de Catalunya dates from the early 20th century and was part of a massive development called the Eixample, the extension.

Continuing along the route we passed on the left the pair of green buildings spotted earlier. They are very well named as the Bosco Verticale, or vertical forest. The towers, which are residential, were designed by Boeri Studio and opened in 2014. A remarkable sight.

We followed the walkway to its end. This is the view looking back with corporate towers on the right and houses for the rich on the left.

We retraced our steps and I took one final picture of a rectangular building with a sort exo-skeleton in wood and the Unicredit tower behind it.

Conditions: warm sunshine.

Distance: a couple of miles.

Rating: four and half stars. It is a very impressive development, despite some of my critical comments, and makes an interesting destination for tourists and locals alike. It perhaps just a bit over-hyped.