Top 10 unusual sights in Milan

In addition to Milan’s most familiar landmarks, the Duomo, the Castle and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, there are some other less familiar sights that are like clues helping you to fathom the city’s history and culture. Here are 10 of the less familiar, more unusual sights in Milan…

1. A ball that shouldn’t be there but is

The mid-1800s were hectic times for Milan, which at that time was part of the Austrian empire, and in March 1848 the tension between the population and the Austrian garrison exploded into street warfare. The battle lasted just five days, from 18 to 22 March, with the Milanese people inventing all sorts of systems for outwitting the occupants, such as building hot-air balloons to smuggle messages out of the city, enlisting the astronomers in their tower-top observatories to watch the Austrians’ movements, and building mobile barricades that could be rolled along the street. At Corso di Porta Romana 3 there is a remnant from this battle. Look up and you will see a cannonball stuck halfway into the wall, now labelled with a plaque with the date 20 March 1848.

milano unusual sights

2. Balls that should be there but aren’t

Perhaps a more obvious one. The poor bull in the mosaic floor of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele whose privates are used by all and sundry in the hope of receiving good luck. Find the emblem of Turin under the central dome, place your right heel on the spot, and spin round once clockwise.
The mosaics under the glass dome also have another curious feature, the abbreviation F.E.R.T. that accompanies the emblem of the Savoy family from which the kings of Milan came. The family has distant origins, running at least back to the 10th century, so distant that there are no records of what F.E.R.T. actually means. All suggestions are mere conjectures, such as Frappez, Entrez, Rompez Tout (knock, enter, destroy everything).

milano unusual sights
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, photo courtesy of Paolo Margari/flickr

3. The man who should be there but isn’t

The guy whose face is missing is Mussolini, shown in a mosaic in Milan’s Central Station, alongside platform 20. It was Mussolini and his regime that gave new impetus to the project for a new station that dated to before the First War, and it was inaugurated in 1931, complete with lots of decorations including this mosaic and various Fascist symbols. Many were removed, many still remain. Just look upwards while you’re walking around inside.

milano unusual sights

4. The man who shouldn’t be there but is

It’s Mussolini again, on one of the pinnacles of the Cathedral, in a double portrait with King Vittorio Emanuele II. Sculptors were working on statues for the Duomo from the late 1300s right through to the 20th century, and after 3,000 apostles, saints, martyrs, virgin, popes and bishops, they were running out of subjects. It is for this reason that Mussolini won immortality in the most prestigious location in the city. Other unexpected subjects include two boxers, Napoleon, and a host of cats, dogs and other animals. Climb to the rooftop, and when you emerge into the sunlight, turn left, look back northwest and downwards, and search for the double-headed pinnacle.

milano unusual sights

5. How to set your watch in the Cathedral

While you’re at the Duomo, take a look inside: as soon as you’ve entered the main door, turn right and look up to the vaults in the right-hand nave, and you’ll see a small hole. A ray of light from a hole in the south nave roof descends and reaches the floor, where there is a marble and brass line, with signs of the zodiac along it. It is a massive sundial, and the ray intercepts the line at astronomical noon. Nowadays, you can’t see it operating, with all the arc lights switched on inside, but for decades in the 19th century it was used for regulating the city’s mechanical clocks.

milano unusual sights

6. Lift up to cloud nine

The lift in the Duomo was built in the 1600s of wood and wicker and was decorated to resemble a cloud. It is still used twice a year, when the bishop of Milan gets in, is hoisted up 40 metres above the altar, and retrieves one of the Cathedral’s most precious possessions, a nail from the Crucifixion. Three days later, he goes up again to take it back. The tradition began because the pilgrims’ devotion for the nail, placed in its lofty position, seemed to be diminishing just because it was so high up, and so in 1576 the archbishop of Milan brought it down for the first time. Aspiring applicants to the position of archbishop are advised to write ‘good head for heights’ in their CV.

milano unusual sights

7. Nine metres in ninety centimetres

You thought virtual reality was a 21st century discovery? Take a look at the church of San Satiro, hidden away on Via Torino (about 80 metres down from Piazza Duomo, just after Via Speronari) where you’ll discover a Renaissance optical illusion that creates a virtual space nine metres long in a space of just 95 cm. It was designed by architect Donato Bramante in about 1480, and it solved several problems all at once: there wasn’t enough room to build a real apse because a road ran behind, Bramante wanted to build a central plan church with the altar at the centre of four identical transepts, and the clerics wanted the altar in the usual position on the east side. Talk about necessity being the mother of invention…

milano unusual sights

8. Humerus? Not very

Bones, thousands of them, cloak the walls of a small chapel in the church of San Bernardino alle Ossa, in Piazza Santo Stefano. When the tower of the adjacent church of Santo Stefano collapsed in 1642, they immediately started to dig deeper foundations for the new tower and uncovered lots of bones. You reach the chapel through a narrow corridor on the right after going in, and you’ll see the skulls and long bones incorporated into the Rococo decorations. According to tradition, the bones are of saints and martyrs; it’s more likely that they are just ordinary people who died in the hospital that was nearby in the Middle Ages.

