I wrote this post several years ago but the memory is as vivid now as then. A must see under the Duomo if you are in Milano.
Even though we have 40 days to prepare, celebrating Easter seems to be more about bunnies and brunch then it does about a life changing transformation. For if we follow the teachings of faith we known that “if we die with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Romans 6:8). This was never felt more deeply than by the Early Christians. On all accounts their devotion and unwavering belief caused them to commit and transform their lives in a ways that seem impossible. Accepting a contra-lifestyle based on the teachings of an outlawed and unpopular doctrine of redemption often took them to the brink and it began with the sacramental waters of an Easter baptism.
Images of these early Christian baptisms took on a vivid reality when I first visited the Milan Duomo, a massive Gothic spired cathedral rising out of the concrete earth of Milan Centro like it had materialized from thin air. Described as one of the greatest churches in the world (second only to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome), the building of the Duomo took more than 500 years to complete. There are 5 naves divided by 40 pillars with 3,400 statues (1800 alone on the terraced roof). It is a fairyland of pinnacles, spires and flying buttresses with a 4 meter gilded statue of the Madonna perched on the top of the highest spire.
The art and architecture of the Milan Duomo is amazing but what is more remarkable is what is hidden and unexpected. The 135 spires of the Duomo overshadow a little known paleo-Christian archeological site hidden below the surface of the city with baptismal pools (circa 378) used by the early Christians of Milan. Through a staircase on the left of the main door of the cathedral you descend into the excavated remains of a brick wall around the perimeter of a Baptistery and a Roman road. Walking along a raised platform you see a large octagonal frontal pool where the catechumens were baptized. The pool is impressive because of its size (6.10 meters in diameter) with concealed pipes that provided a channel of “holy water” sprouting from several jets.
A description of the space talks about the pool being clad in Greek marble and the original flooring and walls being made of black and white marble in geometric designs. It must have been an awe-inspiring event to be led to this place on the eve of Easter and to be immersed in the water to receive that sacrament that cleanses you of your sins and binds you to all of Christendom. As many times as I’ve seen the Milan Duomo (at last count this would be 18), the one particular thing that stands out most in my mind is being in that underground space where lives were transformed forever.
If you need a visual image to keep you focused on your Lenten journey you might consider the Italian Renaissance artist Pinturicchio’s Allegory of the Hill of Wisdom (1504). The Greek philosophers Socrates and Crates are caught in a rather tricky balancing act on the top of a steep hill with the Roman goddess Fortuna. A desperate band of travelers are shown trudging upward on a difficult path, supposedly a path we humans have to undertake if we want to reach wisdom.
To view Pinturicchio’s Allegoria del Colle della Sapienza you have to look downward rather than upward as it is part of the floor intarsia in the Cathedral of Siena. A masterpiece underfoot, Giorgio Vasari called the floor of Siena’s Duomo “the most beautiful, big and magnificent that has ever been done”. Normally covered by carpets to protect it, the floor is uncovered for a few months each year when stories from antiquity, biblical scenes and allegories come to life through intricate patterns and designs created in marble as vivid and alive as any Renaissance sculpture.
Siena is one of my favorite cities in Italy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must see when traveling in Tuscany. Siena is located in the Val d’Orcia, a breathtakingly beautiful part of Italy that makes the journey all the more memorable. A perfect image in my mind’s eye to reflect on life’s journey. Pinturicchio’s travelers to the Hill of Wisdom find their fortunes cast from the top as if to say Fortune is fickle and Wisdom lies in knowing so.
I’ve traveled to Milan for the last 15 years on both business and pleasure. My Italian cousins live in Milan (Porto Genova) and in Sesto San Giovanni, a suburb of Milan about 6 miles from the city. I usually stay in Sesto and take the tube to Milan Centro but this year I stayed in an apartment in Milan. Down the street from the Duomo, near Zara and Geoxx, around the corner from the Galleria and Pecks I was right in the heart of the city and if the number of people pulsating through Milan’s main arteries was any indication of the health of the city, I would say it was in danger of a cardiac arrest. The frenetic pace was a little overwhelming and decidedly different from my past times in the city.
When I first traveled to Milan in the late ‘90’s, the city was vibrant and bustling with an Italian urban vibe that reflected its role as the 5th largest city in the EU, the largest city in Italy and according to my Milanese cousins the most important. Milan is Italy’s center of commerce and industry, fashion and finance and even with a population well over one million, the refined Milanese seemed to be able to balance it all. The trams, traffic and people all moved with the determined synchronicity of a large metropolitan city and although the “juxtaposition of different centuries and styles” (ancient , Gothic Renaissance, Romanesque, neo-classic, art deco, post-modern) can be mezmerizing, Milan seemed to take it all in stride. In Milan you can attend performances at the venerable La Scala or at the modern Teatro degli Arcimboldi. You can shop couture on Via MonteNapoleone or the quaint shops of Leonardo’s boho Navigli canal district. You can visit a Visconti palace (Castello Sforzesco) and then take a stroll through Parco Sempione.
In Milan you can eat in some of the most exquisite restaurants in the world or grab a panzerotti , a pocket of soft billowy dough that tastes like a closed pizza, from a street side shop down from the Duomo. I had mine standing in line with my Italian cousins on a rainy October afternoon with about 30 other munching Milanese savoring every bite at Luini’s panificio on Via S.Radegonda 16. City dwellers and in-the-know tourists line-up by the dozens for Luini’s famous doughnut-like pizza. A gastronomic specialty from Puglia, panzerotti were brought to the Milan in 1949 by Giuseppina Luini seeking her fortune in the post-war Lombardian capital of the north.
Panzerotti may be a metaphor for my magnified view of Milan 2012. Over-stuffed yet filled with a flavorful mix of people and cultures with dreams of success and the will to make those dreams come true. Sounds to me like another larger-than-life city in the US where our Nonna traveled to in 1920 along with thousands of other immigrants. Except instead of a lady in the harbor with a torch to light the way, Milan has a great cathedral with Gothic spires that rise out of the concrete earth of the main piazza like it had materialized from thin air. In the fairyland of statues on the rooftops of the Duomo cathedral is another lady of meaninful beauty. Perched on the top of the highest cathedral spire (the guglia del tiburio “lantern spire”) is a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary or Madonnina, (little Madonna), Milan’s shinning beacon to the rest of the world that leads their way into another city with a big heart. I hope the Milanese can manage to keep it heart healthy.