We were warned. The guidebooks said you had to book in advance to see The Last Supper, but we decided to try anyway. Leonardo Da Vinci worked on several projects in Milan, but this is his best-known effort in this city. As we approached the church and monastery where the fresco is found, we knew at once the guidebook was correct. A sign in English gave the telephone number to call, two weeks in advance, for reservations. We sidestepped several aggressive beggars and decided where to walk next. Milan museum
Next turned out to be the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnica Leonardo da Vinci. This museum is the city's science museum. Before we got into the science part of the museum, though, we stumbled into an exhibit of photographs and displays from Kosovo, A young woman serving as guide explained that this exhibit had been sponsored by a peace group and held here because there was free space available. She said she is discouraged because most people aren't interested in controversial topics like this. We struggled with our language barrier -- her English was far better than our Italian -- and told her not to be discouraged, that even if a few people saw the exhibit, that would be a start. We didn't tell her that most families who bring the kids to a science museum aren't especially interested in showing them an exhibit on Kosovo; she'll have to figure that out by herself.
A series of models based on Da Vinci drawings had been created in Milan for an exhibition in 1939. This exhibit had been expanded in 1953 in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Da Vinci's birth. Each model was accompanied by text and drawings from Leonardo's notebooks.
According to the museum, the documents of Leonardo's work are found in several libraries and museums around the world: the Codex Atlanticus is in a Milan Library, another Codex is in a different Milan Library, several Codices are in the Institute of France in Paris, the Leicester Codex is owned by Bill Gates, The Windsor Folio is in Windsor Castle, the Madrid Codices are in the National Library in Madrid, the Codex Arundel is in the British Museum, and drawings on flight and birds are in a Turin Library. Elsa remembered the story of the Madrid Codices from her days in Library School; these priceless documents had been misshelved in the 1700s and were presumed lost. They were rediscovered in 1966! Model of Leonardo's still
To be fair to this museum, there were parts we did not see; from the literature, we believe the museum has been adding interactive exhibits to make it more educational and exciting to young visitors. We walked through several long halls on radio; Italy has great reason to be proud of Marconi, but the exhibits were all static displays of old radio equipment, with small caption cards. The Canadian museums which showed Marconi restlessly experimenting until he conquered the Atlantic were much more exciting. Having seen the German National Museum of Science and Technology in Munich, we were not impressed by Milan's effort.
We were walking in the general direction of the Duomo, saw a street market and casually wandered into the crowd of shoppers. Perhaps the market was set up especially for Christmas, but there seemed to be a little bit of everything for sale: highly decorated sweaters for children, plants, stuff made out of wood or wicker, compact discs, scarves, bamboo flutes and Australian rain sticks, plastic dolls. The front half of a roast pig sat on a meat counter. Standing men sold peacock feathers. One man had sweatshirts in a pile on the ground; it looked like they were getting kicked about quite a bit.
The crowd gradually got denser until at some point we were more involved in just making progress through the swarms of people and lost track of what was being sold. We walked along this way for a block while the crowd got thicker. We couldn't possibly see the stalls. The swarming people were well-dressed adults -- we were glad there were no little children lost in this press -- plus studded and moussed teenagers. Paddlewheel boat model
We were thinking only about getting out; at the worst our rate of progress got down to about twenty feet per minute. We could see a street intersection, but both branches were filled with stalls and crowds. The crowd kept getting thicker. People were pressing in the opposite direction while we were walking and people were pressing in our direction. Our feet made little shuffling steps of a couple of inches at a time. For moments at a time we stopped altogether, then something would jar loose and we'd start shuffling again. The teenagers seemed to be enjoying themselves.
We were a little reassured to pass a group of three police officers, two men and a woman, calmly moving in the opposite direction. The stalls almost blocked the street; at some of them the operators were cooking food over open fires. Then the pressing of the crowd grew stronger, as people tried to break the jams. Once or twice there was a little breathing room and we thought we were out but then it jammed up again.
There was no panic, and most of the other people didn't seem to mind, and it is possible that people near the stalls were actually making purchases; we weren't paying attention. We just wanted to get out of there.
It took just about an hour to get through the market; we probably walked about five or six short blocks. When we reached the far edge, the street was blocked off by the police, and people were thronging to walk into the street market. We wondered how the really short people, and the people on crutches, and the woman with the shopping cart, and the very very old women, would survive, but we had the impression they knew exactly what they were doing -- they were shopping!
We don't know of any special celebration; as far as we know it was just a Friday market a couple of weeks before Christmas; but a lot of the junk for sale didn't seem like Christmas presents. This will have to go down in our book as something unexplained about Europeans in general and Italians in particular: they love street markets, even when they are so crowded you can't move.
We also have no explanation to offer as to where all the people came from on a weekday morning; although it's true we didn't see any men in business suits!
We've been to crowded malls in the U.S., but there at least everyone knows what stores are where and the crowds keep moving.
Anyhow, we walked along and came to a philatelist's store. The young man greeted us. He could sell us stamps dating back to about 1890, but if we wanted earlier stamps (which we did) then only his father could sell them, and his father wouldn't be in till Monday. We thanked him and left.
Next we went into the Victor Emanual Gallery, which is a beautiful shopping area next to the cathedral piazza with a soaring arched glass and iron roof. Photographs of this gallery are almost as common as pictures of the Cathedral. We paused at the entrance to take our own pictures and were bumped. A short, stocky and ferocious madwoman was determined to prevent our photography. She muttered loudly and swung at us. Passersby tried to ignore the whole scene. We've already noticed that the beggars in Milan talk more and approach with more determination than elsewhere; this woman was loud and aggressive and nuts.
So we walked on through the gallery, stopping to see the outside of La Scala. We were two hours away from the next guided tour, but we consoled ourselves by knowing that a) the current building dates from 1946, having been Milan architecture bombed during WWII, so it's not exactly a historic building and b) we couldn't have attended the opera anyway, even if there had been tickets, because on the opening night men must wear a dark suit and tie or they will not be allowed to enter. We pondered the relationship between dark wool and Verdi and reached no conclusion. A statue of Leonardo stood in the piazza overlooking the opera house; perhaps he could have made sense of it all.
Finally, we stopped at the Pinacoteca, billed as one of the major art museums. The building is another lovely, sturdy stone building around a courtyard; you ascend two long flights of stairs to reach the art collection. We found some lovely paintings, with plenty of works by Italian masters, including Da Vinci, and a moody El Greco.
One local benefactress decided that the Pinacoteca should build up some more recent works, and so there was a gallery full of good impressionist art. We guessed that much of these modern masterpieces were from her own collection, but other names were listed as donors, so we see the Pinacoteca making efforts to become a growing and changing museum. Despite the preponderance of Italian artists, there were enough examples of different styles to keep a host of art students busy.
We boarded the subway at three o'clock to return to the hotel, and noticed that the underground newsstand that was the only source of tickets was closed up tighter than a drum. Possibly it was lunch hour closing, but if so, what happened to the poor passengers who needed to buy a ticket?
Whenever we've found something inexplicable during the past few days we've taken to saying to one another, "this is Italy!"