milano unusual sights

9. Bomb damage

In Piazza della Repubblica, you can still see signs of the three air-raids in August 1943 that helped persuade Italy to sign an armistice with the Allies. The shrapnel from the bombs punched holes through the lamp-post, which has remained in position ever since. Probably the least fêted war memorial in the world.

milano unusual sights

10. When walls have ears

This sculpture is on a building in Via Serbelloni 10, named ‘Ca’ de l’oreggia’ (‘Ear House’ in Milanese dialect), right next to the front door. Made in bronze and complete with some tufts of curly hair above, it was installed in the mid-1920s as a housephone, and a pipe led from the ear to the porter’s office. When it was working visitors actually had to announce themselves into this giant ear, about 70 cm high. Even though the housephone is no longer in use, it has been retained in its position on the façade, in part because it was created by celebrated sculptor Adolfo Wildt.

milano unusual sights


The wooden leg

El Gamba de Legn’: ‘the wooden leg’ is an unusual name for a means of transport. It was the nickname that the people of Milan gave to the first steam-powered tram which started running on 9 September 1878, connecting Milan and Magenta over a distance of about 23 kilometres. But why wooden leg? Apparently the tram, running slowly along the tracks on Milan’s cobbled streets, made a syncopated sound, like a person walking with a wooden leg, and it rolled a bit as well.

The 17 trams had from 10 to 12 carriages, without doors or heating, and there were wooden benches for the passengers who got very cold in winter. But even so, in those days the Gamba de Legn’ was more efficient than the horse-drawn trams that could carry only a dozen people and that operated from Milan to Monza right up until 1900.

The 17 locomotives were manufactured by Lokomotivenfabrik Krauß in Munich, and they had a structure totally different from railway locos. For safety, the boiler and engine were completely enclosed by a steel screening structure, and the driver’s cabin was at the front for better visibility.

The maximum speed of the steam tram was specified by Milan’s provincial administration: 15 kilometres per hour in the countryside, along roads lined by mulberries used for silkworm raising, and 10 km/h in the city. When it was foggy, speed was reduced to 5 km/h. At every village and in Milan, an employee wrapped in a cloak and equipped with a lantern, bell and whistle waited for the tram and then walked in front of it to warn pedestrians of the oncoming danger. Before the First War, the tram ran five times a day. During the Second World War, many people were forced to live outside the city because of air-raid damage, and so all the goods trucks available were pressed into service, and even so, many passengers were forced to ride on the roofs of the normal carriages.

After the War, things returned to normal, and the last tram every day left Milan at 0.40 a.m., taking people back home after their evening out at the cinema or theatre.

The Gamba de Legn’ ran for about another decade after the war. Even though the residents of the villages and towns through which the slow and shuddering tram ran would have preferred to have kept the steam-powered version rather than the new electric trams, it finally went out of service in 1957. The last journey of the Gamba de Legn’ was acccompanied by huge crowds of people, who put flowers on the locomotive.

You can see this short, squat steam tram in the Padiglione Ferroviario at the Science Museum, Museo della Scienza e della Tecnica Leonardo da Vinci, along with some other much larger steam locos and one of the horse-drawn trams that the Gamba de Legn’ replaced. In this shed, the first thing that you notice when you go in is the smell, an unmistakable tang of iron, old coal residues, and ancient smoke. And while it’s terrifying to think of all those tons of trees and coal and coke that were burnt, it would be really nice, one day, to see El Gamba de Legn’ take to the streets of Milan one last time.

Art Milan

A Cathedral mystery

20121029-063521.jpg A Cathedral as enormous as Milan’s is bound to have a few mysteries hidden away somewhere. One of them can be found in the left-hand transept: a giant candlestick, known as the Candelabro Trivulzio. It is a triumph of fractal geometry: from a distance it seems just a bronze seven-armed candlestick, but as you move closer in, first of all you appreciate the size (it is 5 metres high), and then you see that the structure dissolves into a swirl of bronze leaves concealing dozens of strange figures, including animals, saints and angels. The base consists of four dragons, whose drooping heads form the feet of the candlestick, and whose powerful tails move upwards to create the basic structure. Strangely, each of the dragons is being attacked by a pair of animals. What does it all mean?

Certainly the candlestick fits in very well with the Cathedral. The fluted central column echoes the great columns of the nave, and the candlestick’s organic volutes replete with Biblical characters are the bronze equivalent of the Cathedral’s decoration and statues in marble. But in actual fact the candlestick predates the Cathedral, whose construction began in 1386, by about two hundred years. And the candlestick was not made in Milan, but (according to many scholars) in England!

Tracing the history of this piece of art is made more complicated by the fact that the earliest documentation is from 1550 and records Giovanni Battista Trivulzio’s gift of the candlestick to the Cathedral. It is certain that he had acquired it from somewhere in France: it is likely that it had been shipped from England to France in order to save it from the destruction of sacred images that took place during the Reformation.

