When it comes to the historical breadth and quality of a city’s extant architecture, no Italian city can surpass Rome. Nevertheless, the northern Italian city of Milan boasts of at least five buildings which rightly earn their place among the historically important architectural monuments of the western world. This post will focus on these five buildings.
My first photograph, however, is not one of these five buildings. It simply shows a typical Milan street view; we see a sight common to many parts of the city, one in which buildings cut across and obscure any long. perspective street views. This happens because the street pattern is irregular and definitely not based on an orthogonal grid. Could this have to do with the fact that Milan was founded by the Celts ca. 600 B.C. and not the Romans? Romans, as we know, laid out their new cities on a ninety-degree grid pattern, but the Romans did not conquer Milan until four centuries after the Celts.
Livy also tells us that the Celtic Chief, Belloveso, encountered a particular wild boar (scrofa semilanuta) native to this area, and that animal became an esoteric symbol of the city. Surely, the boar–an animal accustomed to wandering, rooting and wallowing in a region’s swamplands–is unlikely to create long, straight, orthogonal trails. You know where I am going with this, but fear not. Milan’s irregular street layout didn’t actually follow early boar paths any more than Boston’s similar street pattern followed cow paths!
I’m just having a bit of fun, inventing an urban myth and, in the process, using the obtuse intersection (shown above) to introduce the first–and most recent–of these five buildings.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
These three photographs show how the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II allows through views, even as its placement would seem to block such views. The Galleria enables continuous views because it is penetrated by two perpendicularly-crossing streets, covered by iron and glass barrel vaults. The second of these photographs shows the typical blocking of a longer vista, because the Galleria’s masonry structure must honor its primary purpose, that of defining the western edge of the Piazza della Scala. However, the third photograph (directly above) shows how the Galleria entrance on this face contains a through street, just not one at 90-degrees but at a 45-degree angle. By this design, the Piazza della Scala is properly defined by its surrounding buildings, yet also opens into an unimpeded, 640-foot long axial view, connecting it to the Piazza del Duomo.
Looking north up that same 640-foot long axial street from the Piazza del Duomo, we see that this entrance to the Galleria rises up above the rest of its fabric and bears some resemblance to a Roman triumphal arch. This monumental entrance archway was inaugurated in 1878 and marked the completion of the Galleria. This north-south axis is the longer of the two axes. It also was the more important one, in that it connects the Teatro alla Scala, the center of Milan’s cultural life, with Santa Maria Nascente (the Duomo), the center of Milan’s religious life.
In a future post on the public sculpture of Milan, we will see that the Piazza del Duomo also holds a monumental equestrian sculpture of Vittorio Emanuele II, whose name is given to the Galleria. Vittorio Emanuele II assumed the title of King of Italy in 1861, becoming the first king of a united Italy since the 6th century. The Galleria was begun in this same year and stands as a symbol of the unification of all of Italy. Its unusual construction of large-scale vaults of iron and glass, much of it prefabricated, also celebrates a new and more technologically-modern Italy. Its central dome, by the way, is the same diameter as that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome–an unmistakable statement that Rome may be Italy’s religious center, but Milan is now its secular and productive center.
In flaunting its new materials on such a grand scale, the Galleria embodies an Italy ready and willing to join the most progressive European countries, like France and England. In fact, the Galleria could not have been built in the 1860s without the help of British financing and French structural engineering.
The decoration of the Galleria also plays a significant role in its iconography and meaning. The mosaic floor below the octagonal dome contains symbols of the four capitals of the Kingdom of Italy: Rome, Florence, Turin and Milan. At the juncture of the spandrels that support the dome are sculpted eagles standing on the coats of arms of Milan and the Duchy of Savoy–Vittorio Emanuele II was the last Duke of Savoy before becoming the King of Italy. The four spandrels contain personifications of the major continents of the world: Europe, America, Asia and Africa. Originally, these were frescoes, but as they were fading (most likely because of the intense sunlight), the spandrels were replicated in mosaic tile in 1911.
As we have seen, the Galleria was intended to embody the new, modern Italy. So, too, was the function of its street-level spaces. Whereas the second floor provided residences (for those who could afford it) and the first floor housed businesses and private clubs, the ground floor was all commercial. On the ground floor were cafés, restaurants and stores. Little has changed today, except that some second floor residences have given way to offices.
The Galleria remains the home for some of Milan’s oldest shops and restaurants and, of course, its luxury retailers. Interestingly, one café, the Caffè Gnocchi, opened a shop in the Galleria in 1872 and, a decade later, became the first public space in the city to be lit by electricity–another clear statement of the Galleria’s modernity. However, what made the Galleria modern more than anything else was its connection to a new culture of mass consumption. Here we have the first monumental, public, urban space serving the culture of shopping–a culture which remains with us to this day.
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was hardly the first shopping arcade. Several more modest, glazed shopping arcades emerged in earlier nineteenth-century France and England, just none on the scale of Mengoni’s Galleria. The much later Galeria Meravigli (above) is indicative of that smaller scale. It provides a modest 190-foot passage from the Via Meravigli to the Via Gaetano Negri in Milan’s financial district.
The Milan cathedral, dedicated to the Nativity of Saint Mary, is said to be the fifth largest church in the world. Work began in 1386, in what would be considered the late Gothic period, and lasted up into the very early 20th-century. It began as a structure of brick, the typical material of Lombard architecture. Very shortly thereafter, however, Giangaleazzo Visconti, the first Duke of Milan, demanded that it be be sheathed in marble. To accomplish this, he ordered canals built to bring marble from the Candoglia quarries near the Val d’Ossola to the north. Also, because Lombard architects and masons were unaccustomed to building in marble, their counterparts were brought in from France–among them the engineer Nicholas de Bonaventure and the architect, Jean Mignot.
