Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Nel tardo '400, il duca Galeazzo Maria Sforza, papà della favolosa Caterina Sforza e appassionato di musica, radunò a Milano uno straordinario gruppo di musicisti e cantori, strappandoli, con la promessa di lauti guadagni, alle migliori corti italiane ed europee. Per il castello sforzesco, roccaforte e regia, fece progettare dall'architetto toscano Benedetto Ferrini la Cappella Ducale con affreschi eseguiti nel 1473 da un gruppo di artisti tra cui Bonifacio Bembo, Jacopino Vismara e Stefano de' Fedeli. Venne realizzato un ambiente con le pareti dorate, mentre sulla volta è una più complessa decorazione, con la Resurrezione e l'Ascensione di Cristo. Galeazzo ebbe poco tempo per godersela. Meno di tre anni dopo, il giorno di santo Stefano, sulla soglia della chiesa di santo Stefano, venne pugnalato a morte da un gruppo di nobili. Aveva solo trentadue anni.

Durante varie occupazioni straniere, la raffinata cappella viene adibita a stalla, subisce gravi danni alle pareti e naturalmente anche agli affreschi, è stata ripristinata e restaurata agli inizi del Novecento. Ci sono altre opere in questa stanza, ma la protagonista assoluta è la Madonna del Coazzone.

Non è certo l'unica donna 'di spicco' nella galleria. Il busto detto la Mora, una signora riccioluta vestita in una sontuosa camicia, è la fiera occupatrice della stanza dove è situata la Rondanini Pietà, è più giovane e più bella.

Ci sono le donne del gonfalone. Inoltre, questo sarcofago trecentesco sfoggia l'immagine di quattro donne splendide, simboli della giustizia, la scienza, il potere e la religione. Le donne contano.
Conta la Maddonna del Coazzone. Opera di Pietro Antonio Solari (responsabile nel 1482 per i lavori alla Certosa di Parma), fu eseguita circa un decennio dopo il termine dei lavori nella Cappella Ducale. Solari, ticinese, in seguito fu chiamato alla corte dello zar Ivan II e muore a Mosca nella primavera del 1492.
Vista controluce, lei occupa la stanza ora come una regina, ora come una semplice supplicatrice. Prende la luce lombarda che entra dal cortile attraverso una finestra enorme e la rende serena, pura. La statua in marmo (destinata in origine per la Fabbrica del Duomo) rappresenta la Vergine come una dama quattrocentesca assorta in preghiera. Tipico del periodo l'acconciatura dei capelli, annodati nella lunga treccia, detta "coazzone" in dialetto lombardo. Nella sua stanza azzura, una delle ultime che si incontra durante la visita, la statua ci parla del passaggio del tempo e le sofferenze subite, ma con una dolcissima rassegnazione che solo le pietre possono esprimere. Le manca un braccio, ma le sue mani unite sono illese, come la fiducia in una preghiera esaudita.

Ho voluto disegnarla, a modo mio, nella cappella silenziosa, in una giornata di caldo intenso, ho voluto renderla sulla carta, ma non ho saputo catturare la gioventù del volto, la misteriosa tranquillità della sua casa, la leggerezza del suo sguardo contro il peso di quella treccia. Ma cia siamo tenute compagnia per un po' e per questo non la posso dimenticare...

