Just back from Milan, and I feel as if I’ve awakened from a delicious, if vaguely surrealistic, dream.
In northern Italy, autumn is the moody season. True to form, the fog was thick, shrouding the city in cloudy vapor. Navigating unfamiliar streets was a bit like walking with blinders on.
Mists hung so heavily over the Duomo that the tops of its lacey Gothic spires occasionally disappeared into the clouds. At Chloe on Via de la Spiga, barely there gowns of filmy chiffon could have floated out of the shop windows were it not for their hefty price tags. Even a dreamy exchange rate of USD 1.09 to the euro couldn’t justify this…
On the other hand, getting to Santa Maria delle Grazie was a nightmare—a bad dream where you move in excruciating slow motion as obstacles pop up to keep you from ever arriving at your destination. For what seemed like hours we sat in a cab, all but stalled behind a tram inching its way from stop to stop. Tick tock. At the church the ticket office was nowhere to be found. Then it was 3:31, a minute late. A harried gatekeeper glanced at the clock and our timed tickets. She hissed “Hurry!” as we ran down a deserted corridor, only to wait at each of three automatic doors that opened verrrry slowly.
At last we burst into the vaulted refectory where Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper was illuminated in the ethereal glow of a dozen flashing cell phones. I was prepared for magnificence, but the mural was ghostly pale. Leonardo painted in oil and tempera on dry plaster so that he could more easily create the effect of chiaroscuro, thereby dooming Il Cenacolo to centuries of slow deterioration.
I felt as if I were looking at an indistinct reproduction of what once was. The guide, almost unintelligible as her piping voice echoed off the walls, said that when the restorers finished their 22-year-long project—also repairing damage by Allied bombing during WWII—one sighed, “It’s now a smudge.”
Only the crusts of bread strewn across the tablecloth appeared in sharp focus. Oh, except they’re possibly not bread, but fish.
Was Italy real, or was it a dream? Lately my on-line meditation guru, Andy, has pushed me to see the distractions of this world as nothing more than figments of a restless mind. Reality is what’s happening in the moment. While meditating, that’s the in and out of the breath, the weight of the body pressing into the floor, the scent of incense curling from a brazier. In life, that might be focusing on what’s actually happening instead of responding impulsively out of old habits and inclinations.
It’s tempting to view the discordant images and voices of the recent election as nothing more than ephemeral noise. Once grief and shock fade, we’ll still be here, the kettle boiling on the stove, the wind swirling dry autumn leaves in the air. Our reactions, pro or con, have more to do with the stories we spin than with reality. The challenge is to drop the focus on “I” and find “us” in the days ahead.
Italy was real, of course. I was there, eating plates of culatello, drinking way too much wine, sliding around in the mud with Roki the truffle hound (second best dog in the world!)—but there were other moments when time seemed to curl back on itself and the physical world all but dissolved. (For a much more concrete view, you might like to read B’s superb essay at Global Province.)
The feeling of being lost in time began in Milan where we slept in a former 15th century convent on Via Jesu. Our room overlooking the verdant garden swathed us like babes in creamy plaster and cocoon-like furnishings. In the lobby we sipped 21st century cocktails in a cavernous space where the stucco had artfully crumbled away to reveal glimpses of “ancient” frescos.
Nowhere in the hotel was the presence of the past more eerily felt than in Patricia Urquiola’s moody subterranean pool. Swimming alone in the pale green water under a vaulted brick ceiling, I made wavelets that slapped against the walls, echoing like the musical chattering of young girls hurrying to prayer. The water was body temperature but still I shivered.
Window-shopping on Via Montenapoleone was a dream I never wanted to end. At Cova, the venerable 1817 pasticceria where the Milanese meet to sip champagne and nibble fresh fig tarts under crystal chandeliers, the windows whispered Halloween in discreet shades of black and white. It was as if an Instagram filter had magically stripped the color out of a riotous display of cakes and pumpkins, transforming the scene into a spooky dreamscape.
But the new branch of the equally historic (1824) Marchese, re-imagined by Miuccia Prada in shades of chartreuse, was a fabulous dream. Fruit-bejeweled tarts gleaming under glass and a jaunty barista in a starched white jacket pulling perfect cortados topped with foamy four leaf clovers, conspired to say, “Yes, everything is possible when you start the day with us.” (I say this despite our concierge, who rolled his eyes at the mention of the designer’s name. “Prada, Prada, Prada,” he muttered.)
DaVinci’s all but forgotten “vineyard” on Corso Magenta was a true time warp, a place where past and present are hopelessly entangled. Fat purple grapes dangled from thickly gnarled trunks (surely a century or two old) clambering up the walls of the Renaissance-era Casa degli Atellani, while in the back garden, a few neat rows of new Malvasia di Candia vines, said to have the same DNA as those in Leonardo’s time, have been recently planted.
Leonardo was given the vineyard by Ludovico Il Moro, Duke of Milan, in 1498 in gratitude for painting Il Cenacolo in the refectory of what was to be his family mausoleum. Not long after, though, the Duke was overthrown by invading French troops; Leonardo fled, returning to the city only once before he died in France in 1519.
