March 2017
More photos here


Tuesday 7th March
My first visit to Milan, and it's an Art Pursuits guided trip exploring Medieval Milan with Sally Dormer from the V&A. The big draw for me in Milan would ordinarily be the Brera, but it's not on the itinerary as it doesn't have much that's medieval. There is a free afternoon, though, so I'm hoping to get there, mostly to have a look at the many Venetian paintings taken from closed churches, and such. There's also a visit to Leonardo's Last Supper scheduled, although it's not medieval, because it was thought that we'd mutiny if it wasn’t included. But first I have to tube it to the Hilton Garden Inn this evening and check in and sleep.

Wednesday 8th March
On my two previous stays I've got the bus from the hotel which serves the terminals and local hotels, but this time I caught the tube. Why haven't I done this in the past? Beats me. The difference between paying a fiver for the bus and nothing for the tube, because of the 60+ Oyster card I've just acquired, was a definite prompt, but it would always have been cheaper. I met up with Sally and John (the tour manager) at Terminal 5, no trouble. Self check-in and even self bag-drop were achieved with little difficulty. Security was negotiated, coffee and an almond croissant was consumed, and another V&A course veteran was bumped into, so there were only some flight delays to minorly spoil things. We were coached from Linate to our hotel, the Rosa Grand, and then had time to settle in and wander out to find some lunch. A mozzarella, tomato, basil and mayonnaise panino in my case, followed by a coconut and lemon gelato, my first of the year.

Our first visit was to the Duomo, firstly to admire the underground remains of the old baptistery, then the odd gothic-but-not interior, and finally the special cast bronze Trivulzio Candelabrum in the north transept, which is an area used for private prayer usually, but we had special permission for a visit after 6.00. The dragon-based and vegetation-infested lower part is 12th century and attributed to Nicolas of Verdun, who was also responsible for the Shrine of the Magi in Cologne Cathedral, where I was before Christmas.

Then back to our hotel, cunningly close by, for a rest before dinner. Which was in Lo Sfizio, the hotel restaurant, run by Eataly, and minimal and tasty. A thick dark potato soup with goat's cheese was followed by a small pile of roasted vegetables with a smear of sauce and crunchy salad shavings. Good red wine and tiramisu too.

Thursday 9th March
The hotel's breakfast rooms were a confusing warren of spaces, odd corridors and many mirrors. Good comestibles, though, including real orange juice, fresh pineapple, small wholemeal croissants, and slices of amaretto (biscuit) cake, a new favourite. The first visit this morning was out to San Lorenzo Maggiore, with its impressive screen of columns out front. The church is centrally-planned and lofty, but we were for the 4th century mosaics in the Chapel of Sant'Aquilino (see right). A short coffee break (actually a marron glace and almond milk gelato sitting in front of the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana for me) and them into San Satiro for the fragmentary Carolingian wall paintings and a terracotta polychrome Pieta. But even more impressive was the trompe l'oeil apse, the work of Bramante so not on our syllabus.

After lunch a coach took us to Leonardo's Last Supper fresco in the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie. We only got 15 minutes, but it was just about long enough to feel a bit of magic. It looked a lot less faded than I was expecting. The guide dismisses the theory that the figure of John the Evangelist is actually Mary Magdalene, without mentioning Dan Brown and the damn Da Vinci Code - the source of the stupidity - but does contribute her own by saying the figure might also by seen as the Virgin. Then on to the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio for its early mosaic work in the chapel of San Vittore, the gold and silver altar surround, and its massive, and massively confusing, ambo. Then rather a long walk back to the hotel, with coffee and cake half way.

In the evening Sally took a bunch of us to the Osteria dei Poeti, a neighbourhood restaurant that had been her and her husband's regular when they'd lived in Milan. The warmth of her welcome back from the owners, Silvana and Riccardo, was matched by some imaginative and tasty dishes. I had good bean and pasta soup followed by an artichoke, potato and cheese bake thing, with a very special pear and chocolate tart to finish. Down a buzzy street on the way back there were at the least four fortune tellers set up behind tables on the pavement. Something I'd never seen even one of before.