20121029-063607.jpgTo give you an idea of the complexity of the subject matter portrayed in the candlestick, here is a description of a small part. As you approach the candlestick’s south side, you see a foot consisting of a dragon being attacked by two cowled monkeys wielding swords. Move to the left, and at the very bottom you see the head of a fantastical animal with a curving beak and spiralling horns. Above this, to the left, there is the figure of Noah in the Ark (which looks more like a church than a boat). One of his sons is looking out from the right-hand side. Noah holds his hands in the air, having just released a dove. Further up, on the left, you can see the dove returning, with a branch of olive, bringing the message to Noah that the deluge has come to an end. To the left of the Ark, there is a flashback to before the Flood, with two sheep on their way into the vessel.

To the right of Noah’s ark is Abraham, swinging a large sword and about to sacrifice his son Isaac, whom he is holding on the altar. Just above, an angel has grabbed the sword to save the boy, and just under the little altar is the unfortunate lamb who will become the sacrificial victim in Isaac’s stead.

Above these two Biblical scenes are a king and a queen. They represent Virtues vanquishing the Vices, which are seen as smaller figures below. Next up comes a group of star-signs, Cancer (the crab on the left) and Leo (a lion), with Virgo sitting above and between them.

20121029-063658.jpgIn the spiralling tail of the left-hand dragon, a female figure grasps a serpent: this group embodies one of the four Liberal Arts, dialectics. Opposite, in the right-hand dragon’s tail, a young man is pouring water from a jar: this represents one of the Rivers of Paradise. They correspond to the four great earthly rivers, the Tigris, Euphrates, Ganges and the Nile.

Now, leave the base and move up the central stem, past the first smooth node, to the central node. This is dedicated to Mary, who is seated on a throne, with Jesus on her lap. On the three remaining sides of this node, the three wise Kings can be seen on horseback, making their historic journey.

And all this is just a quarter of the candlestick: the other three sides are just as elaborately decorated. But, you may ask, what are those strange dragons all about? This is a question for which not even the scholars have an answer. It is impossible to compare the Candelabro Trivulzio with similar versions in England because, even though that country had a great tradition of giant seven-armed candlesticks, they were all destroyed in the 16th century, at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries.

20121029-063802.jpgHowever, to venture a hypothesis, we could say that the base of the candlestick represents the universe, with the rivers, the history of the world with the Old Testament stories, and the stars above as symbolised by the astrological signs. From this base springs the Church, built on the figure of Jesus, which radiates light and enlightenment as demonstrated by the seven lamps.

As to the form of the world itself, in 1200 it was still thought of as a flat disc supported by four elephants or other such animals.

Today, a scientist would ask “and what are the elephants standing on?”, but in those days, that sort of question would get you flogged or worse. And so perhaps this candlestick’s dragons signify the continuous struggle between good and evil that characterises man’s world.

Nonetheless, this dramatic imagery has not dissuaded thieves from removing some of the semi-precious stones that adorn the bronze. In various places you will see blank sockets, and the eyes of the dragon on the east side are now bereft of the two original gems. Showing that when it is a question of allaying the suffering of man, some people prefer more immediate remedies than those offered by spiritual enlightenment.



Last Supper, a grand complication in art

One of Milan’s claims to fame is that it is the only city in which you can give the name of a painting to a taxi driver, and he’ll know exactly where to take you. The Last Supper caused a revolution in painting when it was first unveiled in 1499, and it has contined to exert its power over artists right up until today, notwithstanding the fact that it has suffered the passage of time more most pieces of art. Visitors should be warned that the visit does not include multi-media presentations or explanations, and at best a guide with limited grasp of English who provides a summary overview of the scene that Leonardo depicted. Here is my version.


Leonardo’s technique and the Last Supper

It is common knowledge that this Renaissance Last Supper is in a bad state, but it is in better condition now than it has been for almost five hundred years. Leonardo painted it from 1494 to 1498, and his finished work sent shock waves through the Italian Renaissance. But just a few decades after it had been finished, it began to deteriorate. Often, people think that this was caused by an experimental technique invented by the artist that went wrong, but this is not actually the case.

In the German city of Erfurt, the Catholic cathedral has a large fresco depicting Saint Christopher, in excellent condition, recorded as having been painted “à l’huile sur le mur préparé au moyen d’une couche d’huile et d’une couche de blanc de plomb“. This corresponds to the preparation of the wall on which the Last Supper was painted, a very fine plaster mixed with an oily substance, possibly wax, and then coated with a layer of white lead. The technique therefore was not an invention by Leonardo, but a method that had been described previously, in particular, by Cennino Cennini in the 14th century. In fact, according to Cennini, the traditional fresco painting technique, using pigments direct on wet plaster, was the safest, but had the disadvantage of restricting the range of colours that could be used. Cennini in fact recommented the use of pittura a secco, namely painting onto dry plaster, for the final touches alone. Leonardo had evidently heard about the techniques used in northern Europe, and decided to use the oil-based technique for his fresco. This was also important for his desire to work slowly on the painting, giving him sufficient time to develop the gradual shading or chiaroscuro that was essential in his style.