Friday, July 10, 2009


Venice doesn't have the monopoly on canals in Italy, you know.
This is the Naviglio Grande, by the darsena or port of Milan in the southwest corner of the city. I took a trip on the water on this nice boat, piloted by a stylish lady all in white, the other weekend.
The industrial heritage of the Navigli is protected nowadays, in classic Italian style, with lots of attention to artistic detail and but slightly confused in its more practical elements. This was the nice arty courtyard where the canal protection people have their offices and sell original watercolours too.
Milan is Venice backwards. Man-made waterways through the ocean of fertile fields and factories of Lombardy, rather than man-made islands in a lagoon: but the point is the same, to make money.
Unlike Paris or London, or even Rome and Turin, Milan's rivers are nothing to write home about; the Olona, the Lambro (which also runs through Monza) pretty but shallow, and the Seveso, which runs into Milan from the North, famous for its black water - the colour used to be due to the minerals leeching in from the soil, now it's just highly polluted - and which has been for the most part put underground, only to come to the surface every time there's a heavy downpour, as happened last month, causing chaos for commuters to the Northern hinterland.
The idea to build canals to link this land-rich but land-locked city with the sea is probably as old as boats. Two big rivers, the Adda and the Ticino, pass within a few dozen miles of the city on each side, both coming out of one of Italy's big lakes and heading South for the mighty Po which underlines Milan in a West-East direction, off to throw itself into the Adriatic. In 1177 work began in earnest on the first canal, the Naviglio Grande, from the Ticino river: the first twenty miles taking some fifty years to complete. By 1272 it was finished, navigable from Lago Maggiore (and therefore Switzerland and all points Northern European) down the Ticino all the way to Porta Ticinese on the city's western edge. Other canals followed, in particular the 15th century Martesana, from the opposite side of the city out towards the Adda, and the Pavese, going South to Pavia, also on the river Po. This modern underpass, now a hang-out for the local lads, recalls the heyday of towpaths on the Naviglio Grande.
The canals provided pretty much everything: drinking, washing, working water, as well as a handy open sewer. Artisans set up shop here next to the eating places, wharves and warehouses. Barges, called cobbi, like the one above, brought in and took away raw materials - salt, sand, cloth and cheese, milk and cream too, of course: cream in the Lombard dialect is mascherpa; a lot of cream, then, is mascarpone... also shipped in on the five feet of canal water, these days as clear as a bell, was grain, wine, animals and people. The canals were used to get the marble in to the area of the duomo in Milan, and ship it even further south via the great rivers; the stones would be marked Ad Usum Fabricae Opera - for building purposes, in this case church building and therefore exempt from paying custom taxes. Back then, any goods passing through the city had to pay duty, so the idea of the wealthy church getting in free must have seemed a bit cheeky: today to scrounge something, especially a meal, is said to be 'a ufo' - no flying saucers involved.
Until the introduction of trams in the 1800s, the canals also provided public transport around the city. This is S Cristoforo, the 'first house by the waterside' of the Naviglio Grande: when the bargees got here they knew they were almost arrived. The church is very ancient, in fact it's two medieval churches linked by a Renaissance apse, long before the Naviglio, this was a sort of spaghetti junction on the Lambro river for commercial rafts and pilgrims alike, hence the name of the church.
This is a proudly working class area. The industrial heritage is perhaps best illustrated by this poster, also at the Darsena. But celebrating history doesn't seem to translate into civic pride: under the poster celebrating the last hurrah of the canal system as a source of income for the area in the 1960's, there are gang symbols, weeds and trash that seem to contradict the idea of a town determined to treasure the memory of its serious working past. Perhaps not though. Money spent on weedkiller might simply not be available. Of course, in centuries past this is an area that would have been home to a big slice of the city's working poor. There are still plenty of poor people in Milan, as we were reminded by the sight of this homeless person's little nest under a bridge very close to the Darsena (that's from the arabic for port, the point where the cobbi coming from Pavia and from the Ticino river come together).
The boat tour takes you up and down considerable sections two of the navigli, both of historis importance, and turning around with acres of water ahead gave us all the sense we'd like to keep going, to see more of the countryside beyond the edge of the city. Well, maybe not the first turning point, which was here, at the end of the line for the boat trip down the Naviglio Grande, here begin the skyscrapers, and the country opened out into what looked like some prosaic suburbia of garages and offices.
Instead, the Pavese has a different atmosphere, smarter bridges span it, and the buildings along its banks are more gentrified. It seemed to me the same bit of canal and boat that you can see on this video by Le Vibrazioni.
The cobbi parked here are bars and restaurants and balere and flower boxes strew geraniums onto the water. The point of no progress is different too: rather than turning round in open water, as it seemed on the Naviglio Grande, here the way is barred by a lock, this lock had a torre di controllo and, wonder of wonders, a (diligent!) man in it, apparently lock keeper is still a job in Milan.
He opened the gates invitingly, and I think we all hoped the pilot would decide to take us down to Pavia, just for kicks, a 45 minute ride each way. Instead she effected a neat 7 point turn. We got a long explanation of how the lock was an invention of Leonardo da Vinci and some lute music, so it wasn't all bad.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Castello sforzesco

E in tra dò fil de piant che ghe fa ombria,
El gh'è on sentirolin
Solitari, patetegh, deliziôs
Che 'l se perd a zicch zacch dent per i praa,
E ch'el par giusta faa
Per i malinconij d'on penserôs.

Carlo Porta, L'apparizion de Tass
I castelli non sono così. Sono scomodi e un pochino bruttini. Anzi molto brutti, un'ammasso di pesante muraglia forata da porte ripensate, spesso sproporzionate, e la disarmonia delle cicatrici di finestre murate. Gli ingredienti imposti dalle forze occupatrici d'un impero straniero.
Ma questo è un castello rifatto da capo.
Girare da sola non mi piace, ecco l'ho detto. Tutti mi dicono che è normale stare soli, mi raccontano come sono stati a vedere la mostra delle rose da soli, oppure al cinema, o a vedere uno spettacolo su Broadway sola soletta, o andati a fare una gita in barca a velo con altre anime solitarie. L'è normal, dicono, ma per me non è così e non credo mai mi abituerà. Non voglio. Poi in una giornata troppo calda, troppo poca aria, con una parte di me che non sta mai tranquilla al pensiero di diver tornare a casa, assurdo lo so, preoccuparsi di un trenino regionale dopo tutta la strada che ho fatto, in questi giorni. E mi gira la testa.
Milano città bollente ma non per questo tranquillo anzi brulica. Corrono, senza sudare, la faccia seria, cell in mano, all'orecchio. Borse acconciature gonne cagnolini occhiali da sole. Persone che non guardano in faccia a nessuno. E poi coppiette. E famiglie, turisti stranieri e no, nonni e nipoti. Mi sento come se avessi un cartello sopra la testa, sola. Vai bene finché ti muovi, da sola, sembra che hai con chi incontrarti. Ma nel momento che ti siedi su una panchina, tutto cambia.
Questa è via Dante. In fondo si vede il castello. Non si vede il caldo. Ma c'era.

Non so perché mi gira la testa. Io penso che è a causa del mangiare poco e male. Non male, esattamente, ma poco sicuro.

Mattoni? Un castello brownstone dunque? O come i redbrick university, qualcosa meno di prima classe. Non è castel S Angelo, ecco. Non è Windsor. Non è Caernarvon, o Angers. Se devo darlo un fratello, sarebbe forse Cardiff. Non un complimento, il paragone con Cardiff... Milano città di MacDonald's dalla stazione fino al castello ho contato 8, escluso quello nella Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele, dove il solito logo giallorosso si placa in oro e nero, ma le polpette agli ingredienti misteriosi sono sempre quelle. Io alla fine mi sono fermata a prendere qualcosa, per vedere se gli ingredienti misteriosi potevano fermare il giramento.

