Milan Journal, Part II

Sforza Castle in Milan (Photo: Moreno Soppelsa/Dreamstime)
Paintings, dishes, people, and more

Editor’s Note: This journal began yesterday, here. It concludes today.

‘There are two things a tourist comes to see,” says a friend (a local friend): “the cathedral and The Last Supper.” You can breeze into the cathedral (after an hour and a half of waiting, give or take). But The Last Supper is another matter. To see it is complicated — and takes planning.

You can’t just say, “Hey, Fred! Becky! Let’s trot down to Santa Maria delle Grazie and see The Last Supper. That Leonardo sure could paint!”

I do not see The Last Supper. But I’m told that Barack Obama did, very recently. He was in town to give a speech. He saw the cathedral and The Last Supper.

The presidency — even the ex-presidency — has its privileges. And why not?

Also, if I weren’t such a lazy bum, I too would’ve seen The Last Supper. (I’m told, regardless, that it’s better — more vivid — on the Internet.) (Small consolation.)

‐In Part I, I talked a little about Milanese food: risotto, steak, meatballs, etc. A fabulous cuisine it is. In one restaurant, a nonna — a grandmother — does the cooking. She cooks as though for her own.

But interestingly enough, the Milanese are mad for American food. There are hamburger joints throughout the city. There is also a chain called California Bakery (which I understand is a restaurant, rather than a bakery).

Whaddaya know?

‐On the street, I hear the Pachelbel Canon, played by a strange combination of instruments. I think I’ve heard this canon in every combination. I remember in particular a klezmer band at a wedding.

And, you know? The canon works, in whatever arrangement, from whatever instruments. What a piece.

‐Uber does not exist here — at least not legally. As a free-marketeer, and a consumer, I regret this. But there are two sides to every story (or most of them).

I meet a taxi driver who once had a job in a corporation. The corporation folded. He is now doing this, in his sixties. He fears Uber.

“So what?” you might say. “In a free society, you’re supposed to fear competition!” Yes, yes. I know all the arguments, trust me — and I repeat them, and I believe them. But there is still (to borrow from Graham Greene) the human factor …

‐Next to La Scala, the opera house, there is Via Verdi — Verdi Street. Nothing could be more appropriate. But I think back to what Riccardo Muti, the conductor, told me not long ago. I will paraphrase.

“Now we say, ‘Verdi, Verdi! The great Verdi!’ He is on a pedestal. He is a supreme master. But, in his lifetime, his reputation ebbed and flowed. Often — including toward the end — he considered himself a failure.”

‐La Scala is a very handsome building. Nothing to sneeze at. From the outside, I mean. But when you walk in …

Well, it is a stunner. La Scala is a blend of elegance and pizzazz. It is both dazzling — those words have a lot of z’s, don’t they? — and tasteful. A work of art, really (like the operas presented on its stage).

‐In National Review, I will give you a piece on Thomas Hampson, the American baritone, who is making a (late) Scala debut. The role: Don Giovanni (one of Hampson’s best). At The New Criterion, I’ll have a review for you.

‐It is a pleasure, at intermission, to meet Madelyn Renee, the American soprano, who lives here in Milan. At Juilliard, she studied with Eleanor Steber, among others. (Steber was the great soprano from Wheeling, W.V.) Later, she worked with the Caruso of our age: Luciano Pavarotti.

A beautiful woman, she seems made for the stage.

‐Further, it is a pleasure to be in the company of Franco Debenedetti, one of the great businessmen, politicos, and Renaissance men in Italy. Among the thousand other things he does, he is the president of the Bruno Leoni Institute, a classical-liberal think tank.

This institute is a “point of light,” as the first Bush would say. (Franco is a point of light too.)

‐The seats at La Scala are narrower than their American counterparts. Should we get into a discussion of our land and weight? I don’t think so. Maybe later …

‐There are two streets in Milan whose names are slightly mysterious to me: Fiori Chiari and Fiori Oscuri — Light Flowers and Dark Flowers. Will have to investigate …

‐In a park, I see something you don’t see every day: a monument to a journalist. I believe he is depicted at a typewriter. He is Indro Montanelli, who led an interesting life. To have a taste of it, try the Wikipedia entry, here.

‐There is Napoleon, idealized and exalted, like a god. The adulation of this man has long bothered me. Yet I feel a conflict: Two of the historians I respect most — and learn from the most — are Paul Johnson and Andrew Roberts. Both are Napoleon biographers. Johnson disdains him, Roberts admires him. Where does that leave me?

I am lost when my gurus disagree …

‐Leave the United States to one side for a moment. Throughout Europe, I have seen Filipinos, working. These men and women strike me as especially industrious, and talented, too.

‐There may be two main events in Milan, the cathedral and The Last Supper, but don’t miss Sforza Castle. Its central tower — the Torre Filarete — is alone worth the price of admission (not that you have to pay to see it).

‐You will really not want to miss a piece within Sforza Castle. I’m talking about the Rondanini Pietà, the last work of Michelangelo. In his old age, he hacked away at it, year after year. He is done with the sophisticated, growing ever simpler. He seems to be reverting to the medieval. In this pietà, he composes the figures as two thin threads, fusing. The work has great intensity.