Unfortunately, the wall was subject to rising damp, and the situation was made worse by the fact that on the other side of the wall were the kitchens, where the food eaten by the monks in the refectory was prepared. In the years following the completion of the work, the moisture in the wall repelled the oily ground, and it began to crack, fragmenting the painted surface. In many areas, the individual pieces of plaster between the cracks took on a concave shape, like a series of tiny shells, within which dirt accumulated. During the innumerable restoration operations that have been performed over the centuries, the painting was scraped with spatulas and metal brushes in an attempt to force the plaster back into shape, but this just damaged the edges of the individual concave chips, exposing the lead white ground. Layers of resin and glue were painted over it in an attempt to stabilize the layer of pigment. On several occasions, painters were actually summoned to bring the work back to its original glory by painting over it. By 1969, many scholars believed that there was nothing at all left of Leonardo’s original work, but just accumulated dirt and the paint added during successive repainting operations.

Only in 1977 did the first trial areas of cleaning demonstrate that it was possible to remove the extraneous layers and reach Leonardo’s original pigment. And this is what was done in the operation that lasted from 1978 to 1999.

The Last Supper’s survival instinct

Another event in the history of this painting shows that its survival up until today is something of a miracle. In August 1943, the refectory received a direct hit from a bomb dropped in one of the three air-raids planned to accelerate the Kingdom of Italy’s Armistice (signed on 3rd September). The blast completely destroyed the roof and one of the long walls of the refectory. The two end walls – one with the Last Supper, the other with Montorfano’s Crucifixion – survived, and the paintings remained intact because they had been protected by a wall of sandbags from floor to ceiling.

Photo by Nichols, Lynn H. (1995). The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Teasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0-679-75686-6; OCLC 32531154, Fair use,

It is no surprise, considering its turbulent history, that its conditions are closely monitored. Visits are limited to 25 people every 15 minutes, which is why pre-booking is necessary. Before entering the hall itself, visitors pass through a series of glass-encased rooms that delicately remove excess humidity and dust by means of a pressure differential. In other words, you are hoovered, but very gently.

Inside the refectory, there is nothing. Nothing except Leonardo’s painting, and Montorfano’s on the opposite wall. At this point there is another analogy with a valuable mechanical timepiece. You can only appreciate its value if you understand something of its incredible complication. Just as to the eyes of a layman, superficially there doesn’t seem to be all that much difference between a Piaget and a Swatch, the Last Supper runs the risk of leaving a visitor with the feeling “is that it?” Worse, a lack of information leaves ample space for writers – most famously Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code, but many other even worse authors who wanted their share of this dubious glory – to reinterpret the painting as they wish. And so, according to Dan Brown, the feminine-looking figure to the left of Christ is not actually one of the twelve Apostles, but Mary Magdalene. This immediately prompts a Brown sceptic such as myself to ask, so where did the twelfth disciple go? Out buying the pizzas, or just late for dinner?

The truth of the matter is that the painting is a true grand complication. There is so much meaning, on several different layers of complexity, that any of the modern reinterpretations pales in comparison. The Last Supper question is one that has never been comprehensively answered.

An instant depicted

The first level of meaning is the scene itself. Leonardo chose an exact moment in the Gospel narration of the Last Supper. “In truth, I tell you, one of you will betray me…” says Jesus, who is shown in the act of speaking. This revelation surges outwards amongst the Disciples who react, each in his own way, coalescing them into four groups of three. Christ has an expression of resigned sadness and at the same time, an assured and regal poise. He gestures to the wine with his right hand, to the bread with his left, instituting the fundamental Christian ritual of the Eucharist. The movement of the Disciples isolates Jesus, leaving Him alone at the centre of the composition. He is the only person to have a geometrical shape, an almost perfect equilateral triangle. He is also the only person to wear robes in red and dark blue. This is a tradition that descends from Mediaeval traditions in painting and stained glass. The most expensive pigments to make were deep blue and bright red, requiring pulverized lapislazuli and gold respectively, and so over the centuries, these pigments were used only for the most important figures in the composition.

Leonardo painted the Apostles after having made countless drawings, some of which have survived in his notebooks. One preparatory drawing shows the Apostles labelled with their names.

Leonardo da Vinci study for Last Supper
By Leonardo da Vinci –  Public Domain,

In fact, each Apostle had acquired a sort of standard appearance throughout the history of art up until that point, so that a person could recognize them in paintings and frescoes. In the same way, saints and martyrs were often depicted with certain objects that left no doubt as to their identity, such as John the Baptist’s rough animal-skin clothes, St. Peter’s keys, St. Catherine’s wheel and so forth. And so we know who attended the Last Supper – namely the identity of the Apostles – from the facial expressions that Leonardo gave them. On the far left, Bartholomew is rising to his feet, incredulous. James Minor is seated, trying to attract Peter’s attention with a hand on his shoulder. Andrew has both hands in the air, a gesture still used in Italy today to mean “it wasn’t me, honest!”