MacDonald's e il mangiare fast food non è certo un fenomeno nuovo in Italia, eppure ordinare un pasto sembrava un'impresa difficoltosa per tutti i clienti davanti a me, ho fatto fila per un'eternità (quasi 6 minuti) prima che tocasse a me. Poco, quello che ho ordinato, perché è roba scadente, ma quanto bastava per fermare lo stomaco, o la pressione del sangue, o quel che ho che non va. Fuori al sole c'erano dei tavoli rotondi in legno con delle panchine in cimento. L'unico libero era a pieno sole, mi sono seduta perché non ce la facevo più. Accanto a me un uomo con la barba grigia stava finendo il pasto. Sembrava un senzatetto, portava i pantaloni sporchi e logori, e una camicia sfatta. Appena allontanatosi il suo posto è stato preso da una signora elegantissima con due bambine molto carine, si sono accomodate proprio dov'era il signore pochi secondi prima. Sfoggiavano gonna e camicetta firmati Amelia... Il Big Mac dunque, unisce tutto il mondo sotto l'insegna del mangiare in fretta.
Perché il tram, a Milano? Ce ne sono a Roma, tre quattro linee, come per non dimenticare gli anni '50... ma i milanesi sono davvero così attaccati all'epoca di Marcovaldo? Dovrò leggere con più attenzione quando torno a casa.
Nel 1447, i milanesi si sono autodichiarati repubblica, e hanno demolito il castello trecentesco... quindi neanche quello originale davvero antico. Qui si respira la Francia, qualcuno mi disse una volta. Penso ai castelli gallesi, come Harlech, voluti dal re inglese, ma costruito da esperti francesi. La grande repubblica milanese, privo di simboli di dominio crudele quale un castello minaccioso al cuore della città, durò ben tre anni. Il tempo, forse di radere al suolo il vecchio castello, portare via tutti i pezzi, magari come si faceva a Roma, rimodellare casa propria con delle bella pietra. O mattoni. Non lo so. Ma decidetevi, no. Buttare giù un castello e liberarsi da un signore, per riacquistare entrambi dopo meno di due anni, un soggiogarsi a forse che non hanno a cuore i tuoi interessi, uno sbaglio. Ma si sentivano forse spaesati, i milanesi, senza un despota alla guida del loro destino.
Gira rigira. Il caldo e le fontane, l'acqua e la pietra, e gli occhi di chi cammina senza sostare, e chi invece si ferma a guardare.
Ma mi sbagliavo, perché anche questo castello ha molte finestre rifatte più piccole. Il giro del castello fatto in un secondo momento rivela i segni particolari d'un astio tra quelli di dentro e quelli di fuori. Il castello è grande, ha dei cortili imponenti, dietro un parco immenso dove all'epoca degli Sforza c'erano cervi, lepre, quaglie, animali per il divertimento e per la tavola. Un deserto al centro della città dove tutto era lecito, bastava varcare la soglia, nascondersi in qualche angolo, e osservare la natura, mentre dall'altra parte del muro merlato i milanesi continuavano a soffrire o a nodà en la grassa, secondo la loro sorte.
Chi commanda protegge ma non sempre protegge i commdandati. Invece armonioso l'interno della corte ducale o Rocchetta, porticata e tranquilla. Qui c'è la stanza del tesoro, il forziere di Milano. Qui si trovano le stanze più belle del castello, qui c'è Leonardo e il Bramantino, e il letto di Isabella d'Este. Ma arrivata a l'una o poco dopo, le stanze erano chiuse per la pausa pranzo. Da vedere prima dunque gli altri musei: quello egiziano assolutamente scadente, quello della storia naturale, triste e piccolo.
Da visitare sicuramente la pinacoteca, e la mostra di mobili milanesi, da partire dal '300, mobili intarsiati, intagliati, arricchiti da gioielli, animali, vetri, vernici. Schermi per una chiesa, una specie di stanza a prova di paperazzi, fatta per una famiglia nobile per permetterla di assistere alla messa senza essere osservata. Comò e tiranti, sedie così pesantemente cesellati che sembravano sculture anziche luogo per collocare vestiti o oggetti personali.
Poi quello delle pietre antiche, interessante, come ho scritto, in particolare per la pietà Rondanini... ma un museo strano, disposto in sale decoratissime, che spesso stonavano con le opere stesse e con la maniera in cui sono esposte, certo non secondo lo stile rinascimentale.
Questa stanza, le pareti sono rifiniti in legno, ma un legno che sembra più quel rivestimento di pino tanto in voga negli anni '70 che un wainscotting elizabettiana come si trova nei castelli e le residenze nobili inglesi. Invece la soffitta rappresenta una foresta intera, i tronchi partono dagli archi, le foglie sono verdi e marroni e gialli e folti come una selva oscura...
Perché spendere tanto a pitturare la soffitta? I milanesi amano forse camminare con gli occhi rivolti al cielo, per non guardare in faccia a nessuno? Questo sono disposta a credere. Sono dei vigliacchi, i milanesi. Parlo in generale, ma anche con in mente degli specifici esemplari.
Che caldo, a Milano.
Un caldo umido, come una minestra fatta di avanzi rancidi riscaldata e riproposta in tavola troppe volte. Che voglia di ciappà el fresch nei saloni silenziosi del museo. Qui tra le pietre, passeggiano romani e lombardi, soldati e santi. Mi sono trovata davanti questa coppia dallo sguardo glaciale. Madre e figlio, tanto simili che anche se non fossero fusi in pietra, non si potrebbe confondere il legame di parentela.
Sempre pià pietra grigia, una passeggiata tra le rocce. Distruggono castelli, benedicono, ricordano i cari defunti, si vantano della propria bravura. Cantano la storia della Lombardia, una storia progressista, lavoratrice, onesta, e, dissi di no, mi, ricca.
Il cielo in un'altra stanza, il sole, invece. Non uno ma tantissimi baiocchi d'oro sullo sfondo arancione, forse modo di combattere il grigio freddo dell'inverno milanese. Strano, il museo, proprio per questo disaccordo tra le pallidi pietre, eterne e esterne, che fluiscono con una certa pesante armonia e similtudine da secolo in secolo, e le colorate interne, fragili e leggere, cosi diverse tra loro. Impossibile non notare i soffitti e chiedersi chi è stato in queste stanze prima di me, e se anche loro si sentivano soli, e se faceva maledettamente caldo, e se avevano voglia di capire Milano senza capire perché una città con la quale non ho nessuna lagame, che non mi piace, verso la quale non sento né lealtà né affetto, né curiosità intelletuale mi affascina tanto.
Un'altra stanza ospita il gonfalone di Milano, alto almeno cinque metri, questo gigantesco drappo squisitamente ricamato ai colori sgargianti veniva (e forse tutto ora viene) portata per le boulevards milanesi in occasione di festa e vittoria.. ma non quando piove, scommetto. .
Mi gira la testa.
Sono a Milano e fa troppo caldo e sono sola e mi gira la testa. Nella pinacotect ci sono delle panchine, mi siedo, ascolto il discorso di due signori accanto a me, parlano della storia dell'arte, del quadro davanti a noi, l'uomo che legge. ma non posso seguire, non voglio.
Penso a Isabella d'Este, il suo letto che mi aspetta nella Rochetta, insieme agli affreschi del Bramantino e i dipinti di Leonardo. E rinuncio. Il museo, in fondo, costa poco, solo 4 euro. Ci tornerò un altro giorno, in un'altra occasione quando non mi gira più la testa. Io tornerò. Con Milano non ho ancora finito, e non so perché ma l'idea di una storia rimasta aperta al futuro mi allegerisce, mi dà refrigerio. E prendo e parto, sempre maledettemente a piedi, per la sudata stazione, e poi per i sentieri del il mio amatissimo parco, e casa.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Il di che amor nei lacci mi prese,
Mi fe’ cangar di mia vita sembiante;
E quando Amor per forza l’arco istese
Non vale a’ colpi suoi cor di diamante:
Fugge la maraviglia a chi lo intese.
Poiché mi feci al suo signor costante
Poiché m’ebbe ferito col suo strale,
Ben par che si goda del mio male.