Friday 10th March
This morning we coached it to Sant'Eustorgio, and this is where your correspondent missed his footing getting off the coach and took a tumble. Since tripping over in both Venice and Florence a few years back I've been as sure-footed as a young gazelle. This time it may have been due to the changed curvature of my varifocal sunglasses. Odd that I only ever fall over in Italy too, suggesting a physical manifestation of Stendhal Syndrome. Anyway, we had come to see the huge tomb which had supposedly housed and transported the Magi's relics here before they were removed by Frederick Barbarossa and taken to Cologne, ending up in a shrine made by Nicholas of Verdun, who I mentioned on Wednesday. Also here is the Portinari Chapel where there is the impressive tomb of St Peter Martyr by Giovanni di Balduccio, a pupil of Giovanni Pisano and frescoes depicting episodes from the saint's life by Vincenzo Foppa. He is the saint usually represented with a chopper in his head, put there by a murdering heretic, this Peter being famous for their persecution. Then into the Museo Diocesano next door to see a silver reliquary box from the church of San Nazaro in Brolo, the sole remaining two carved door panels from Sant'Ambrogio and a stucco roundel of Saint Ambrose. Having had my fill of the medieval I stayed behind to look at the paintings upstairs, which were not all religious, oddly enough, but included some 18th-century views of Rome and ruins by the likes of Panini and some impressive drawings from many eras, as well as a variety of more usual religious stuff, including a Tintoretto Woman Taken in Adultery.

My solo stroll back was in warm sunshine and in the Duomo Piazza a place called 12oz provided a roasted vegetable and hummus bagel and a forest fruits and coconut smoothie, then a pistachio muffin and a cup of redbush tea favoured with orange, vanilla and honey to take back to the hotel. Perfetto. After lunch we visited the Duomo museum to see some ivory items - Gospel book covers and an 8th-century sitular (holy water bucket) - and a very early metal Crucifix. In the attached church of San Gottardo in Corte, only recently re-opened as part of the museum itinerary, we admired the wall tomb of Azzone Visconti, who was responsible for the building of the church and commissioning a large Crucifixion fresco, a sizeable patch of which was recently found as is now on the back wall of the church. It's decidedly post-Giotto, not by the man himself, as even the museum's captioning admits, but not without charm.

Walking back through the collection Sally and I got into informative discussion with a refreshingly unusually knowledgeable and communicative attendant, much like happened to me in the Diocesan museum in Venice in January. Quite an early finish meant we had some for pre-dinner shopping and/or resting. An even more select bunch were taken by Sally and John to the Cantina Della Vetra tonight. And I finally got to have Milanese risotto, which is characterised by saffron and hence yellowness. The mascarpone gelato with pears in a spicy red wine sauce was more exciting.

Saturday 11th March
A coach took us to Monza this morning, to the Duomo there to see the frescos of the life of Queen Theodolinda. I'd been here to see them on another art trip last year, and was more than excited to be seeing them again. The museum at the Duomo has some appealing stuff too. I headed off solo to revisit the Annunciation fresco fragments that I liked last year. I was going to chance ignoring the No Photo rule as I had the gallery to myself, but a nearby cctv camera had a noisy motor which whirred whenever I moved and so made it obvious I was being tracked.

At Monza, in April 1929, I was permitted a close scrutiny of the famous Iron Crown of Lombardy and saw also many personal relics (hair combs etc) of Queen Theodolinda and her contemporaries. I can still not understand the mentality which exhibits in the same room as these genuine articles "the handbags which the Twelve Apostles carried about Galilee".
from Ceremonial Curiosities and Queer Sights in Foreign Churches by Edward Forse

For lunch I was happy to have been able to negotiate the making of two fresh and caldo mozzarella and tomato rolls in a neighbourhood bakers, for €4 with water. The gelato copetto to follow combined mandarin/almond with coconut flavours. The coach returned us to the hotel and a free afternoon. A fair few of us decided to do the Brera, me to find the paintings taken from Venetian churches, mostly, but also some new names, some impressive Crivellis and how truly huge the famous Bellini Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria is.

