Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Day two- Brera Gallery

Had the typical little free breakfast at the hotel- cafe Americano, juice, yogurt, some pastries (or in my case, rye crackers with nutella and jam) and then took off for the day's adventures. Our first stop was a little church I had read about called Santa Maria presso San Satiro, a typical Italian church in the sense that it incorporated bits of architecture from various periods, including the 9th, 12th, and 15th centuries. It is known for the altar area designed by Donato Bramante, in which he used a forced perspective to give the illusion that the apse extends back much further than the five feet that actually enclose it. It also had some very tasty grisaille ornamental painting on the walls, and an exquisite octagonal baptistery that was shown to us by a very friendly volunteer docent who was chatty and pleasant. It was a nice intro to the day. We then headed past the Piazza again on our way up the the Pinacoteca Brera, an art gallery housed in a former Jesuit monastery. It also houses an art academy founded in 1776, and the milling students in the courtyard made me feel quite at home. 

Altar of Santa Maria presso San Satiro, showing the compressed perspective that Bramante used to give the illusion of a deeper space

We went first upstairs to the libary, which had a very nice neo-classical ceiling and shelves holding all kinds of books including an original copy of Stuart and Revett's "Antiquities of Athens" (1762), a highly influential book in the revaluing of Greek architecture and ornament. I would have loved to open it, but that was not an option. So we headed into the galleries, which immediately started out with a bang with a whole row of panels of frescoes removed from some churches (including the one we visited earlier in the day). Photos were not allowed in here, but they were not really into enforcing the ban, so I got some good ones of various details and the mind blowing work of Carlo Crivelli, which somehow looked as fresh as the day it was made. They had a cool restoration lab that was behind plexiglas walls so you could check it out- unfortunately nothing was being worked on while we visited, but it looked very high tech. They had a lot of paintings i knew from art history; always interesting to see the difference in scale and texture of paintings that you only know from photographs. They hold Mantegna's Dead Christ, beautiful paintings by Bronzino and Bellini, and Piero della Francesca's mysterious "Holy Conversation", among other highlights.

Courtyard of the Palazzo di Brera. The ground floor is an art academy started in 1776

After we were done with looking, we went in to hear a band that had set up in one of the galleries. It was a big band made up of young musicians, and they were doing some kind of tribute to American blues and dixieland music. It was pretty funny hearing them playing and singing "When the Saints go Marching In"! We felt a bit trapped after song number 6, followed by a fairly long speech by the director, which we hoped was the end but turned out to be the intro to two more songs. Still, it was funny and fun, especially with the backdrop of two spectacular mural paintings by Bellini. We walked out humming "Saints" and perused the studios of the Academy in the hallways downstairs.

We headed back to our room again, emerging late afternoon after the heat to get some food at a nice serve yourself cafeteria that was in the giant galleria, which we cruised through once more before heading back slowly to our room and a welcome rest.
Spires of the Duomo of Milan

A little magical reflected sunlight- two minutes later this was gone!

Diary of our Italy trip starting with Day Zero- (June 11th, 2013)

I've added a link to all of my photos of the Castello Sforzesco here.

Well, I'm going back through all my photos and trying to remember the details of our first days, before I began writing my diary entries. Since you enjoyed them before, I figured I might as well share them, even if it's not current. Enjoy!

Day zero- Milano

Arrived in the afternoon after two very long flights and a lot of micro movies. Those back of the seat airline video screens are great for giving you a lot of variety in what you can watch, but they're hell on the eyes! Between that and the general dryness of planes I always feel like my eyeballs have been drycleaned.

Anyways, got in ok and found the train into the center of town. It wasn't more than 3 blocks before I got out my camera to take some pics of some really cool sgraffito I spotted in the entry of an otherwise nondescript building. I had saved some map screens on my computer to try to get us to the hotel, and it was going sort of ok...all right, I was lost already!

We needed a break anyways, so we sat and had a coffee (our first delicious coffee of the trip!) and got on their wifi to re-search the location of our hotel. We hadn't gotten too far off track yet, so after we finished up we tootled back by a cool memorial shaped like the Tower of the Winds in Athens, up a few blind alleys, down a few narrow streets, and finally emerged onto our street and checked into our utilitarian little hotel. Not much charm, but quiet and clean.