Gerusalemme Liberato Torquato Tasso

So just what kind of a slut was the Monaca di Monza? There that got your attention. She is Monza's 'other' claim to fame, besides the race track. Oh, Monza has other illustrious sons and daughters, The previously mentioned Theodelinda, queen of the Lombards, the terribly bourgeoise Victorian painter Mose Bianchi, (can you be Italian and yet Victorian? I think so) - he painted this picture - and Gianni Citterio, Monza's favourite home grown communist partisan (one of a very small band, I'm bound to suspect). Giacomo Puccini lived here for a year, his son was born in a small house on the road by the train station. A bit of a far cry from Torre del Lago. Then of course you've got the on-off presence of various Royal and Noble personages at the Villa Reale. Did I mention Umberto I, the only king of Italy to get himself assassinated, was shot here in Monza? Gaetano Bresci travelled all the way from New Jersey to Monza, to shoot the king, when he was waving at the crowd on his way home after a horse show. There is an ‘Expiatory Chapel' here in town, built by the people of Monza, a sort of public apology in granite. Bresci was punched to death by the guards in prison on the Island of Santo Stefano the following year.
The other worthies of Monza are all rather dusty academics, scientists, minor politicians. All of which makes the Monaca a figure of relief in the history of the city.
She was a noblewoman, Marianna de Leyva, of Spanish blood, and she wasn't born in Monza, but in Milan, in the year 1576 or thereabouts, around the time the poem above was first published. Her mother, Virginia, died when she was tiny, and she ended up in care of an aunt, pretty much forgotten by her father who went back to Spain (the dominating European power of the time)and remarried when Marianna was still a child. Left in Monza, like a lot of noblewomen of the period, she was destined for the monastery at about age 13, it's cheaper than paying a dowry, and in fact, the money promised to the convent in Monza never did get paid. Her father 'borrowed' most of the fortune she was to inherit from her mother, the rest was appropriated by her elder half-brotherand his family. Her life as a nun - she took her mother's name, and was known as Suor Virginia - was far from one of suffering and quiet resignation, though. Her father and his brother shared control on alternate years of the revenue from the levies charged on goods coming in and out oof the county of Monza. In the years when Virginia's father was the beneficiary, he put the 20something Virginia in charge basically of the whole town, making her the 'Signora' of Monza, the Lady, overseeing repairs, civic modernization, and the collection of income. Contemporary sources show she was pretty good at it, self assured and capable, and pretty popular at the convent where, naturally she was also pretty much in charge.