Bartholomew James Minor Andrew Last Supper Leonardo da Vinci-W1200
Bartholomew, James Minor, Andrew, Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, image Public Domain,

The next group of three is complicated. Judas is a dark figure, leaning back from his position close to Jesus and over the table, so that his head is actually the next, the fourth, in the sequence. He is clutching a bag of money in his right hand, while his left is about to take a piece of bread. In fact, Jesus would shortly reveal to John that the traitor would be he who would dip his bread into the same bowl as Him.

Judas is distanced from the other Apostles by his dark, shadowed complexion, and by an apparently broken nose. Behind his back there is a knife held by a mysterious hand. It could be Peter’s, it could be a disembodied 27th hand belonging to no-one in the composition.

Peter, the next in the sequence, is leaning in the opposite direction to Judas, so that although he is sitting next to Andrew – they were brothers – his head is very close to John the Evangelist. This is because, in the Gospel narration, Peter is asking John to ask Jesus who the traitor would be. John was the youngest Apostle, which was why he was traditionally shown without a beard.

Judas, Peter, John the Evangelist, the Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci
Judas, Peter, John the Evangelist, the Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, image Public Domain,

Then, on the right of Jesus, there is Thomas, pointing upwards with a finger. This gesture was familiar to monks during the Renaissance: as meals in the refectory had to be taken in silence, in order to indicate God there was a conventional sign, thumb and index finger extended, the others closed. James Major is next, in a green robe. Philip is gesturing with both hands towards his heart, saying in tortured self-doubt, “Could it be I?”

Thomas, James Major, Philip, the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
Thomas, James Major, Philip, the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, image Public Domain,

Matthew, the only educated man amongst the Apostles, is debating the matter, hands outstretched towards Jesus while he himself is deep in conversation with the other two Apostles in the right-hand group, Thaddeus, and lastly Simon.

Philip Matthew Thaddeus Simon Last Supper Leonardo da Vinci
Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus, Simon, the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, image Public Domain,

Judas is one of us

Leonardo brought about many small revolutions with this painting, advances that may seem insignificant to us in our scientific and relatively unspiritual age, but that at the time were momentous. Firstly, he completely broke with tradition as regards the position of Judas. Painters before Leonardo made sure that Judas was very different to the rest of the Apostles, often by placing him alone, on our side of the table, or by making him the only one without a halo. Leonardo puts him together with the rest, one of the twelve, part of the overall sequence, and none of his figures have a halo. Secondly, this is probably the first painting in which an artist has tried to depict the variety of human psychology. Each Apostle reacts in his own, unique way, and Leonardo depicts this using all the methods possible, facial expression, bodily position, and above all, the gestures of the hands.

An unusual perspective

Leonardo was a master of perspective, a fundamental Renaissance rediscovery, and in this painting he both broke the rules, and used it to add extra significance to the work. He broke the rules, because when you are standing the in the refectory, the perspective seems wrong. The upper edge of the tapestries ought to follow straight from the ceiling moulding in the real room, but they don’t. This is because Leonardo wanted to paint the fresco at a raised level, both so that it could be seen by all the monks in the room, and because the Gospel describes the Last Supper as having taken place in a room on an upper floor. If he had used perspective correctly, we would have seen nothing of what is on the table, and the table itself would have obscured most of the figure’s bodies. So he painted the scene with a perspective view that would be correct if the observer were at a height of about twelve feet.
The lines of perspective, the tapestries and the ceiling beams, converge at a vanishing point that is just above Jesus’ right eye. On his temple. “Tempia” in Italian. The word’s etymology indicates Christ’s centrality in faith, the church and the universe.

Astrological sequence

Leonardo took his revolution a step further. (I should warn you that from here on, I am voicing my own ideas). The parallel between the twelve Apostles and the twelve signs of the zodiac had been noted prior to Leonardo, but no-one had ever expressed it in paintings, partly because the Church didn’t approve of the contamination of doctrine with astrology. So Leonardo put in some subtle clues. Andrew, third from left, two hands in the air, Gemini, the twins, double sign. Judas, the fourth in the sequence, symbolizes a word that had had three meanings from Ancient Greek times: karkinos, the crab, tumours, and the zodiac constellation. Cancer. Then Peter, fiery temper, a great mane of hair: Leo. And then, the sixth in the sequence, a pale, delicate, feminine face, John the Evangelist: Virgo, of course! On the other side, Thomas, doubting Thomas, whose raised finger alludes (as well as to the Divinity in the sky) to that fact that later he would say that he would not believe until he had placed his finger into the wounds on Christ’s hands, is in the position of Libra, the sign of the zodiac hallmarked by perennial doubt. Second from last, Thaddeus is holding his hand in a cup shape. Aquarius, the water-bearer.

