Milan: Skulls, Bones, and Masks

2018-07-30 10.21.0031 July, 2018: We spent the last few days of our Italian adventure in Milan, enjoying the architecture, art, and cocktails. We had a lovely apartment, in easy walking distance to everything, and although we were sad to leave the mountains, it was fun to be back in a city with lots and lots to do and explore. 

Naturally, we started with our newfound tradition (established in Florence) of visiting Duomos (Duomi?) by night, and taking awkwardly up-angled photographs of enormous buildings:


We went back in the daytime, too, and went inside and up onto the rooftop (my choice, since I can never resist a rooftop adventure). The sheer size is incredible — it’s the fifth-largest church in the world, and can hold over 40,000 people!

2018-07-30 11.51.33

2018-07-30 11.22.26
It’s not every day you see a carved angel leaning out of a wall holding a full-sized sword

I loved learning some of the history (and there’s plenty: it was started in 1386, but took almost 600 years just to mostly-finish building it — the last gate was opened in 1965, and there are still some blocks of marble that are meant to be carved into statues eventually).

My favorite part was about the transepts. Typically catholic churches and cathedrals are designed in the shape of a cross, and typically there’s a main entrance at the foot of the cross, the altar and choir etc is up near the top, and there are side chapels in the arms, or transepts. Now, I’m unclear whether the transepts in the Milan Duomo were originally built with doors on purpose, or if they were just completed later, but either way: in Milan, the duomo was built in what had been the main market square, which displaced the market and caused a bit of a traffic issue. As a result, the main route to and from the market ran directly through the middle of the church, which was convenient thanks to the doors (or perhaps lack of walls) on each side. The person in charge (my memory fails as to whether it was the archbishop, the mayor, or the king — this was secondhand info from the audio tour) got so annoyed by farmers and carts and donkeys and the proletariat tromping through his cathedral that he closed up the two ends of the transepts and left just the one main entrance at the foot of the cross — inconveniencing the people going to and from the market, but preserving the sacred peace of the cathedral.

The roof is also fascinating, because it was built over such a long period of time and because it requires constant cleaning and fixing. This leads to a plethora of different types and shades of marble, some fresh and clean, some aged and covered with soot, all commingling (and constantly changing, as evidenced by the scaffolding scattered throughout).

2018-07-30 12.08.13

2018-07-30 12.21.54

2018-07-30 12.23.18

2018-07-30 12.51.25

Although we were working while in Milan, we still found time to visit a great institution, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana; a historic library that also houses an art museum. While there, we learned about ex-votos, a fascinating Catholic artistic tradition. Basically, if you or your family experienced some sort of near-miss or potentially-miraculous evasion of disaster, it was expected that you would commission a piece of art to commemorate the occasion and give thanks to God and/or your chosen saint for the rescue. The examples range from children recovering from deathly illnesses, to escapes from burning buildings, to surviving traffic accidents, and much more. The tradition predates Catholicism, but was codified in the late 17th century to consistently represent the event, the beneficiary of the miracle, and the divine being credited with it. The paintings are intentionally simple, meant to be easily understood, and the importance of the tradition means that the quality of the art varies wildly based on what the victims of the almost-tragic event could afford. Because the pieces were typically kept in the family, this results in an unusual preservation of semi-professional art (the kind typically ignored by museums and books), which was exhibited right alongside court-commissioned art by famous painters done for nobles and royalty. They also give a unique view into the kinds of tragedies that were part of life in different places and times. It was so interesting!

2018-07-29 12.54.12
The helpful caption on this one was “Young man hit by an explosion.” I have further questions.
2018-07-29 12.49.59
This one seems pretty self-explanatory

I also brought us, as a surprise, to a bone chapel, because I wanted to see Alex’s face when he realized what we were looking at, and Milan has an excellent example of the genre. San Bernardino alle Ossa contains a famous ossuary, a side chapel where the walls and ceilings are covered with bones and skulls. There was a originally a hospital there, run by nuns, and so many patients died that they ran out of places to bury them (plus most of the patients were poor, so a fancy burial in your very own grave was out of the question). Their bones were placed in the chapel instead.

2018-07-30 13.19.07

It’s next door to the Basilica di Santo Stefano Maggiore, a lovely little church where one of my favorite painters, Caravaggio, was christened:

2018-07-30 13.15.47

We walked past the police station, and I had to stop for a slightly-furtive picture of the office of the Carabinieri (military police, essentially), because my great-great-grandfather was one under Mussolini. Family history! Taking pictures of military and government buildings is typically either illegal or discouraged, but surely that excuse would have worked if I’d been questioned… I think.


On one of our last nights in Italy I made a reservation at what has to be one of the best date spots in the world: BackDoor 43, a tiny private speakeasy. It can fit up to 4 people, but when you make a reservation you get the whole thing to yourself, even if there’s only two of you. It has a fancy bartender who wears a mask on request (and when occasionally serving drinks to the plebs outside through a tiny sliding wooden door) and whips up individually-created craft cocktails based on your flavor preferences, following a proper conversation. This gimmick is fairly common in the speakeasy scene, but has a tendency to devolve to “we have a menu of ten drinks, we just haven’t printed it, so I’ll choose which of the ten I make for you based on your preferences, but nothing is really created just for you.” In this case, though, I think it was legit — each cocktail was inventive, delicious, unique, and the bartender was able to explain exactly why he had chosen each combination. He was also straw-testing along the way and adapting as he went, which is always a good sign.


That was the extent of our adventures in Italy; it was time for each of us to move on to new places and new adventures. Onward!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s