Next door to the convent lived the Osio family. The menfolk - the name Osio is very close to the word for laziness in Italian, ozio - all seem to have been wild. They were known or suspected in a vast number of incidents around the county of Monza, in which their rivals were killed, robbed and beaten up. The blackest sheep, however, was Giovanni Paolo. Virginia seems to have been wise to him at first, she caught him making eyes at one of the young girls entrusted to the convent, and had a stern letter written to him, and sent the girl home, as 'non-nun material'. But a couple of years after this, when Giovanni Paolo came back to Monza after being forced into hiding for various misdeeds, after a long series of letters passed over the wall on a string, addressed to Virginia. He was a looker, but not much of a writer of love letters, it seems. A certain Father Arrigone, family friend and interested in Virginia himself, wrote a lot of the letters, Pandar-style (oh, you, google it. I'll give you a heads-up, it's nothing to do with pandas.) In the end, Virginia fell for him. Osio, not the priest. Two children were born over the next couple of years; the first died, the second, a little girl, lived with her father. Virginia got to see her every now and again in the Osio house.
Nobody said anything for quite a long time. For several years, Virginia continued her work as a teacher in the small convent, and when called on, as the Lady of Monza. She seems to have had to spend a fair bit of time coping with the faction of nuns who were not her cronies, and relying heavily on the complicity of two or three who she could utterly rely on. One can imagine the atmosphere in the building - there were only about 20 nuns all told, plus young women being educated and/or groomed for the veil. Thanks to her her closest friends, Suor Virginia continued to see Giovanni Paolo in the convent and in his house, with the excuse in part that he was thinking about becoming a cappuccino... Not that she didn't try to get over him. She kept throwing away the keys - perhaps as many as 50 - he had made for the door that separated the two houses. She had the windows that overlooked the Osio house walled up, and for a time took to drinking a 'tea' made with his excrement. Not surprisingly Suor Virginia suffered some serious health problems.
So far, she seems a fairly sympathetic figure, a woman in her mid twenties falling for a handsome neighbour, having a child with him, even under the constraints of her life as a nun, which, on the whole, was one of the few ways an intelligent woman could have some sort of career. Popes and priests often had families they took only a little trouble to hide. To paint her as an evil person under those circumstances smacks of mysogeny.
But then the story changes.
About eight years after their relationship began, one of the young women in the nunnery, Caterina de Meda, unhappy at her treatment by suor Virginia and generally not looking forward to a life in the convent, decided to tell the open secret to a visiting bigwig. They tried to talk her out of it, but she was adamant, and, the night before her big tell-all moment, Giovanni Paolo killed her, and buried her body in the hen house. They cut off the head of the girl, presumably to slow down identification if the body should be found, and they made a hole in the convent wall so that is would seem she had run away. A few months went by, but stories continued to surface. The man who had,made all those keys started talking around town, and Giovanni Paolo killed him, got himself arrested for also trying to kill some other people connected with the story. It was a hushed-up affair, the arrest, you might not be able to get away with nurder in 1600, but if you come from a powerful faminly there was a good chance you'd pay a fairly light price. But the lovers made a serious mistake. Instead of staying quiet, they started a letter-writing campaign trying to get Giovanni Paolo out of jail. Soon more important clergy heard not only about the deaths but about the irregularities in the convent, and suddenly Virginia was in the middle of a scandal. The gruesone remains of Caterina di Meda showed up. Not long afterwards, Virginia's two closest friends in the nunnery began to get worried they are going to be sucked into the general disgrace, and asked Osio to help them escape. He helped them leave the convent, only to kill them that same night, with, it seems, Virginia's knowledge. Her concern for her honour, over the lives of her friends, strikes a jarring note. It's hard to know if the accounts read this way because of the anti-Spanish bias of the chroniclers, or if she, the last of the de Leyvas, really was that haughty. Perhaps a bit of both.
Eventually, after a series of trials involving torture and interrogation of all the parties involved, Giovanni Paolo got himself murdered. His house was knocked down and became a popula venue for ball games. A lot of balls ended up over the convent wall. They were not returned. Virginia was found guilty of "various crimes" not specified in court documents, and sentenced to be walled up in a cell in the worst women's prison in Milan, the 'convent' of S. Valeria. The cell was about 9 feet by 4 feet square. She was in there for 14 years. Then they decided she was sorry.
She spent the rest of her long life a sort of Mother Theresa to the Milanese prostitutes of the S. Valeria, "old and bent, emaciated and venerable" still fiercely proud of her de Leyva blood. I don't know what happened to the child, Alma Francesca Margherita.
The convent of S. Margherita is gone, too, swept away under the rug, like all things a small neat town might be expected to want to forget. But where the convent was, you will find a road known as the via della Signora, for Virginia, when she was the Lady of Monza, not just the monaca. And on the building on the corner, there is still a madonna and child.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Near Darkness

Voi che pel mondo gite errando
vaghi di veder meraviglie alte e stupende
venite qua ove tutto vi parla
d'amore e d'arte

