Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Duke, duke, duke of....Milan, Milan Milan.

Above: What is distracting Sandi and Ljiljana? It was early and there were few other people in the square at that hour.

Our first full day in Italy took us to Milan's Piazza del Duomo. (Aaaaaargh!! Get those bloody pigeons off me!!) Between the ornate cathedral and the statue of Italy's king Vittorio Emmanuele, our guide for the day, Marica, gave us a primer on the city's complicated list of rulers. She pulled people from the crowd to stand in for Milanese dukes, Austrian princesses, French kings and the like, as she narrated. She had to use almost every person in the large group to get through the presentation!

Above: Marica picks Blaine to represent the first Duke of Milan.

Prada purse slung over her shoulder, Marica told us (in a wonderful Cockney accent with German and Italian inflections!) Milan was first ruled by lords from the house of Della Torre, then the lords of the house of Visconti.

To the best of my memory, the tenth Visconti ruler gave himself the ducal title, making him to Duke of Milan #1.

The son who became Duke #2 continued a legacy of cruelty, for which he was assassinated.

His brother became Duke #3. This guy had no sons, so hired a mercernary for battlefield duty. He was happy to have a good warrior on staff, and to make sure this soldier didn't freelance with other states, #3 offered his six-year old daughter in marriage. Never mind that this soldier, Francesco, was 24 years older than the child. Never mind that Francesco was already married.

To cut a long story short: #3 dies, last of his line. Buh-bye, Viscontis. Francesco marries the child, becomes Duke #4 and establishes his own dynasty. Hello, Sforzas. Your name will always be associated with Milan, and the castle Francesco builds, bearing your name, will be one of the city's best-known landmarks, the Castello Sforzesco.

And thus begins the Ambrosian Republic (named for the city's patron saint.)

Francesco's son in Duke #5. We think he poisoned his mother, a pretty tough chick who kept her finger in Milanese politics. He's nasty. He's assassinated.

The title goes to his 7-year old brother. Duke #6 obviously isn't ready for ducal duty, so his uncle does the job. #6 mysteriously dies from poisoning (oh, the rumor mill had quite a workout that year!)....

And Uncle Lodovico becomes Duke #7. He loses Milan to the French!! Then the Swiss get involved, Milan goes back to #7 - briefly. Then it goes back to the French. Then it goes to Lodovico's son....

Maximilian Sforza is Duke #8.

Thereafter, it was French rule, Spanish rule, Austrian rule, rule by the Holy Roman Empire - not necessarily in that order.

The only reason I remember as much of the history lesson as I do, was because of Marica's very lively and informed presentation - in three languages. Since our group was combined with two other groups for the morning, there were Spanish, German and English speakers, and Marica repeated each chapter effortlessly in each of those languages.

Coming from Milan with its rich multi-cultural heritage, it's no wonder its citizens, such as Marica are such accomplished multi-linguists! Arianna, also a Milanesa, speaks English, French, Spanish and Swedish, and the Milanese dialect.

Milan's colorful political history stablized (at least temporarily) under the reign of King Vittorio Emanuel II, who united Italy.

This statue of Vittorio Emanuele (Aaaaaargh!! Get those bloody pigeons off me!!) is one of the main features of the Piazza del Duomo, and the incredible Galleria that links the Duomo and La Scala piazze is also named for him.

Here are links to my earlier Milan posts:

The Duomo and Galleria

Saturday afternoon in the Piazza del Duomo

On the roof of the Duomo

Gillian Coldsnow

Monday, October 16, 2006

La Scala. It's so much more than opera.

If you've been following this blog since the beginning, you know that chief among the things that move me are opera, Puccini, food and the Italian notion of bella figura.

I found them all in my day at La Scala, followed by the performance of Massenet's Manon we attended that evening.

Here's how the whole evening played out.

We rode the subway for three short stops to the Piazza del Duomo, then strolled to La Scala with the intention of partaking in the city's tradition of aperitivo, a pre-dinner drink and snack. So into the elegant La Scala restaurant we went, right into the midst of the Milanese crowd, proudly displaying the fashion for which their city is renowned. Any time I've gone to the opera or classical concert here in the U.S., audiences are predominantly dressed in black; but here was an explosion of color, from pastels to electric blues, greens and fuschia. Teenagers to grandparents, clad in designer duds. Suits impeccably tailored. Shoes - well, they're not just Italian shoes, they're in MILAN - need I say more? They engaged in animated conversation, sipped their drinks and nibbled on olives, chips of parmigiano reggiano, grissini wrapped in prosciutto, and various other bocconcini (literally, "little bites.")

As I enjoy people-watching, the wait was not a problem. There were many multi-generational family groups, which was wonderful to see. Not so wonderful is getting elbowed. It seems waiting in line is not the best way to get service. Instead, one should be pro-active: cut the line, as the staff attends to whomever catches their attention first at the front of the counter. You watch, you learn, and then you give a little elbow yourself!

I picked up some aperitivo terminology and tips: to order a small beer one asks for un bock di birra; freshly-squeezed juice is spremuta. And my all-time favorite aperitif, Campari, is also available is a clear and slightly sweeter version. (I'll stick to the red. Some habits die hard.)

Arianna had booked tables for a post-opera dinner at a nearby restaurant named Nabucco (Would we have been humming Va, pensiero over the salad?) But the long winded and utterly self-absorbed Manon, waxing over and over about her beauty,
didn't quit her narcissistic fit till after 11:30! And Nabucco, sadly, closes at it was back to the La Scala restaurant for dinner. We were told it was a very good restaurant, and the prices surprisingly on par with those of the surrounding eateries.

The wait staff was dressed beautifully, service was excellent and properly unobstrusive. (Don't you hate waiters who present the list of specials by waiting for an imaginary spotlight to illuminate their importance before they begin the recitation? I'm here for the food, bozo, not you!) My entree was a filet mignon in a reduced barolo sauce topped with truffle butter. Talk about "try a little tenderness!" I could have tossed the knife and sliced through that beef with the fork alone. The presentation was sparsely elegant, on an oversized white platter with drizzles of truffle butter and a light dusting of minced parsley around the rim; the magenta sauce and dark beef playing beautifully against the creamy white truffle slivers. The wine, suggested by the sommelier,was a perfect pairing - of course. Any annoyance at Manon was forgotten for the night.

If you love opera, you'll get yourself to the performance even if it's not one of your favorites. Let's face it - there are many things about the genre that are open to ridicule - from improbable story lines to stage manAging disasters (the prop master forgetting to put a knife in Tosca's fruit bowl, so she has to improvise and stab Scarpia with a banana, for example!) No, you go for the experience: size up the singers and staging. Sometimes you giggle at the disproportionate angst-ridden responses. Sometimes a performance is so powerful you just give in to the emotions and allow your senses shift into overdrive. And if the senses are treated to a great meal after the show - well, that's just the ticket to planning a repeat pilgrimage to La Scala.

Gillian Coldsnow

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Venetian Fishing Rules.

Way before environmental studies became popular, the administrators of La Serenissima were conscious of the need for conservation.

This plaque is set into the walls of the fish market at the Rialto, listing the varieties of fish and the minimum size of each. Any smaller, and they would have to be tossed back into the drink.