Tempio della Vittoria is a Memorial to Milan's casualties from WWI. 

Unpacked some stuff and took a little rest, which turned into all night.

Day one- Castello Sforzesco

Got up on our first real day in Italy with a plan to visit some sights recommended by our friend Christopher, who had just been here a few months before.
The Sforza family was a driving force (that's what the name means in fact) in Milan from about 1450-1550, and spawned such famous progeny as Lucrezia Borgia and Cosimo di Medici. Ludovico Sforza was the patron of a young Leonardo da Vinci, and commissioned him to paint several rooms in the family castle, the Castello Sforzesco, which was our first destination of the day. Got a bit off track on the way to the main Piazza and walked into a very cool medieval area with an ancient market place that really recalled that era. Spotted the Duomo for the first time- it's huge! Fortunately, everything in the old city is very walkable, so we entered the grounds in good time, before the heat really started. The castle has been rebuilt several times since it's inception, but it's pretty darn impressive nonetheless. You first come through a typical gated entry into a large field of grass and wildflowers enclosed by high walls and a crenellated tower. Some of the walls have beautiful red sgraffito on them. Found the entry to the museum after a few false starts and found ourselves in a hall full of historic (ie-Roman era) artifacts, surrounded by walls painted in the 15th century. Oh yeah- this is what I came for!

Castello Sforzesco in Milano

Several amazing rooms led us to one that had been painted by Leonardo for the family, with an incredibly complex ceiling of intertwined tree branches that sprout from trunks on the walls. This room had been completely whitewashed somewhere along the line, and was restored during the 19th century. Unfortunately they lost quite a bit of the trees on the walls, but the ceiling was still fascinatingly dense. There were a number of other very nice painted ceilings in the ground floor, then we went upstairs to another part of the museum that had a show of furniture, including some great pieces by Carlo Bugatti, one of my favorite quirky designers from the late 19th century. There were also really great fresco fragments and icon paintings, but by this time we were getting a bit of burnout, so we headed out to see the park that is in back of the castle. 

Sala delle Asse was painted by Leonardo da Vinci around 1500

Chair by Carlo Bugatti

The park seemed a bit too hot and we wanted something to eat, so we headed back toward the center of town. We were just too late for the restaurants in the guides, so we kept on walking, eventually finding ourselves at the entry to the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II, the world's first covered shopping mall. The interior of this space is truly magnificent, with classical ornament climbing four stories up to the glass covered barrel vault. The floors are time worn marble, with a famous mosaic bull that is supposed to give good luck to those who place their foot on his genitals and spin around three times, a practice which has ground a large divot where the poor bulls nuts used to be! The mall mostly houses fancy clothing retailers, but it also had a good bookstore that I would have spent several hours in had not Marianne been tapping her toes by the door. We didn't really spot any good food so we ended up back at our room for some snacks, deciding that we would eat at the place next door when it reopened at 7. It was a delightful little courtyard with good service and mediocre food, but we were hungry by then so it went down eagerly. After a short reconnoiter, we headed over to the main piazza, where it was dusk, and caught the Duomo's spires by the dying light of day. 

In the Piazza del Duomo, with the original Galleria behind the triumphal arch

As we walked up the alley next to the Duomo we heard some live music coming out, and we paused to watch a really grooving little progressive jazz combo (with a kinetic keyboard player who could also play trumpet at the same time!) banging out some smoking tunes on the sidewalk in front of a little bar. They were playing to an appreciative audience of tourists and locals, with an emphasis on the latter. Walked about a block up to a gelateria that had very artisinal chocolate offerings- like single variety cocoa beans and liquid ganache chocolate that was poured into the cone under the ice cream. YUM! Walked back to the music to munch our cones and I spotted a woman and her kids who had been waiting for standby with us in Newark. We had a great chat with them- she's a flight attendant- and she clued us into the happy hour policy that a lot of people use to dine cheaply in Italy. If you buy your drinks in the early evening, a lot of places have free tapas that can easily make a meal. Unfortunately for us, being both non-drinkers with limited diets (Marianne's vegan and I can't eat wheat), that practice didn't really help, but it seemed like a great idea for others on a budget. 

We wandered back slowly now, starting to get a sense of where things were in the center of town, and went to bed.