It’s true, not all the figures have such clear astrological attributes, but I think that there is enough to corroborate the theory. But, one may ask, why did Leonardo want to risk getting into trouble again with the Church for his unorthodox approach to subject matter? Here, I think that the answer is that Leonardo wanted to do more than just paint a picture describing a scene from the Gospel. He wanted to encapsulate that momentous instant in time into a worthy frame, and so he incorporated the only scientific, or rather metaphysical, concept on the origin and structure of the universe that he knew, the Neoplatonic interpretation. (The same sort of approach can be seen in the Trivulzio Candelabra in the Cathedral, except that in this case, the world view is early Mediaeval).

The Last Supper and numerology

In Timaeus, Plato describes the creation of the universe. Considering that order is better than disorder, the Creator’s fundamental action was to bring order to the disorderly substance in which the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) were shapeless and in constant motion. In doing so, He ensured that the world is a living creature, doing so by putting intelligence in soul, and soul in body. “Wherefore, using the language of probability, we may say that the world became a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God” (Timaeus 30a-b). In addition, the demiurge ensured that the world is one and only, a single unique world (31b), a concept that would be later developed by Spinoza. The Creator made the body of the universe from the four elements: “And for these reasons, and out of such elements which are in number four, the body of the world was created, and it was harmonised by proportion” (31-33). Finally, the Creator made the soul of the world, placing it at the centre of the world’s body. The world thus became a perfect, self-sufficient and intelligent being, and so was itself a god (34b) – once again, equivalent to Spinoza’s concept of the universe.

In Timaeus, Plato then explains how the soul of the world was created by combining three elements, Sameness, Difference, and Being (or Existence). These elements were put into motion, and the motion of Difference comprised seven circles, corresponding to the orbits of the heavenly bodies, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The demiurge connected the body and soul of the universe, diffusing the soul from the centre of the body to its extremities in every direction (36e).

These numbers, three, four and seven, are clearly visible in all parts of the Last Supper’s composition, in the four groups of three disciples, the three windows on the back wall, and the ceiling beams, of which there are seven in each direction.

Last Supper ceiling, Leonardo da Vinci
Last Supper ceiling, Leonardo da Vinci, image Public Domain,

So the room of the Last Supper becomes a depiction of the universe, an intelligent being, a god. And so it is no surprise that Christ, the Son of God, is right at the centre, his right temple at the point of focus of the perspective lines, so that the intelligence of the world irradiates outwards to every part.

It follows that the three windows provide a glimpse beyond the world that mankind knows, the realm of eternity. I find it interesting that Leonardo never painted a paradise of clouds, angels, seraphims and cherubims as depicted by many other Medieval and Renaissance artists. (See below, Bergognone’s Incoronation of the Virgin in San Simpliciano, Milan). Leonardo’s paradise is simply our own world, in a different dimension. The landscape that we see through the three windows looks very like a Lombard landscape, with mountains and lakes, and even a tiny church tower that became visible after the restoration.

Last Supper windows, Leonardo da Vinci
Last Supper windows, Leonardo da Vinci, image Public Domain,

I would venture to say that Leonardo’s love of nature was such that he looked forward to continuing his explorations in eternal life. Perhaps he considered paradise as our own world, but outside the constrictions of time.

Bergognone Incoronation of the Virgin San Simpliciano Milan
CC 4.0,_soffitto_di_San_Simpliciano,_Milano.jpg

Hands off Cain

Another revolution: Leonardo saves Judas. I mentioned the knife that is behind his back, another traditional element in Last Supper paintings, indicating man’s hostility to the traitor and suggesting the fact that Judas would die soon after.

The knife, Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci
The knife Last Supper Leonardo da Vinci, image Public Domain,

While at first glance, Peter seems to be holding the knife, the impossible anatomical position of this hand shows that in actual fact, the hand grasping the knife belongs to no-one at all, and that Peter is restraining it from its murderous action. Leonardo seems to be saying, by placing Judas with the rest of the Apostles, that there is an element of evil in all of us, and that we have to accept it just as we accept death and suffering. We cannot excise evil from the human race by executing a sinner. Hands off Cain, many centuries in advance.

This, then, is one interpretation of this extraordinary painting. While I’ve taken two hours to write this article, Leonardo spent four years on the painting, and there’s more, much, much more to be told…

Last Supper bookings: visit the website where you can book tickets on line. Visits from 8.15 to 18.45, Tuesday-Sunday, closed on Mondays. Remember to bring your booking code, and to get there at least 20 minutes before the time of your visit. The Last Supper is located at Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.


Just desserts


“Mmm, this is lovely”, I said, turning away from the view over Amsterdam.

Mmm, buonissima“, said my wife, “what is it?”

Kwarktaart“, replied my aunt. A white cake with a biscuity base, something like cheesecake but much lighter.

Kwarktaart? Strange name. Sounds like it’s made of sub-atomic particles”.

“No, the main ingredient is kwark. Not quarks. Don’t you know what kwark is? It’s something midway between yoghurt and cheese”.

L’abbiamo anche noi“, said my wife, “or at least something similar in Liguria. They call it quagliata, or prescinsèua. But you only find it in the area from Genova to Sestri. They use it for desserts. How do you make this one?”