The train journey from Monza is a catalogue of flat fat prosperous towns. The railway comes out of Lombardy across the might Po river, broad and grey-green and awash with willows and poplars; the first town on the other side is Piacenza. A line of plump comfortable redbrick towns follow: Fidenza, Parma, Reggio, Modena, Bologna. The smell of pigs around Modena, turns out, not legendary. At Bologna the flatness begins to ease, the hills begin, and then it's Appenine all the way to Florence, and then the rolling waves of grain to Arezzo, and the Oh! the profile of Orvieto, high above the valley residing on its great tufa cushion, and then you are at Orte, and home. Well, I am, anyway.
This is the Tuscia, which is to say the quiet farms, unexpected open cliffs, miniature torrents, and the beech and chestnut forests to the North of Rome. The Monti Cimini rise dark out of the rolling countryside: Poggio Nibbio, Monte Fogliano, Monte Venere, la Palanzana. At their heart is Lago di Vico, a cool shadowy lake, deep as history, unforgiving of careless swimmers. This is Etruscan country; the Romans, when they were contructing the via Cassia to Florence, took one look at the Cimini, and built a detour. A strange world of strange words written in stone two thousand years previously. Vicino Orsini was clearly taken with their mastery of water and stone, of their love of life and beauty, their mysterious beliefs and their fading away, an aesthetic slightly out of key, unable or unwilling to resist the tide of Roman taste.
The Tuscia is Etruscan, but it is not all the same. on the slopes of the Monti Cimini there is Vignanello with its wines and chestnuts, celebrated from as far back as the 4th century AD; there's San Martino the 16th century model village, and of course Bagnaia, more on that place another time. But the queen of towns in the Cimini, if you pay attention to the guide books, is Soriano. I've never liked it, it looks fine on a postcard, but when you get closer you discover that its fairy-tale 13th century castle has been (ab)used as a maximum security prison up until the mid 1990's, and is still in desperate need of repair. It's something of a metaphor for all these towns, arid, crooked narrow streets clogged with cars and heavy with hard faces and over-curious eyes, and everywhere, walls, walls, walls.
Bomarzo is like that. The people of Bomarzo have a reputation for being closed, even thick as the walls of the houses here, my travelling companion commented. Perhaps it's the nature of the place, all these houses thrown up against each other, like bodies found after a fire, all trying to escape from something - the briganti on the highway, passing battallions of mercenaries, the bears in the forest. Above Bomarzo, the palace of the Orsini, one of many Orsini palaces in the Tuscia, this is their stamping ground since, well, the invention of surnames.
Under the sheltering or bullying shadow of the Orsini palace, not beautiful or particularly well proportioned, simply endlessly refashioned out of the living rock of the older houses, the family DNA , the town piles and tumbles along the ridge of the hill.
But in the valley, ah, in the valley, other forces are at work.
In a time when men finished college at 14, Vicino Orsini had to grow up faster than most. He was born into a powerful family, but his early adulthood was no walk in the park; he had to fight for Bomarzo, his own miniature kingdom; through the papal courts, at the age of 19. Cardinal Alessandro Farnese helped him.

