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Dispelling Myths about Milan

Star Meyer, Ph.D.

A Blatant Plug for the City and the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum

Alright, I should confess up front: I live in Milan, and work for the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum. But that doesn't mean that I'm biased. Well, too biased, anyway. So, forewarned is forearmed, let's start by dispelling a few of the more absurd myths about Milan.

MYTH #1: Milan is perpetually gray and grizzly.

REALITY #1: You may never have seen such a profoundly, all-encompassing blue sky.

'Tis true, there often is a faint foschia (haze) in the air, after all, the city does lie in the midst of a fertile plain, but so is there foschia in lovely Los Angeles, where I have also lived, and I have never heard anyone complaining about the fog there (the smog, maybe, but never the fog). I'll bet that many complaining about the haze in Milan have come here for some of the city's internationally important shows, such as those for fashion and furniture design, and these, my friends, occur in the fall, winter and spring, when the weather, of course, can be chilly and unreliable the world over.

Aaaah, but when there is a brisk breeze to dry out the air, the Milanese sky becomes a deep, deep flawless cornflower blue, renowned as the "Lombard sky," and the light is intense, crisp and white, marvelous for photography and architecture fans.

MYTH #2: Milan is an ugly city best transited as quickly as possible.

REALITY #2: That's just what they tell you, to keep their precious little secret well hidden, and keep the city all to themselves.

Milan actually has a lot to offer, even to the first time traveler to Italy. For starters, although traces of the city's ancient Celtic foundation (yes, Celtic!) in the 6th century BC are to be found tucked away in its museums, delightful tidbits of Milan's ancient Roman, medieval and Renaissance periods are scattered throughout town. The boom periods - Baroque, Neoclassical, Milan's Art Nouveau called "Liberty" (calling all Art Nouveau wrought iron fans!), and the much underrated Novecento style architecture of the first half of the 20th century - left looming testimonies to subsequent waves of prosperity and importance, one almost gobbling up the other.

And now it's time to make another confession: personally, I'm not a big fan of Modernist art, architecture and design, but, if you are, Milan is still the place to be in Italy. After all, it's also the birthplace of Futurism and Italian industrial design, and an attentive eye will find important structures from the second half of the 20th century to analyze and enjoy. For starters, how about Niemeyer's Palazzo Mondadori, Terragni's Casa Rustici and Ponti's Pirelli Tower, not to mention Claes Oldenburg's Needle and Thread?

Here's an added plus: the city center embraced by the Spanish Walls is fairly small, so it is very walkable, while the public transportation (sigh, Italy-wide strikes aside) is easy and convenient to use, even from the far flung international airport, Malpensa, or the nearby European/Italian airport, Linate.

MYTH #3: Milan is a dull city good for nothing, but business.

REALITY #3: Milan is choc-a-bloc with important old art and architecture, and I'm not just talkin' about the late Gothic Duomo and Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper". It also hops with contemporary art, architecture and music. Go figure.

  • Like Gothic architecture? The Duomo, a fascinating and lace-y combination of northern and Italian church architecture, is the hub of town.
  • Like modern architecture and art? Recent attention has made Milan's modernist past more visible.
  • Like Raphael? We've got his "Marriage of the Virgin" AND his full-sized drawing ("cartoon") for the "School of Athens".
  • Like Mantegna? We've got his "Dead Christ".
  • Like Bramante? We've got his "Famous Men" frescoes and some architecture executed just prior to launching the High Renaissance in Rome.
  • How about Ghirlandaio, Pollaiuolo, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, Donatello and Canova, not to mention Sophonisba Anquissola and Fede Galizia? Got works by them, too.
  • You want to see Leonardo's "Last Supper"? Even if you're not an art, or museum, fan, heck, you might as well, you're already here, but make reservations well in advance, or hope your hotel concierge has got a buddy on the other end of the phone line. Just as for other delicate masterpieces in Italy, the environment and the number of visitors are controlled. And don't forget the very competent fresco opposite to it and even the church, itself. Looking at these before feasting on the "Last Supper" will help you understand - even at a glance - why Leonardo was so revolutionary.
  • Like art influenced by Leonardo? We've got works by important northern Italian post-Leonardo masters, such as Giampietrino and Zenale.
  • Like Caravaggio? How about Caravaggio and the influences, both pro and con, on his work?! Can do.
  • What about the Venetian masters, Tiepolo, Tintoretto and the Bellini brothers? Got them, too.

