It has, at the present day, a less peculiar Italian character than any of the other leading cities of the peninsula, and it more resembles the gay capitals of Europe. It has large, clean streets, attractive stores, electric lights everywhere, especially in the great Central Bazar, an enormous structure a hundred feet high, in the form of a Latin cross, covering several streets for a considerable distance, with a cupola in the centre one hundred and eighty feet high. The gifted architect who constructed it lost his life by falling from a lofty scaffold, in 1877. Here the average Milanese spends his spare time in lounging, either walking about or sitting before one of the numerous cafés, while the richer and more aristocratic merchants keep themselves aloof, living in great cool stone palaces near the city’s centre, but at the same time retired from the bustle of the thoroughfares, hearing nothing but the occasional light rolling of an elegant carriage with its well-trained horses.
The intellectual aristocrat, too, studiously avoids the bustle of the crowded mart, finding repose in conversing with the great minds of the past, haunting the libraries, art galleries, and old churches, where the thoughts and experiences of thousands of years speak to him a more suggestive language than the little interests of the day. To an American it is surprising how the past holds its ground, and how much space in the very centre of the city, which would be valuable for business purposes, is yet kept for all these historical monuments having only an intellectual and moral value.
Europeans get much more from the past than the Americans, and because so much of what they have is inherited. While the upstarting present dominates in America, it is held more subservient to the past and to the future in Europe, where the individual does not stand so much for himself but floats like a leaf on the stream of traditionmore cultured but less independent than the American.
It is interesting, in travelling in Europe, to consider the history of a city like Milan and its inhabitants, tracing the same traits of character all through, which have been evolved by the conditions of the locality, combined with the race peculiarities of the people. Often, perhaps for centuries, you would not recognize the character-strain, all the vital strength having apparently been spent, and. you are subsequently surprised to see the latent strain revived at a later period. This has been the case with the Milanese, who begin to show now, again, at least in their commercial activity, some of the hardiness of their forefathers.
In the middle ages Milan was one of the strongholds of independent spirit. In the fourth century their great bishop, Ambrosius, whose career and memory have done much to build up the moral character of the citizens, was one of the first to uphold the entire independence of the church from the state, claiming that religious authority was the highest. He succeeded in forcing the Emperor Theodosius to make public amends in the old atrium in front of his churchSt. Ambrosiusfor ruthlessly destroying a town, shutting the gates of the sanctuary against him until he had complied with these demands. Milan was forty-eight times besieged, twenty-eight times conquered, and several times burnt down, yet this old church survived, being now fourteen hundred years old.
But the most glorious page of the city’s history, in its everlasting fight for municipal independence, and the spiritual power of the church against the efforts of the different emperors for concentrating all the privileges in their hands, was recorded in the twelfth century, when the town, conquered after a long war by the mighty Barbarossa, burnt down and rebuilt by the expelled citizens and their allies, won the victory at last. Whenever the Milanese went forth to battle they had in their midst the celebrated Carroccio, a car drawn by oxen on which their flag was unfurled ; a bell was rung and prayers were said before an altar and crucifix. This car was intended to steady, by its slow movement, their advance as well as their retreat.
This same city, unconquerable in the twelfth century, degenerated in the fourteenth and fifteenth, oppressed by unworthy tyrants, like Filippo Maria Visconti. This ruler shut himself up in the outside castle for several years, never putting his foot within the walls, never admitting anybody into his presence without having him examined previously by one hundred guardians, and always artfully keeping up distrust and quarrels among the officials of his army administration, and among his servants, in order that one might serve as a spy against the other, and so himself be safe through their mutual fear and jealousy.
Later on Milan was ruled by the German emperor, by Spain, by France, by Austria, and at last, in 1859, became part of the new kingdom of Italy. It is now flourishing again, having once more, as in the twelfth century, 300,000 inhabitants.
