Australian body-care brand Aesop recently opened their first Italian skin-care store in Milan. In addition to the launch, Aesop created an online website dedicated to their presence in Italy including a love letter (of sorts) dedicated to discovering the rich history and beauty of the Italian culture.
‘My cousin Francis and I are in perfect accord – he wants Milan, and so do I.’ Charles V
Some historians contend it was the expansionist bellicosity of the then Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, that inadvertently sowed the seeds of the Renaissance in 15th century Florence, by making Republicanism seem an appealing alternative. On the wrong side of history no longer, Milan is experiencing a Renaissance of its own; over the past year or so the city has seen its streets enlivened by a host of exciting projects. Choosing among them can be like trying to select a socially acceptable amount of snacks from a well-stocked buffet at aperitivo – that most local of pre-dinner rituals, which the Milanese have elevated to an art form. The world’s fair that opened on 1 May, entitled ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’, may be to blame for the disruption. Those unable to reach Milan can still get a taste of Expo 2015, as organisers have digitised the experience (to the admittedly limited extent that gastronomic pleasures can be) and offered it online as a Virtual Expo. Outside the fairgrounds, the satellite ‘Arts & Foods’ exhibition is a visual feast, chronicling the evolution of food from the time of the first World Fair in 1851. It is appropriately held at La Triennale, a design museum devoted to the idea that artistic progress is key to social evolution and economic development – one of the places that planted the seeds now germinating all over the city, with the Expo a nourishing accelerant.
Chiesa di San Maurizio el Monastero Maggiore, an early 16th-century Milanese church named for a 3rd-century martyr whose feast day falls on 22 September, is defined partly by contradictions. Behind an austere Ornavasso stone façade, for example, sits an interior lavishly embellished with vivid frescoes (Bernadino Luini and sons’ depictions of Noah’s Ark, behind the choir stall, are among the more modestly beautiful). And while it seems reasonable to believe such riches might have enhanced the lives of the Benedictine nuns who occupied the adjoining monastery, these strictly cloistered contemplatives were obstructed from the church by a dividing wall – permitted only to hear mass through a screened grate. Contemporary worshippers, however, can experience not only the paintings but also Sunday’s Byzantine rite, sung in Greek in accordance with Italo-Albanian tradition.
Because food for thought is (almost) as vital to humans as actual food, the last week of Expo will culminate and coincide with the 2015 edition of BookCity Milano (22-25 October) – a celebration of reading in all its evolving forms. Milan has long been the editing centre of Italy (nearly fifty per cent of all books published nationally pass through there for polishing), but this event aims to make it the country’s undisputed literary capital. Accordingly, it packs in hundreds of readings, dialogues, signings and more, and tucks many away in places generally not dedicated to the enjoyment of literature, such as the ramparts of Castello Sforzesco. Such festivals should indeed not be confined to libraries and lecture halls: books can and should be enjoyed anywhere, at all hours, and in the most varied contexts – as each really is a peculiarly moveable feast.
At a time when most Italian films were shot indoors on studio sets, What Scoundrels Men Are! was largely captured in real-life exteriors, providing a snapshot of Milan’s streets in 1932. Vittorio De Sica is best remembered as the director of Bicycle Thieves (1948), one of the most poignant dramas ever offered by the cinema, but in this romantic comedy by Mario Camerini, he stars as a chauffeur who appropriates his employer’s car to impress a woman, exploring social inequalities in much lighter fashion. Within the strictures of Mussolini’s Italy, the film brims with the newfound freedom of a medium that was just starting to venture outside, aerated by the elements which constantly threatened to trip up the studios’ well-oiled machinery. Screening on 5 October at New York’s Film Forum, it suggests that the shadow cast by post-war Italian cinema may have obscured many a treasure from its past.
The Piccolo Teatro di Milano, the first public theatre to open in Italy, was born of the idea that good theatre should be a public service, as essential to city life as running water or transportation. Therefore it aims for a broad audience – not by dumbing down, but through modestly priced and often complimentary performances, often held outdoors in the adjacent cloister. Robert Wilson’s production of the Odyssey, which returns to the theatre next month (6-31 October) after its initial run in April 2013, is proof that avant-garde and accessible need not be antonyms. Many of the director’s tropes (unabashed disrespect for the original ‘text’, a blunt Verfremdungseffekt, the predominance of dance and mysterious symbolism) combine to produce epic theatre of the highest calibre, capable of entrancing scholars and novices alike.
The Bagatti Valsecchi Museum is a time capsule within a time capsule, a collection of miscellaneous works from the 15th and 16th centuries gathered in the late-19th-century home of Barons Fausto and Giuseppe Bagatti Valsecchi. The pair set out to recreate the abode of an ideal nobleman from the Renaissance – a period which the new Savoy monarchy saw as key to creating a national identity, following the recent unification of Italy. The painted and sculpted figures that adorn the sprawling first floor of the house were their daily companions, while antique furniture and various objects now reverentially cordoned-off made up the tactile dimension of their lives. Located in Milan’s ‘quadrilateral of fashion’, the mansion is an invitation to rethink any dwelling, no matter how modest in size and furnishings, as a single live-in work of art composed by its inhabitants.
Umberto Eco’s prodigious productivity has expressed itself through best-selling novels with Byzantine plots, influential scholarly works and universally lauded translations. Yet he is quick to point out that he is not their sole author: with his ground-breaking critical opus The Open Work (1962), he popularised the notion that each reader is a co-creator of a text’s meaning. This Paris Review interview was conducted in part at Eco’s Milan apartment, among the estimated 30,000 books in his legendary library (he stocks another 20,000 at his country house). With candour and wit, he expounds on the ‘fabulous privilege’ bestowed on ravenous readers – the ability to live countless lives – and on the ways in which ‘the text is more intelligent than its author’. If the latter assertion holds up, his own novels and essays must have sky-high IQs.
There are few resorts worldwide where one can join in a truffle hunt with Lagotto Romagnola dogs in the morning and drop in on an artist at work in the afternoon – in fact, Villa Lena is possibly the only such venue. Nestled deep in the Tuscan countryside, about an hour’s drive west of Florence, the estate offers all the calm and isolation required to fully enjoy the area’s long Indian summer evenings. In addition to fine lodgings in an 18th-century mansion and its outbuildings, it offers two-month residencies to artists working across the entire spectrum of existing media, who stay in farm buildings converted into studios and provide much of the guest rooms’ decoration. As for the spare interior design by Clarisse Demory, using vintage and recycled furniture, it is as conducive to relaxation and contemplation as the serene sun-drenched vistas.
In Milan’s Brera district, now home to our first Italian store, Latteria San Marco is a mom-and-pop dairy shop turned osteria, with Maria and Arturo Maggi in the starring roles. She works the tiny seven-table floor with effortless grace, while he works magic in the kitchen, armed with a silver skillet which he maintains ‘purifies’ the food. Also equipped with whatever la mamma harvests from her kitchen garden each day, he puts his own spin on local staples such as meatballs, risotto and testaroli – pasta dough that is fried like a crêpe before it is boiled. (Beware, though: bookings, credit cards and English menus are for the tourists; so are Saturdays and Sundays.) Given this cosy exemplar, if the dictum ‘you are what you eat’ is valid, the Milanese must number among the finest people on the planet.
Image: From the series ‘ITALY. Milan.’ © Gueorgui Pinkhassov/Magnum Photos, 1999.