More fighting followed. Vicino - it means near, and neighbour, in Italian. His given name was PierFrancesco, the origins of the nickname I cannot tell. He was a reader, and, even if not on the scale of Federigo di Montefeltro, a lover of books: he would have had access to the library at Caprarola, and certainly would have had his own copy of the major works like the Divina Comedia, the Roman de la Rose, the pastoral poems of Poliziano and so many others, and the Classics of Latin - things of practical interest like Caesar's Gallic Wars and Pliny's letters, describing in vivid and much-copied detail the gardens of his villas in Tuscany and in the hills of Rome. There were items of thoughtful and fantastic Greek literature which during this time was gradually coming to the surface, Ovid's Metamorphosis first and foremost, an trailing tail of transformations and transgression. Pegasus, his hoof still striking the rocks of Mount Helicon and creating a gush of poetry in the world, is one of the first statues you encounter in the garden. Everywhere inscriptions in red letters, red like the red stain on the necropoli of the Etruscans; notes and mottoes, some proudly explicit, many others veiled in the secret meaning and mythology of the Bomarzo Orsinis.
On top of these, he would have read Orlando Furioso, written just 50 years before his birth, the 'corrective' Gerusalemme Liberata, both so appropriate for Vicino's career. Like the characters in those poems, he became a soldier, which means a working man, a condottiero one of the many Italian soldiers for hire, charging around the peninsular and bits of France and Spain, from Perpignan to the Pas de Calais, in the mix in exchange for a fee or a share in the spoils. He became close to the playwright, poet and translator of Virgil, Annibale Caro, over in Montefiascone. He became a husband; in an age where marriages had everything to do with politics and little or nothing with love, he found both, at 21, with Alessandro Farnese's cousin Giulia.
He saw things. The value of friendship, the ferocity of war, the pointlessness of loss.
Somewhere in all this, he began his garden at Bomarzo.
The mid 1500's, in Lazio, is the Age of the Garden. Villa Lante and Villa d'Este, The houses of the Medici and Alessandro Farnese's own masterpiece at Caprarola, on the other side of the Cimini mountains, were all taking shape. Along lines. With emphasis on proportion, on technicalities like water spouts and perspactive. Tight formal spaces for dignified walking and showing off giving way, but only just, to areas of more abandon, hideaways for the jetset to flirt and play away from prying eyes. Everyone thinking of Pliny's villa, or rather his letters describing it, and showing off the remains they dug up as they built their new versions of the villa. In the Tuscia, Etruscan sarcophaghi, eyed with suspicion in the Middle Ages, suddenly become in vogue, as benches and ornaments and horse troughs. of At Villa d'Este and at Hadrian's Villa, which had recently been rediscovered just to the South of Rome, the souvenirs and allegories are on show like coffee-table trophies, laid out to impress and cow visitors. Well, maybe I will tell you more about that another time.
Bomarzo is not like that.
This is Bomarzo's trophy, an open mouth in a green stagnant sea, the weight of the world on its head...
There used to be a formal garden here too, you know; like Villa Lante or Villa Aldobrandini, one of those not quite knot gardens, with low hedges of box or privet, lemon trees in containers, gravel paths. None of those gaudy colonial interlopers, begonias that you see today, though. At best a spot of coloured glass on the ground among the gilly flowers and marigolds. But that was all lost hundreds of years ago, and now lies under the sweeping lawns of the picnic area.
The Sacred Wood, the carved, careless wilderness remains.
Vicino made a place in the wood, 'sol per sfogar il cuor' ... simply to let one's heart out. A forest left to itself, with figures carved out of the living rock, much as the Etruscans had done two thousand years before. The the oversight for the park 'of monsters' as it is also known, was in the hands of Pirro Ligorio. Not a plantsman, but a good eye for a valley, and an architect, really, before the age of the fancy corner office. The monsters are eveywhere, dragons and lions, dogs and deformed giants and demons, even the heroic Orlando is in full fury, ripping the Orco in two. Hard to tell, though if the monsters are snarling or laughing, as if the mood is eternally changeable, open to the interpretations of firelight and shadow and afternoon sunlight. And torchlight.
The garden's most famous element is the Orco, the giant face, mouth open wide, tw teeth bearing down on those brave enough to walk in. Which is every visitor. There's a photo from the early part of the 20th century, when the garden reached perhaps the lowest point in its fight for survival, it shows a young shepherd living in the orco. I stepped inside and discovered it's actually a pretty big space, there are benches and a large stone table (from the right angle it looks like the tongue of the monster) and the room has such a high ceiling you could easily put up a sort of shelf bed. But taking a picture inside is no easy task, here instead is the spooky mask that you get when you take a picture without a flash...
Ligorio certainly had a lot of input on this garden, taking charge of the daily operations, the practical details and the essential task of putting together a team and having his trusted workmen follow the plans laid out, instead of taking the line of least resistence as workmen always do, this certainly was an important element in the creation of the garden. But this is Vicino's garden, and Giulia's too.
The first most beautiful thing is the sound of the wood. The wind in the leaves, and the rustling river, a siverblack scar running down the rocky face of the valley. The sound took me by surprise, and the size of the statues too. They are perfectly proportioned to surprise and delight, to draw one in close enough to look carefully and think about the meaning behind each; the tortoise with a tower on its back, the war-elephant devouring a man, the open tomb, the Three Graces traced into the cliff.
A pleasure park, then, full of the souvenirs of travel - travel through books and through Europe, through the loss of friends, like Orazio Farnese, and freedom too: Vicino was locked up by the Germans for two years after a battle in Northern France. The path of a personal philosophy born among the Cimini hills, shaped by faraway places, deep and delightfully unashamed brought into existence a garden of delights and terror so closely married that it becomes impossible to tell them apart, like the woods themselves, moving from shadow to light with the changing breeze of as one's imagination.
For two years Vicino's fate lay in the balance. He was imprisoned in far-off Germany, and there was no knowing if he would return. Giulia was left to watch over her husbands interests, guarding them from the greedy eyes of his brothers and half-brothers. Her legacy she summed up in a building, an original creation, the casa pendente. It is not a natural disaster, like the tower of Pisa, the house is built on a crooked rock, symbol of the circumstances in which she found herself. Out of the questionable materia prima, she manages to bring forth a house: una casa, un casato worthy of her husband.
She died young.
Vicino went on adding to the garden after her loss, but the accent changes. From the under the canopy of trees the path among the sculptures winds uphill and out onto a sunny lawn to a monument at odds with the rough and riotous pagan rocks below. The lawn exposes the secret of Bomarzo: that the sacred wood is only a pretending to be wild. The real wilderness is aldilà over there, beyond the gate, real, banal, unmagical, plebean.
In sight of the edge of the world of magic, with cerberus in the hollow at its side, like the sleeping woman and her dog further down the hill, Vicino built the Temple to Divine Love, half Greek and half Roman in design, in memory of his wife. But when one reaches the portico, one discovers she is not here. Her bones are in the family vault, in Bomarzo, with everyone else. The temple is empty, she is gone, Divine Love is an open space, its walls are beautifully useless and cannot contain her, and love is nothing that can be put in man-made walls, nor can all the magic of the rocks nor all the wisdom and the philosophy the honour and the power of the garden, none of its glorious ambiguity is able to transform this last and greatest certainty.

for those who have had the patience to come back and read this again, I thank you, abd blame blogspot, a dreadful line and an ... interesting day job for making it such a long haul...