Over the centuries the house passed into the hands of various powerful and noble Milanese families; layer upon layer of embellishments were added, some so skillfully that it’s now hard to tell what’s “real.” In the Zodiac Foyer, for instance, the 16th century ceiling frescos of enthroned deities and astrological symbols are mostly original, but the marvelous floor of shooting comets and whirling planets was apparently a 20th century addition.
We were most intrigued by the expansive, vaguely neglected garden where, it must be said, the newly planted grapevines are struggling to survive It feels like a secret garden, big enough for a wander, where classical details such as mossy statues standing in stony silence and grassy allees bordered by white roses clash, as dream images so often do, with the unexpected: in this case, white neon “walkers” in perpetual motion, courtesy of the gallery next door.
Journeying north to Lago di Como, we stayed at Il Sereno, a new hotel designed top to bottom by Patricia Urquiola. We loved it, but while there, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being a voyeur in a strange psychological drama.
The hotel’s main staircase, all spiraling geometry, stairs floating in the air, glass walls here, “pick up sticks” defining the no-go zone there, could fit neatly into a modern remake of Hitchcock’s Spellbound where black ski tracks on a snowy slope trigger terrifying flashbacks. Is Gregory Peck’s amnesia a cover up for murder? After one too many, will you tumble down Patricia’s cunning staircase? Did I mention the gorgeous look-but-don’t-touch vertical garden by Patrick Blanc that you can only glimpse through one of those glass walls?
The lake itself is highly cinematic, never more so than at Villa del Balbianello where, in Casino Royale, James Bond and Vesper Lynd recover from a nasty bit of torture. The exquisitely manicured setting seems tailor-made for the kind of cinematic mayhem where dead bodies lie sprawled across velvety green grass, but the remarkable story of the last owner is better than any movie plot.
Heir to the Coin department store chain, Count Guido Monzino was also an accomplished explorer and mountaineer. Despite a serious heart condition, he mounted a 1969 expedition to the North Pole with 300 sled dogs and a team of 30 guides. He himself traveled on a rustic wooden sled, wearing mukluks and a rather chic fur parka which you can see in his private museum on the villa’s top floor. In 1973 he also led the first Italian expedition to tackle Mount Everest although, due to illness, he did not reach the summit.
Above all Monzino adored Balbianello, not only lavishing a fortune on the landscaping and a vast personal library of alpine maps and travel volumes, but also installing a secret passage to the lake, an escape hatch in case the Red Brigade came calling. No one but a mountaineer could descend those stairs: they are almost completely vertical and there is no hand rail.
Little known fact: In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, a host of distinguished Italian archaeologists and scholars descended upon Egypt where they excavated scads of ancient tombs and brought back boatloads of treasure, amassing great collections of Egyptian antiquities, most of which wound up at the esteemed University of Turin, founded in 1404.
So Torino, the former capital of the duchy of Savoy and first capital of Italy, industrial center and home of Fiat, devout city where the Shroud of Turin is hidden away from public view, a city with miles of arcaded walkways and elegant piazzas, not to mentioned a monumental group of royal palaces now preserved as a World Heritage Site, also happens to be the home of…
Il Museo Egizio, the biggest, most astonishing museum of Egyptian antiquities outside of Cairo. There are said to be 6,500 items on display with 26,000 more in storage. The collection of ancient papyri is so vast that Jean-Francois Champollion, who cracked the hieroglyphic code with the Rosetta Stone in 1822, came here to test out his theories, supposedly exclaiming, “The road to Memphis and Thebes passes through Turin.”
The layout of the museum is rather bizarre. You descend to a dark subterranean floor to buy your tickets, then make your way up to the top floor, gradually working your way back down through the collections to the bottom level, where, of course, you exit through the gift shop.
Still the treasures are spell-binding. The atmospherically lit hall filled with massive statues and sarcophagi, re-designed by Oscar-winning set designer Dante Feretti in 2006, is eerily imposing, but, like many visitors, I was dumbstruck by the magnificent, very personal contents of the undisturbed tomb of Kha, a high ranking 18th dynasty royal architect, and his wife, Merit.
The tomb, never opened by grave robbers, was discovered intact in 1906 by Ernesto Schiaparelli, a leading Italian Egyptologist and, coincidentally, the uncle of surrealist clothing designer Elsa Schiaparelli. The contents include exquisitely painted outer and inner wooden sarcophagi for the wealthy couple, diaphanous linen robes and wigs of human hair, and a rich trove of objects such as urns packed with salted birds and fish for consumption in the afterlife as well as hundreds of tiny terracotta servants to do the bidding of the elite couple after death.
Most remarkable (and somewhat disturbing) is Merit’s funerary mask, a portrait of a hypnotically beautiful woman with a deep baleful gaze. Is there a touch of evil in those kohl-rimmed eyes? Incidentally the museum (and the city of Turin) appeared in the 1969 version of The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine and, if you can believe it, Noel Coward as a suave crime boss.
