The other day I went to the lighting of the Christmas tree in Piazza del Duomo in Milan. Milan is a special place to be at Christmas, and I might be biased as I love Milan at any time of the year, apart from summer maybe when it can get far too hot. But when you’re walking along the 5 Vie near Sant’Ambrogio and still marvelling at how beautiful it all is, it’s those added touches of light that make it all the more magical.
It was one of those things we’d always wanted to do but never actually got round to doing, and then it just so happened that I was working in Milan anyway so we arranged to meet there later. There was nothing so unusual about the whole affair. We were in a square that lies at the heart of a city for the official lighting of the Christmas tree with a stage, music and various public figures. But it’s the fact that it was Milan, the city that I’ve not only grown to love but grown into loving.
Milan sometimes has this reputation for not being quite as pretty as the other major Italian cities as if pretty were a justification for being. Rome is, amongst many things, a city of drama. You only have to think of how the Trevi fountain just appears round the corner almost out of nowhere or how you walk round a similar corner and there it is, the Pantheon, one of the best preserved monuments in Rome and when I say it is breathtakingly beautiful, it’s because that is precisely what it is. And Venice or Florence spell romance, romance that’s helped by the presence of water. It’s those Venetian canals and the River Arno that runs through Florence. Whereas Milan, well, Milan’s a bit grey. Isn’t it?
Yet walk along the Navigli and you soon realise that it’s not just about the bars and restaurants that have mushroomed over the past years. It still has signs of an older past, of original botteghe – shops, but more the artisan or family-owned type that have been there for generations – although admittedly you have to look that bit harder. Some are still here such as Ottico Degani and the signora there will tell you how her family used to live further up near the Darsena but their house was bombed during the war. So they moved along the Naviglio Grande, opened an optician’s in the room that opened up onto the canal and there they still are today. Walk through the Tortona design district and you’re at the centre of Milanese design. And we are in Milan so fashion’s a life force that pumps through the city, evident just as much in the Armani Silos Museum as in the Made in Italy workshops producing artisan goods. Walk along Corso Magenta, one of the heartlands of the Milano perbene, literally respectable Milan. It’s a world that’s based on tradition, sending the children to certain schools, shopping in certain stores and holidaying in certain places. Then walk along Corso di Porta Ticinese with its anti-conformist roots and take care to see the writings on the wall of the buildings as you pass by, bits of poetry, political thoughts. This is a Milan where the students are still protesting, demanding their right to a better future in a world that’s increasingly taking away. And where education and hard work may get you work experience in McDonald’s.
Look up at Milan’s skyline and you’ll see just how the city is changing. The Porta Nuova re-generation project changed the whole of the face of the area around Garibaldi train station, and further south the new City Life complex has added three more skyscrapers. Is this Milan too? Go stand in Piazza del Duomo and you see how the centuries come together. There’s the Duomo itself, Medieval Gothic masterpiece. There’s the 19th century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II that provided the model for other similar glass-domed shopping malls, and 19th century porticoes that speak of the latter half of the 19th century when the famous department store, Rinascente, was still the Magazzini Bocconi, advertising all the novità or what was new, and Italy had just become a unified country. Then there’s the Palazzo Reale slightly to one side, originating in Medieval times as Palazzo del Broletto Vecchio to hold democratic assemblies. Nowadays it’s the home of world-class exhibitions, currently Caravaggio, Toulouse Lautrec, and photographers Paolo Roversi and James Nachtwey. It’s next to the Museo del Novecento, housed in the Palazzo dell’Arengario, a Fascist-era building of two symmetrical buildings, and now home to Milan’s collection of 20th century art.
Like any city, Milan has its stories. It has its history and that which makes it who it is. It’s a city to take your time in, as cities generally are. Walk along its streets, pause to look behind the gates at the courtyards of the palazzos, take time to hunt out the Milan that still lies along the streets of Via Mercato and Corso Garibaldi.
It’s a romantic vision, but it can be incredibly seductive.
If you’re in Milan this weekend, you might want to read an article I wrote here about what you can see and do over the holiday weekend.