Our final group meal was at the Al Mercante and was sorely disappointing after the run of impressive and imaginative vegetarian options thus far. I was initially offered the tedious old standby of roasted vegetables and told that was the only veggie main course option, but John negotiated some spaghetti in a tomato sauce - not wildly original, but better. And the desert was a just few strawberries, sliced and topped with nothing. Oh well, not all meals can be special, and most have been on this trip.

Sunday 12th March
After checking out and leaving our cases at the hotel we made for the Archaeological Museum for our final visit. Two ancient items, a silver plate (the Parabiago Patera) and a Roman glass goblet of spectacularly complex construction, were analysed and admired, as were the recently exposed damaged frescoes of saints in niches and a Crucifix in a defensive tower on the old walls (see above right). Then we broke for lunch and I discovered the frescoes in the church of San Maurizio next door (see right), to which the overwhelming reaction was 'wow!' They are mostly the work of Bernardino Luini, but a fair few others too, including his sons. The church is divided into two by a tall screen, with the choir behind reserved for the nuns, so there are basically two huge spaces full of painting. And cunningly some of the saints facing the main body have their mirror images behind. This screen is where most of the work of Bernardino himself is to be found.

Walking back to the hotel I heard my name called from outside a restaurant and so got to join Sally and two of our number for a light spaghetti lunch. And in no time we were coached to Linate airport, negotiating the confusing route to departures, checking in, eating a last gelato - a nocciola and mango from Venchi - and sitting and waiting. Our flight was even early, so I was soon met by Jane, on the tube and home to our remaining cat, who seemed to have missed me.


Catalogue corner

The Church of San Maurizio
with a Short Guide to the
Milan Archaeological Museum
Meravigli 2016
A small and profusely illustrated guide to the church, with a dozen pages at the end with brief descriptions of some of the highlights of the archaeological museum housed in the ex-convent next door. But mostly this deals with the frescoes in the church, by Bernardino Luini and others, in much detail, dealing with the saints portrayed, the imagery and the commissioning family, who are portrayed, sometimes as saints themselves. The text is very readable, the scholarship is solid, with some fruitful digressions, even if the translation is a bit rocky at times.


Bernardino Luini e i suoi figli
Officina Libraria 2014
This is a small floppy catalogue to an exhibition of the same name at the Palazzo Reale in Milan in 2014. It covers, with text in Italian and English, the painter's work and family, comprehensively and chronologically, and so not cataloguically. There's not been much written in English about this artist so this booklet, available from the San Maurizio Church and Archaeological Museum's shop, is essential for us English-speaking admirers of his work.

Paola Strada
The Brera Gallery
Skira 2010
This is the guide currently (March 2017) on sale in the gallery. Each room gets introduced with the history of its arrangement and the works in it are briefly mentioned. Then a fraction of them are illustrated with captions of a few sentences. The texts are solidly just OK, with some verbose semi-meaningless passages and the odd translation error to provide entertainment.

Louisa Arrigoni, Emanuela Daffra and Pietro C. Marani
The Brera Gallery
The Official Guide
Touring Club Italiano 1998
This one was bought online before I visited. It's a bit bigger (in all directions) and much, much better. It's again divided up by room, but has a handy map for each room showing its position and it illustrates and discusses every painting. Also the illustrations tend to be larger and the texts are much better written, informed and translated.


Trip reading

Marjorie Bowen
The Viper of Milan

I searched for novels set in Milan before I went, but found nothing, mixed in with books by Milan Kundera. I found this after I'd returned from Milan and was searching for art books. It's one of those novels that was famous in its day but is now next to forgotten. It's set in the 14th century and centres on the vicious conflict between Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, and the Duke of Verona, Mastino della Scala. Other lives, some connected to the main protagonists and some merely local, are delved into too, it seems. I've not read it yet, but Graham Greene was a fan. He wrote the introduction, being an admirer of the author's way with the ambiguities of human nature.

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