From the eternal to the temporal: Late that afternoon I went to Guido Gobino, considered by many to be Torino’s top artisan chocolatier. As I squeezed into the crowded shop, nearly overdosing on the scent of warm chocolate and hazelnuts, I noticed a French woman who had button-holed a sales assistant and was meticulously dissecting the fine points of each and every confection. Twenty minutes later, as I wormed my way out, laden with thick slabs of milk and dark chocolate studded with nocciole, candied orange peel dipped in chocolate, and caramels with hazelnut crème, she was still at it.
B and I, on the other hand, had long since plunged our hands into Gobino’s Hermes-orange shopping bag and were already “in the moment.”
Torino was but an introduction to the sensual feast that is Bologna. Affectionately known as La Grassa (“the fat one”), the graffiti-strewn city–former Italian Communist stronghold, vibrant university (founded in 1088) town, home to 100,000 students, acknowledged food capital of Emilia Romagna–is filled with opinionated gourmands eager to steer you to the “finest” purveyor of pumpkin-stuffed tortelli, the “best” place to buy parmigiano reggiano (made only from the milk of red cows, of course) or the fish stall where the branzino is “so fresh” it’s still quivering.
Trust me, they know. Our engaging art historian guide insisted that we skip a shop at the top of everyone’s list and go instead to his personal favorite around the corner. Which led us to…
Atti Panificio to wallow in the shop’s handmade tortellini, Bolognese “navels of Venus” stuffed with DOC approved pork loin, ham, mortadella, parmesan and nutmeg, so fresh that, as the sign says, it may “deceive your husband into thinking you made it yourself.” Atti is full of cheerful, relentlessly upbeat advice about food and life. Next to the glorious display of crostata or pie (chocolate, cherry, peach) is a hand-lettered card that reads, “He who eats crostata is assured of happiness!” The sign next to the rough chunks of pasta for Zuppa Imperiale not only lists each ingredient (semola, eggs, parmesan, butter, nutmeg, salt) but carefully instructs the buyer to keep the pasta cool and use it within 72 hours. It’s like having a nonna to help you out in the kitchen.
For two days, we wandered Via Drapperie and its side streets, admiring the chicken hanging in the window of the polleria with its head, beak, feet and ruff of neck feathers intact; the displays of gorgeous radicchio from the countryside and squash blossoms ready for stuffing, piled alongside fresh chestnuts and persimmons at the vegetable stalls; and at the fishmonger, enormous white Atlantic seppie (squid) mottled with its own black ink, just waiting to be made into a sublime sauce for paccheri, B’s favorite pasta.
Speaking of pasta, Aguzzeria del Cavallo, a tool grinding shop turned knife-specialist founded in 1783, has it own line of handsome implements for making pasta at home. I succumbed to the impressively heavy torchietto or brass press with swappable plates for extruding pastas like bigoli and passatelli, along with wood-handled brass stamps and cutting wheels for making frilly borders on stuffed ravioli and anolini. (I think we can safely label these items “things I didn’t know I wanted but had to have.”)
In the midst of these ephemeral gastronomic riches there are ample reminders of the eternal past. On the way to breakfast every morning in our hotel, we passed a few feet of rubbly excavated Roman road. Walking the narrow medieval streets, eerily deserted at night, it’s easy to imagine a dagger drawn and plunged between the ribs as you round the corner. There are mummified saints and sacred bones to see, if that’s what you like.
As for us, we nipped into the small, unassuming church of Santa Maria della Vita, where we paid a euro or two to see the life-size terra-cotta Lamentation of Christ by the early Renaissance sculptor Niccolo dell’Arca. Dates for the masterpiece are a bit vague, ranging from 1460 to 1490, but what is indisputable is the frenzied grief captured in every detail of the figures surrounding Christ’s prostrate body. The frozen, tormented faces and streaming robes of Mary Magdalen and the figure next to her vividly express unbearable despair upon the discovery of his death. And yet, this tour de force is just steps from the tiny, mundane storefront where we stopped for espressos every morning.
Back in Milan, the 3 hour and 45 minute opening night performance of Le Nozze di Figaro at La Scala gave us a final dip into the dream world. Perpetually revolving scenery, an aria sung by a heroine sitting in a crystal chandelier, papers swirling through the air while Mozart (the composer) jumped up and down wearing a monkey mask, gave new meaning to the term opera buffa (comic opera). One reviewer called the staging “vaudevillian, but frankly it was also a lot of fun.
What went on between the acts was also a bit surreal. The crowd, dressed almost entirely in black, became a backdrop for a forlorn woman wandering around in a bright green tulle frock. Cameras flashed, capturing champagne-swilling notables, while five wisecracking firefighters in uniform hung around the lobby door, just in case anyone passed out or set themselves on fire. Just before the final act, a man in tails hurried by, wiping his red, streaming eyes with a tissue. Allergies or emotion?
You can get a peek at the opera right here on YouTube.
It was, shall we say, like a dream.