“I really don’t know”, said my aunt, “my next door neighbour made it. I’ll ask her for the recipe”.

It was only on my next visit to the Netherlands, a month later, that she gave me the recipe. Or rather a box containing the necessary ingredients. My wife wasn’t with me on that occasion, and so I listened attentively while my aunt explained what I had to do. I made copious notes and packed the box into my suitcase.

Ah, ho capito, torta allo yoghurt“, said my wife when I showed her the packet, back in Milan. That’s good, I thought, she knows all about it. I put it away and forgot all about it. Until my aunt decided that she’d visit us in Milan using one of those cheap crack-of-dawn flights to Orio al Serio.

“You can make me the cake”, she said, “I love kwarktaart for breakfast”.

I know nothing about cooking, but I am an expert in procrastination. So, only late in the evening before my aunt’s arrival did I take out the cardboard box. First hitch: I’d lost all the notes I’d made in Amsterdam. No problem, I thought, there’ll be instructions on the box. And, seeing as the Dutch are so good at English, they’ll be printed in both languages. But there was only Dutch.

I suppose that some people, at this stage, would ditch the whole kwark idea in favour of a quick trip to a pasticceria on the way back from the airport. But my problem is that I am half Dutch (see name at bottom), and the fact that I am unable to communicate with my Dutch relatives in what ought to be at least my second language is something that continuously fuels my galloping guilt complex. The kwarktaart was a challenge that I couldn’t fail to meet.

No problem, I thought. Quite a lot of Dutch words are similar to English. Een twee drie vier vijf zes zeven acht negen tien. And I could see from the main titles in the instructions that the two stages of preparation took just 5 minuten each. I had loads of time. Taartbodem bereiden. I found a 24 cm springvorm, and put in the piece of paper that was included in the packet. So far so good. Smelt 50 gram boter in een pannetje, and that was easy too. Then there were a lot of sentences with some very long words, so I ignored them and followed the pictures. Very soon I had a very professional-looking biscuity cake base at the bottom of the tin. Now for the second section. Doe het lauwe water en de taartmix in een kom en klop dit met de mixer met garden op de laagste stand in één minuut tot een glad mengsel. Hmm. A lot of English-looking words there, but most of them must be treacherously false friends. Luckily I could remember one of the things that my aunt had translated, and that was that I had to mix the mixture at normal speed for a bit, then at the fastest speed. I remembered this because I’d said that in our kitchen, fastest speed meant me turning the handle more quickly. Anyway I opened the second sachet and put the white powder into a bowl with some cold water (hoping that it was lauwe enough) and the yoghurt, which, as I’d discovered on another panel on the packet, could be used to substitute the mysterious kwark. I started whisking slowly, and then increased the revs, only to stop immediately, having seen a flurry of white specks deposit themselves all around the kitchen. This cake was going to be bad news. I propped the breadboard against one side of the bowl as a screen and carried on whisking.

After a few minutes, the mixture hadn’t changed at all. Still a creamy white liquid, and loads of it too. Surely it was going to run out the sides of the springvorm? I added some extra caulking, poured the stuff in and hoped for the best. Now I just had to cook the thing. I scrutinized the instructions carefully. Schenk het taartmengsel over de bodem en laat de taart ten minste 2 ½ uur opstijven … ten minutes, or two and a half hours? And at what temperature? But the packet ran out of useful suggestions, except for an optimistic “Bak met plezier!” at the bottom. Huh, I’d definitely bake with pleasure, if only you told me how. I considered waking my wife to ask her, or phoning my aunt. Then I saw the time, and decided that the only chance was to procrastinate. I’d put the whole thing into the fridge for the moment and bake it in the morning after having received some expert advice.

Next morning, I woke late, and saw that I’d have to dash if I was to get to Orio al Serio in time. As that flight is the first of the day on that particular route, I couldn’t even hope for any accumulated delay. I parked, ran into the arrivals, and met my aunt just as she was coming out of the doors. I took her case and we left the terminal. As we passed the bar with its fantastic array of brioches, the memory of the kwarktaart came back with a rush, but I realised that there wasn’t much I could do about it now. We drove back to Milan in the midst of rush-hour traffic and eventually reached the flat. I buzzed my wife at the door, and sent my aunt up with the lift. I took the car down to the garage, where I waited patiently while our next-door-neighbours performed complicated manouevres to get their Mercedes out of a Fiat-sized garage.

When I reached the flat, my wife and aunt were sitting on the terrace with cups of cappuccino and – horror! – my wife was cutting the cake! I watched aghast but couldn’t find the words to avert the disaster. My wife must have seen my expression.

Che c’è?“, she said, cutting another piece.

“Is it… cooked enough?”, I asked, but then, seeing that somehow the liquid had congealed into a solid mass, and that they were eating it with at least a moderate degree of approval, I understood that what I imagined to be a raw inedible stage of the recipe was in fact the finished product.