The result is a cathedral that looks nothing like any other Italian cathedral. Nor does it look quite like any French Gothic cathedral. The façade was only finished after the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1805, and if three of its windows reveal the pointed, lancet arch of a French Gothic structure, its other five windows (and the entrance portals) reveal semicircular arches and classical pedimental forms that would characterize the later Renaissance.
One of the boasts of the Cathedral enumerates the quantity of its sculptural decoration: 3,400 statues, 135 gargoyles, and 700 figures, some of which we see in these three photographs.
The amalgam of styles is also evident in these two interior photographs.
Nowhere is the amount of decorative detail more evident than on the roof, and the smallest of carvings, like this oak leaf become sensual invitations to the visitors, whose many hands have given the marble a wonderful, yellowed patina.
On the upward ascent of an interior stairway, I came across this carved portrait head. I have no idea who it is, but it might well be any one of the 78 head architects who are recorded as having worked on the Cathedral.
Sant’Ambrogio is the earliest of the five buildings, and a model for the layout of a typical Early Christian Basilica. It was built by Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan and one of the four original Doctors of the Church–the others being Sts. Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great. Ambrose was buried here after his death in 397. Although his original church of 379-386 has been replaced by the present, Romanesque, structure, its footprint and main components remain in what we see today.
Those Early Christian components are a Propylaeum that defines the entrance into a sacred precinct (see above); an Atrium or forecourt defined by colonnaded porticoes (see below); a Narthex or porch defining the entrance hall into the church proper; and the church proper consisting of Nave, Side Aisles, Transept, and Apse. These same components were once to be found in Old Saint Peter’s in Rome [320-360], but cannot be experienced in that church today as they can here.
Besides retaining the layout and the feeling of an Early Christian Basilica, Sant’Ambrogio was actually larger in scale than any of the contemporary Early Christian Basilicas in Rome. All of this adds to its importance.
Passing through the door of the Propylaeum and into the open, expansive, yet magically-peaceful space of the Atrium is a breathtaking experience.
An inscription dates the Atrium to 1098, but many of its portico capitals (of which I show nine below) are pre-Romanesque and date from as early as the 6th-century. They reveal a compendium of fantastic forms and mythical beasts, each of which offered, in symbolic language, some moral lesson for the catechumens, those Christian converts who–until their baptism–could not yet proceed deeper into the church proper.
Here in the Crypt we see the skeleton of Saint Ambrose, dressed in his Bishop’s vestments and accompanied by the two 3rd-century martyrs, Saints Gervasus and Protasus. It was their relics that Ambrose disinterred and placed, originally, beneath the altar of his newly-founded church. Realize that, before the church took on Ambrose’s name, it was simply called, Basilica Martyrium.
Santa Maria delle Grazie
The Dominican convent and church of Santa Maria della Grazie is best known for Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, painted on the wall of the convent’s refectory. The church was begun under Francesco I Sforza, the Duke of Milan. The façade and nave of the church is typical Lombard brick construction. The work of the architect, Guiniforte Solari, it offers no special architectural statement.
However, the domed tribune that rises up and dominates the apse end of the church very clearly appears to be the work of a different designer. Besides its usual functions, this tribune would also serve as a burial mausoleum for the Sforza family. For this reason, it’s easy to imagine the Dukes of Milan wanting something special, and so looking beyond Lombardy and towards the more modern design emerging out of Tuscany and central Italy which we today understand as Renaissance.
It is likely, though not proven, that the tribune as well as the elegant cloister of Santa Maria delle Grazie are early works by Donato Bramante. After his stay in Lombardy, Bramante would go to Rome, serve as the principal planner for Pope Julius II, and become known as the first architect of what is called the High Renaissance.
Santa Maria presso San Satiro
We are actually looking at two separate structures here: a 9th-century chapel, San Satiro (above), much of which was reworked in the 15th-century, and a 15th-century church, Santa Maria presso San Satiro (below).
I would suggest that the word, “presso,” which means “at,” might better be understood as “connected to.” In fact, one enters San Satiro from inside Santa Maria presso San Satiro. More importantly, San Satiro had a 13th-century fresco painting of a Madonna and Child on its exterior. By 1242, this painting had earned a reputation for performing miracles. For this reason, and under the patronage of the Sforza lords, the painting was detached to become the altarpiece for the new church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro. Clearly, the two structures demanded adjacency, if not an actual, physical connection.
In the penultimate photograph below, we see this Madonna and Child centered above the altar of Santa Maria presso San Satiro. When it was transferred inside, most likely in the 1470s, two angels and the portraits of two members of the Sforza family were added to it.
Donato Bramante may have had little to do with the basic design of this church, but his training in the new science of illusionistic perspective painting was essential in order to complete Santa Maria presso San Satiro as a properly-functioning church. This is because there is only another three feet of actual space behind the priest whom we see standing at a lectern on the left. The entire choir with its arching barrel vault and receding walls, defined by three arches & pilasters, is not physically real. This choir and all of its architectural elements was painted by Bramante to provide the illusion of real spatial depth.
There was, you see, no room for a choir. If you scroll up to the first photograph of San Satiro, you can see the dome and lantern of Santa Maria presso San Satiro poking up behind the older chapel. Where the choir should have been, on our far left, we instead see a road slicing through. A real choir would have needed to occupy the space of this road. The road remains. Bramante simply ‘replaced’ it by painting a powerful Renaissance barrel vault on a flat wall, so creating a major tour-de-force of illusionistic perspective.
By the way, those wonderfully expressive terracotta heads in the circular frieze of San Satiro could well be designed by Bramante. They are, most definitely, later 15th-century pieces of sculpture from the hand of a very good artist.