scar |noun| : a mark left (as in the skin) by the healing of injured tissue
For all the flash and splash of Milan, for all the updated impersonations of Truman Capote’s Holly Golighty (with their studied airs of “effortless” elegance and their dictatorial attitudes about lifestyle trends), I know there’s more than meets the eye. I know, because I’ve seen Milan’s scars. Shall we go for a stroll, reader? Please wear comfortable shoes, you’ll need to keep up!
For a street as carefully manicured as Via della Spiga – inhabited by such rowdy tenants as Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana and Armani – you’d wonder why they’ve immortalized the very noticeable cracks on some of the buildings. Are these the signs of some fashionista brawl in which studded stilettos were ruthlessly thrown at each other from across shopping bag barricades? Or are they the markings of cannonballs from the 1848 Milanese insurgence against Austrian rule? And what of the cannonball partially plastered into a wall at Palazzo Sormani – is it a tribute to Cindy Crawford’s mole or another sign of that bygone uprising?
Moving along, you can find diluted black, red and white arrows with R’s, U.S.’s and I’s painted onto buildings all across Milan. These are WWII air raid shelter signs – now generally turned into garages, wine cellars or depots for knock-off handbags sold in the main metro stations. (R is for rifugio, U.S. for uscita di soccorso and I for idrante). The corresponding air raid siren tower still stands in the gardens of Palazzo Isimbardi whose inside bears a sign saying “better alarmed, than bombed”. All are excellent examples of the graphic and architectural styles of their time, as well as a surprising window into an altogether different Milan – not quite so carefree. A walk across town to Piazza della Repubblica will show you tram pylons that have been shot clear through by the air bombings, although no bombing story is as impressive as that of Santa Maria delle Grazie – the home of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. We owe it to Italian ingenuity that this masterpiece escaped the explosions that destroyed large portions of the adjacent monastery. Given that it was impossible to move the fresco, the friars protected it with sandbags – leaving us with a legacy that is nearly as intact today, as it is difficult to visit!
Stazione Centrale, Milan’s main train station, still bears signs of its terrible role in the war. Although nearly all fascist symbols have since been removed, the Sala Regia still shows the decorative motif of swastikas embedded in the design of its parquet floors. (Sadly, it was from Stazione Centrale, in a basement under platform 21, that Jews and political insurgents were packed into cattle cars, away from other traveller’s sight, to be shipped off to concentration camps elsewhere in Europe.)
Next on our itinerary, we head to the Museo del Novecento, where 20th century Italian art is celebrated in a magnificent 1950’s palazzo built in the same white and pink marble of it’s imposing neighbor – the Duomo. If I could make any room my bedroom, it would be Lucio Fontana’s room – ahem, I mean, of course, the room that has Fontana’s artworks in it. (Incidentally, in this room you can do yoga under a Lucio Fontana neon sculpture with the Duomo perched in front of you.) In this architecturally rich room, hang several of Fontana’s famous “slashed canvases”. Fontana wanted to make other dimensions present in his work, which he inadvertently succeeded in doing by taking a knife to a canvas he was frustrated with and slashing it. On doing so, he realized that the space he was looking for was right in front of him, right beyond the canvas’ surface. He had taken a 2-D object (a canvas) and created a 3-D space with it (the space formed by the tear). An apparently destructive act had actually created something. When you look at these paintings/sculptures, they look very much like open wounds. And they are – but a wound within which something has been born.
And that brings us to our last stop – Piazza del Carmine in Brera, where there is a sculpture by the Polish artist Igor Mitoraj. A dear friend once pointed out that Mitoraj likes to discreetly inscribe little flowers and leaves into the wounds of his mutilated sculptures. Unfortunately, the one in Brera has no such scars, but what a powerful symbol – again, something beautiful growing out of a place of pain.
The bit of road we’ve just conquered together, really struck a cord with me when I pieced it together. The truth is – I already look at this city through my own Milanese scars. My father passed away here 10 years ago – how could I not? I felt a new connection to the city in the fact that – just like I carry my own scars around in my handbag (not a Bottega Veneta – alas! – but a fluorescent orange Cambridge Satchel), so does Milan. For the most part, it is an amazing thing that these signs of pain and suffering have not been erased, but have been embraced.
The time I spent here long ago, was a lost, lonely and hurt time, but I discovered a place beyond the canvas too. Through the discreet intensity of God’s love for me, I discovered a place of such strength that even now – when I must suffer again – that is the place I get my strength from. So there was never any need for that wound to heal. It just needed to be embraced – like the historical scars of Milan – and given time to flourish – like Fontana and Mitoraj’s works. The 33 year old me would like to reassure the 22 year old, that my scars have constructed, not destroyed me. Embrace your scars.
Hmm, now that’s something worthy of some permanent body art.