I observe a tour guide, remarking on the maternal love evident in the piece. She breaks into tears, and crosses herself quickly.

This, you don’t see every day.

‐Outside, in a park, a little kid rides his bike — a two-wheeler. I think he has just learned. And he is reveling in the freedom. Literally, he cries, “Yahoo!” repeatedly.

‐There is a restaurant called Nabucco (i.e., Nebuchadnezzar). There is also a Verdi opera of that name. On the menu of the restaurant, there is music printed: giving us “Va, pensiero,” the great hymn from Nabucco (and the unofficial national anthem of Italy).

‐We don’t have time to get into this, in this lil’ journal, but I want to tell you something: I almost never meet a conservative from the U.K. or America who is in favor of the European Union. They are all against. And I almost never meet a conservative on the Continent who is not in favor of the European Union. They are all for.

This goes for the libertarians, too.

In our conservative publications at home, I never read a word in favor of the EU. Ever. Not a syllable. This gives a distorted picture.

We should have this discussion sometime — open up the debate …

‐Is Central Station, here in Milan, Fascist? It is certainly huge. It was also inaugurated under the Fascists: in 1931, not under the eye of the Duce, but of Count Ciano, his son-in-law, the foreign minister. (I get into him in my book Children of Monsters.)

Yet the cornerstone of the station was laid in 1906 — well before Fascism.

In any case, I like the station, a lot, so help me. If you like Union Station in Washington — and I do — you’ll like Milano Centrale (as they call it). In fact, the Milanese station was influenced by Washington’s.

On my way out of Milano Centrale, I notice a plaque: in honor of “Francesca Cabrini,” Mother Cabrini, the Italian-American nun and missionary. Moving.

‐I smile at a street sign: “Via Cardinale Schuster.” That is an interesting juxtaposition of names — or rather, of title and name. I once heard about a priest named Father Ashkenazi.

‐I smile on seeing streets named after composers: Scarlatti (Domenico), Palestrina, Pergolesi.

‐One street is called “Luigi Pasteur” — named after the great French scientist, of course. I like this about Italy, and other countries: They render a first name in their own language. So the scientist is “Luigi Pasteur,” not “Louis Pasteur.”

You know who did this? The late American general and diplomat Vernon Walters, who famously spoke a dozen languages (or so). When talking about the last German emperor, for example, he’d say “William the Second.”

‐In journals over the years, I have remarked on the German habit — the Austro-German habit — of waiting at lights, even though there’s no car to be seen. I’m talking about pedestrians. When you’re on foot.

They will wait at a red light in the dead of night, when there is no car within miles. My American legs can’t stand it. They have to bolt.

Well, I see Italians wait at red lights too — when my legs wanna bolt. Aren’t they supposed to be free-spirited, even unruly? Am I too far north?

‐Here is the Piazzale Loreto, but there is no Esso station in sight. You know what I’m talking about: Mussolini and his girlfriend, Claretta Petacci, were strung up in this square, at that station.

Nearby is a street: the Corso Buenos Aires. And another square, the Piazza Argentina. I can’t help thinking of Vittorio — one of Mussolini’s sons, who escaped to Argentina. (He, too, is in Children of Monsters, natch.)

‐In a slum, I remember something: that ghetto, after all, is an Italian word.

‐There are the usual Communist graffiti — the things you see all over the world: hammer and sickle; “Property is theft”; etc., etc.

‐I’m a little embarrassed about something: I see streets named after men who are identified as gold medalists. I assume they are Olympic athletes — but later discover that the medaglia d’oro, the gold medal, is bestowed for military valor …

‐One restaurant advertises “Cucina Italo-Cinese” — Italian-Chinese Cooking. I’d love to tuck into that …

‐I see an ad — a poster — I love. It’s for a food store. The poster shows a slice of cantaloupe — moist and delicious-looking. The words are “Più pulp, meno fiction” (“More pulp, less fiction”).

‐In Milan, many things are closed on Sunday — which is annoying. At the same time, I respect it, even admire it. You know?

‐I certainly respect and admire the Bruno Leoni Institute, that point of light. I join them for a “policy breakfast.” The institute’s director, Alberto Mingardi, is a whiz. He writes in English as well as Italian, so be sure to read him. He’s available throughout the Internet …

‐Back at the airport — back at Malpensa. There are lines you can join for all flights except for those to America and Israel. The lines for America and Israel are separate.

Which is fine with me, because I like being joined with Israel, another exceptional nation, and a nation critically important to the world.

‐Italy is exceptional and important too, for heaven’s sake — and one of my earliest loves. I see a sign for a lounge: the Sala Pergolesi (Pergolesi Room). I have never heard of anything more civilized.

‐At a stand — not in the Sala Pergolesi — I have a sandwich (salami, cheese, etc.) and a slice of chocolate cake. It seems so humble. But it’s so good. And if I were forced to have this lunch every day for the rest of my life — well, one could do worse …

Thanks for coming along with me, dear readers, and I’ll see you later.


A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.

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