Bagatti Valsecchi Museum

Speaking of Giampietrino, Zenale, the Bellini brothers, a follower of Donatello and possible influences on Caravaggio, not to mention quintessential aristocratic Milanese taste, you can hit the jack pot in one place: the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum located in the heart of the fashionable historic downtown quarter, Montenapoleone.

The original 16th century mansion, located on the sliver of land between the course of the city's imperial Roman walls, now followed by Via Montenapoleone, and the erstwhile shimmering moat at the foot of the medieval walls, of which remain the Porta Nuova at the end of via Manzoni, was bought in 1745 by the Bagatti family. Enlarged and redecorated in the Neo-Renaissance style in the 19th century by the heirs, the Barons Fausto and Giuseppe Bagatti Valsecchi, who wanted to recreate for themselves the life of a Renaissance prince, the house was opened to the public as a museum in 1994. The original Renaissance art and furnishings collections are still displayed as the brothers wished them to be seen, so the museum is not only a chance to enjoy individual art pieces, but, more importantly, to savor entire and authentic ambiances in the rich traditional style.

Bagatti Valsecchi Museum in the heart of Milan. Photo  Star Meyer.

Bagatti Valsecchi Museum in the heart of Milan.

Not so fond of museums, or traditional art, but your Significant Other insists? This is still the place for you. Since it's a "home," the rooms are warm, familiar and full of interesting tidbits, while, if you study modern styles, you'll have a chance to understand the avant-garde better after analyzing collecting and design efforts much vaunted in the day as exemplary of good, albeit traditional, taste to be followed.

Running from a business meeting to a convention stand and back again? Don't think you have time to "stop and smell the Milanese roses?" Sure, because it's a museum, the Bagatti Valsecchi can be examined at length, but, because it's also an integrated and authentic environment, you'll be able to grasp the forces that shaped, and still shape, Milanese self-identity fairly quickly, while enjoying yourself to boot. Think, too, about mixing business with pleasure, and holding your meetings in the museum's sumptuous Grand Salon during off-hours. How's that for making a big impression on your clients?!

Don't speak Italian? Have no fear. Each of the museum's rooms is equipped with information cards in all principal European languages and Japanese, while guided tours for groups also may be reserved in the principal European languages.

Opening Times and Information

www.bagattivalsecchi.house.museum

Open Tuesday through Sunday from 1:00pm - 5:45pm, except holidays (often including stretches in August; check the website in advance).

A free quarterly e-mail newsletter available in English will keep you advised of the museum's activities for adults and children.


So, if no city in the world is like Florence, Rome, or Venice, why does Milan have to be like them to be considered "beautiful," or "worthy?" Milan is Milan, with all its bustle, sophistication, and discretion, almost hiding its fascinating gardens, art and architecture, as if a shy young girl, as the Milanese themselves like to think of it.

Come to Milan and to the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum, and be pleasantly surprised.

Resources

In addition to Slow Travel online resources and writers on Italy and Milan (such as Alice Twain, Leslie, Doru, and Gardkarlsen), you might find helpful the following resources.

www.bagattivalsecchi.house.museum: Bagatti Valsecchi Museum (in English and Italian).

www.enit.it: Italy's official travel information source (available in English). Please note that Italy is devolving many functions to local governments, so there is travel information on the regional, provincial and city websites, as well.

www.hellomilano.it: A website and short newspaper in English dedicated to the vast and myriad kinds of activities taking place in Milan, from the most up-to-date to traditional.

www.comune.milano.it: City of Milan (in Italian).

www.storiadimilano.it: History, culture, gastronomy, etc., of Milan (in Italian).

www.provincia.milano.it: Province of Milan (in Italian).

www.regione.lombardia.it: Region of Lombardy (in Italian, with some pages available in English).

www.lombardiacultura.it: Culture in Lombardy (in Italian and/or in English).

www.lombardiadautore.regione.lombardia.it: Culture in Lombardy (in Italian and/or in English).

www.fieramilano.com: The official Milanese Convention Center website. Try to plan your travel for when there are NOT conventions, for better access to hotels and taxis (available in English).

A few free online website translation sources (beware, the translations are automatic, hence approximate, but better than nothing):
world.altavista.com
www.humanitas-international.org/newstran/more-trans.htm
www.google.com/language_tools?hl=en
www.worldlingo.com/en/websites/url_translator.html


Star Meyer got her Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance Art History at the University of Southern California in 1998. She has been living in Italy since 1994 and in Milan since 1996. She has been collaborating at the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum since 2000, and is the author of various articles, both scholarly and general public-oriented. And - can you tell? - she loves Milan and the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum.

© Star Meyer, 2006, photo by Star Meyer

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