So all was well that ended well. Except that I still couldn’t imagine why the sub-atomic particle had been named after the cheesy stuff – as you can see I had at least succeeded in working out that the cheese probably preceded the physics. A few days later I found a tub of German “quark” in a delicatessen, so I felt that I was on my way to the solution. But then I found some lines in Finnegans Wake that said, “Three quarks for Muster Mark!, Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark, And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.” The footnotes told me that “to quark” was an English verb meaning to caw or croak, and that the American physicist who had proposed the sub-atomic particles, Murray Gell-Mann, had probably been thinking of James Joyce and not of cheese. Certainly not of kwarktaart.

© Johannes H. Neuteboom, Milan 2005


The Cimitero Monumentale

Milan's Cimitero Monumentale
Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale

November starts with the ponte dei morti, which, literally translated, means the bridge of the dead. A horror movie? A natural disaster? No, just a long weekend, from Thursday 1 November 2012 to Sunday 4 November. Tutti i Santi, 1 November, is a public holiday in Italy. For many people, Friday gets thrown in free to bridge the gap. Then on Wednesday 2 November, there is the Commemorazione dei Defunti, which is not a holiday, but a day when many people visit cemeteries and put flowers on their family graves. For this reason, November is an excellent time in which to visit Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale, which is always spectacular, and even better when bedecked with crysanthemums and other blooms. Though externally it is obstructed by a building site for a new Metro line, access is still possible.

Cemetery visiting, in the sightseeing sense, is not really an Italian thing at all. Most Italian males, when faced with this sort of suggestion, would surreptitiously touch a certain dual part of their anatomy, and many Italian females would extend the second and fifth fingers of one or both hands in the unmistakable “horns” gesture that keeps calamity and death at an acceptable distance. But for many visitors from abroad, a visit to one of Italy’s monumental cemeteries is an essential part of a trip here.

Milan's Cimitero Monumentale
A sculpture in bronze in Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale

Probably the finest of all is Milan’s Monumentale, with Genoa’s Staglieno and Turin’s Monumentale close behind. Milan’s cemetery was built from 1866, on the wave of the “cemetery movement” that really started with Père Lachaise in Paris and spread all over Europe. After the Edict of St. Cloud had prohibited burial in churches, the time was ripe for the cimitero monumentale, an enclosed field in which there were no problems of space. Above all, this type of cemetery was a civic establishment, only partially controlled by the clerical authorities, and this meant that artists could indulge in extreme realism and images that would never be allowed in a church. In addition, Milan’s cemetery developed in the years during which the Romantic movement was at its height. For Romantic artists and writers, the concept of death was no longer associated with fear and horror, but with release, repose, rebirth, and even ecstasy of the most explicit variety. And so many of the tombs feature extraordinarily beautiful sculptures of lightly veiled, or totally naked, women. The cemetery is a huge – 250,000 square metres – open-air gallery, with over 6,000 pieces of sculpture in peaceful and green surroundings. It’s open from 8.30 to 17.30 every day except Monday.

There is lots more religious sculpture in the Cathedral, just opposite Palazzo Reale, where you can see a sculptural version of Saint Bartholomew post-martyrdom. This, just inside the entrance on the south side, is definitely not for the faint-hearted. The 16th-century sculptor Marco d’Agrate shows a
man whose skin has just been totally removed, and takes the opportunity to show off his skill at muscles, veins and tendons, which at that time was all the rage after Leonardo da Vinci’s pioneering anatomy studies.

San Bernardino, Piazza Santo Stefano, Milan
San Bernardino, Piazza Santo Stefano, Milan

Not far off, in Piazza Santo Stefano, there is one of the strangest sights in Milan. The largest church is Santo Stefano, and the church tower used to be on the left-hand side of the church. When it collapsed in 1642, it fell on top of a much smaller church, San Bernardino, nearby, which for centuries had been used to store human remains. And so San Bernardino was rebuilt, and the bones were used as an interior decoration material. The writing is on the wall, as one says, and in this case the writing is in femurs. To find this little chapel, look for the passage on the right after going in. The main church was built in the 1700s after the bone-lined chapel had become something of an attraction for the people of the city. San Bernardino is open from Monday to Saturday mornings (about 8.30 to 12.30) and it also opens for Mass on Sunday.

After all this culture, what about a little refreshment? Personally, at this time of year I can’t resist pane dei morti, little chocolatey cakes sprinkled with sugar, in all the pasticcerie. Delicious. And, to conclude, neither can I resist a couple of quotations on the subject. “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it”. (W. Somerset Maugham). “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter”. (Winston Churchill). But my absolute favourite is not by a famous person at all, but by one of my ancestors. I have recently discovered that my great-grandfather Henry, when aged 84, wrote, in a letter to his local newspaper: “… and I do not expect to stop smoking until my cremation is over”. Actually my second favourite is also by the same venerable Henry who, having admitted to his partiality for beer, wrote, “When asked ‘Is life worth living?’ I reply that it depends on the liver!” Brilliant! Now why couldn’t I think of something like that? Unless he stole it from someone else, of course.

© Henry Neuteboom 2012