Monday, June 8, 2009

San marc

Un mare di macchine dove un tempo passavano le barche: ecco piazza San Marco oggi, una bella e ampia piazza di Milano nel quartiere Brera, una delle più belle della città.
Mi sono trovata qui per caso, uscendo dalla pinacoteca Brera alla ricerca dell'entrata all'orto botanico. Mi sono del tutto confusa e, chiedendo aiuto al cameriere del piccolo ristoriante dove mi sono fermata a mangiare un'insalata caprese, cominciavo a temere d'averlo immaginato il giardino che cercavo. 'ma cerca i giardini pubblici?' mi ha risposto, regalandomi un'occhiata strana, come se andare al giardino pubblico (ammesso che esistesse) fosse un atto sconcio per una donna come me. Chissà, pensavo, cosa si fa nei giardini pubblici milanesi: forse è territorio di George Michael. Comunque le indicazioni che mi ha dato sembravano del tutto sbagliato. Milano davvero ha pochi spazi verdi, proprio come aveva affermata una signora svizzera incontrata sul treno quella mattina.
Ho girato un po' sotto il sole delle 15.00, tanto desiderosa di trovare se no l'orto almeno una panca o il piedistallo di qualche colonna all'ombra dove riposare un pochino. Infine ho ceduto al solito bar, ma i bar dopo pranzo sono sempre pieni di gruppetti o coppie, e ci si sente - o almeno io mi sento - quasi in colpa, sedendomi a prendere il mio espresso solitario. Una cosa bella ha Milano, in qualsiasi ora della giornata, anche sotto il sole scottante, c'è sempre movimento. Donne con sporte pesanti, dirette a casa, giovani col cell incollato all'orecchio, uomini in giacca e cravatto, con occhi cupi intenti su quel spazio che per un attimo hai occupato prima di passare. Io ho preso il caffé e mi sono di nuovo avviata. Camminare fa nascere la voglia di camminare in me, pare. Da quando sono qui non faccio altro, i piedi non mi fanno mai male, né la schiena, neanche i ginocchi, solo il cervello desidera fermarsi un po'.
Palazzi belli ma non nobili qua, sembrano quelli costruiti negli anni venti, una specie di complesso di case poplari. Chissà. Anche qui al centro la gente che lavora deve avere dove vivere, no? Non tutti possono fare il pendolare. Per il resto, alcuno bei bar e tutto pulito, rimesso a posto, bello. Caldo, certo, ma bello una piazza da vivere, anche di giorno, di notte dev'essere molto meglio.
Questa piazza era acqua cento anni fa. Il Tombon de San Marc, si chiamava in milanese. Faceva parte della rete dei canali di Milano, un'altro giorno ti racconterò i navigli, ma oggi soffermiamoci qua. Era una darsena, parola difficile per me, vuole dire dock or basin, un bacino allora, quasi si può dire un parcheggio per le barche, un punto in cui si poteva far riposare i cavalli che tiravano le chiatte. Qui si scaricava i rotoli enormi di carta per la stamperia del giornale milanese, nato durante la belle epoque, il Corriere della sera - abbastanza lontani gli uffici dei redattori, ma questa era una zona sia elegante che lavoratrice, e i canali erano un ricordo perpetuo degli operai e la manodopera necessaria a mandare avanti il bel mondo lombardo.
Si può immaginare gli odori: fieno e cavalli, carta acqua fango sudore, le barche, dette cobbie, basse nell'acquea, per poi tornare a galleggiare alto una volta liberate dal loro carico. E i rumori: saluti e gridi, notizie che arrivavanno insieme alla sabbia dalle città su Lago Maggiore. E il pianto di chi scopriva un cadavere, nella sciuma, il scumm del tumbun, questa la pronuncia milanese.
Tombone, Tombon, o tumbùn, si chiamava, per la presenza del cimitero dal quale scappava ogni tanto un cadavere, o per i poveri affogati, spariti nelle acque nere dei navigli grazie al bere o alla nebbia o a qualche disavventura, per poi riapparire in questo ristagno. Una fossa in ogni senso della parola, dunque. Ma non solo. La bella chiesa barocca di S. Marco contiene molti tesori in marmo ricordi di un patrimonio che nasce nel '200. Da bambino, Mozart fu ospitato per tre mesi nella canonica di S. Marco, e qui, per ricordare il primo anniversario della scomparsa di Manzoni, Giuseppe Verdi diresse per la prima volta la sua messa da requiem.
Ecco una poesia d'epoca: il sentimento illuminista, quasi dickensiano, inorridito e schifato dall'idea di una Milano arrettrata nei confronti di altre città europei, Parigi e Londra e Berlino forse senza capire che, come in quelle città, il 'grande Milano' - i palazzi eleganti, il giornale informativo, l'identità milanese stessa - non poteva nascere senza gli aspetti più ... mortali e puzzolenti come la darsena...
Sul gorgo viscido
chiazzato e putrido
sghignazza un cinico
raggio di sol;
quali augei profughi
fantasmi lividi
mesconsi, riddano,
levansi a vol.
Son baldi giovini
spenti, con vacue
forme, son vedove
tristi beltà;
carcami squallidi
di vecchi, macabre
parvenze, ruderi
Quante speranze
cessar le danze,
quante esultanze
fransero qui!
Che mondi vividi
di luce e iliadi
d'affanno il baratro
cupo inghiottì!
Singhiozzi e rantoli,
ghigni frenetici,
empi monologhi,
beffardi suon',
ritmo satanico,
dal gorgo erompono;
il gorgo brontola
la sua canzon.
O gorgo, o luteo
gorgo magnetico,
o sciame lugubre,
che vuoi da me?
Voglio i dolori
gli spenti amori,
gli altri livori
che porti in te.
0 Scendi con essi!
Ne' miei recessi,
tra i freddi amplessi
ammaliator'della sirena
che l'incatena,
tace la pena,
cessa il dolor.
Gorgo maligno,
torvo, ulivigno,
0 gorgo sanguigno,
vaneggi tu?
Se un giorno amante
ti fui, l'istante
volge incostante
quel tempo fu.
Invan mi affascini,
gorgo; le torpide
malie mi prodighi,
sirena, invan;
la luce adoro,
amo e lavoro,
mi canta un coro
lieto il doman.
Ah! Se mai languano
nel cuor le imagini
care che irradian
mila via fatal,
e della vigile
fede che accondemi
0 i gufi stridano
il funeral,
soavi tossici,
tremendi fascini,
a me l'oblivio
chiamami, o gora;
quella che fia l'ora;
non vano allora
l'appel sarà.

Filippo Turati 1886

Anche i gufi cita... possiamo dire non era un fan dei navigli. Ma alla fine dell'ottocento, un nuovo mondo automobilistico sta per cambiare la città per sempre. Infatti la darsena non sopravvisse molto a lungo dopo il vergare di queste righe. Rimpianto da chi vorrebbe vedere uno specchio d'acqua qui al centro della città, chi come me si sente il bisogno si un pochino di verde tra tutto questo asfalto e mattonato, chi forse immagina quanto sarebbe bello avere una terrazza, un ristorante proprio qua, a due passi dalla Brera e le botteghe d'arte, accanto ad alcune delle strade più frequentate dai turisti. Non sarebbe male.