The great cathedral, the most splendid Gothic building in Italy, and, next to St. Peter’s at Rome, and the cathedral at Seville, the largest church in Europe, was begun under the auspices of the first tyrant and finished under those of their last, Napoleon I., all of whom wanted, like the pyramid-builders of old Egypt, to connect their names with colossal structures. It islike the history of Milana monument of the struggle between the German conquerors and the Italian national resistance, this time on intellectual ground, with the weapons of art. Workmen of these two nations always alternated during the long periods of its erection, the fundamental idea of the structure taken from the cathedral at Cologne, and the Italian resistance the character of the Gothic style al-ways struggling for a compromise. In consequence, it is not so lofty and aspiring as that pure expression of German thought, the Cologne Cathedral, the bulk of the building being square and massive and earthly, and the Gothic ornaments dwindled down into bric-a-brac. The leading tower is trifling compared with the great base. The Italian climate as well as the Italian mind would not allow the spiritualization of the whole structure, since the many windows of the slender towers and pillars, which, as in the Cologne Cathedral, through the dim northern light rapidly and lovingly ascend to-ward the sky, would not do in the glaring Italian sun.
Besides this materialization of the Gothic style which shows itself in the square form of the main building, and the dwarfed form of the aspiring ornaments, the expression of the exterior is spoiled by the façade completed by Napoleon in a style altogether out of keeping with the rest. The French emperor liked to adopt the style of the old Roman emperors, and, like all imitators, used it often in the wrong place. It is as if he had roughly signed his name on the façade of the great cathedral.
But the modern Italians, in their rising spirit of independence, after generations of submissiveness, are about to erase his name. For some five years past an international competition has been instituted for designs for a new façade, which will be more in harmony with the whole, and more modest than that of the French intruder.
The cathedral is a mountain of beautiful transparent marble, an artistically designed ice-berg, so to say, in the middle of this hot city. When, out of the glaring light reflected from the white marble, and from the granite pavement of the great square before the church, we pass into the interior, it seems at first dark, until it dawns upon us, and by the working of art seems even vaster than the vault of heaven, since it is an ideal vastness, conceived by human thought and ennobled by beautiful proportionsmuch more an ideal vastness than that of St. Peter’s, which is larger in size but less harmonious. The interior of the Milan Cathedral is really a wonderful combination of the lofty height of a Gothic church and the classical strength of a Greek temple.
After viewing the great cathedral, the pride of Milan, we turn to another work no less dear to the Milanese or less eagerly sought by visitors, the great painting of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. One scarcely realizes its great merits at first sight. At the end of a long, cold, gloomy hall, the dining-room of the monks in former ages, we ‘ find on the wall an indistinct group of figures in faded colors, sitting around a table. In many spots the plaster on which, in a wet state four hundred years ago, the picture was painted, has peeled off. No wonder that it is now in a dilapidated condition, as, during the four centuries that have elapsed since the work was done, it has had to undergo many vicissitudes. Already the monks themselves, in a time of irreverence against the great masters, had cut a door through the wall upon which it was painted, thus taking away the feet of the central figure. By the French under Napoleon the place was used as a stable, and later on by others as a prison, and as a storehouse for hay. Besides, inferior artists have ventured several times, in different periods, to give the apostles new clothing, so to say, by repainting. But, notwithstanding all this ill usageof weather, war, and irreverenceand although the ground-work is nearly crumbled to dust, the picture bears the marks of genius to a degree which no copy by any living artist could or can reproduce. The admission fee of one franc brings in each year thousands of dollars.
It takes us some time and considerable trouble rightly to perceive the figures and their relation to each other ; but we succeed at last with the help of the many copies, finished and unfinished, standing in the room, since there are painters, some of whom are very old men, who, through their whole lives, have never done anything else but copy again and again this very same picture, which thus gives them their living, although, at first sight, it seems nothing but a mass of color and dust. To the persistent student the dust becomes alive, and at last much more alive than any of those shining copies. This shows how indestructible genius is, and with how little external means it can be conveyed through many centuries.
We see in Leonardo’s picture the mild face of the Saviour, full of benignity and greatness of soul as no other painter has ever conceived it. He is represented at the moment when he has uttered the words, ” One of you shall betray me.” All the twelve apostles surrounding himin admirable groups of threeare represented under the impression these words produce upon them, revealing at this moment the peculiar character of each by the expression of their faces, their whole position, and especially by the gestures of their hands, which are varied to a degree that none but an Italian could accomplish. All these different means of expression are in perfect harmony, and we are amazed to be able to read from this faded painting the whole life and character of each of the apostles.
Often pictures originally painted on the wall, like this one, but in a better preserved condition, are cut out with the wall itself and hung up in the galleries.
In the process of time there has been stored up a vast number of old pictures in these galleries, so many of them of high interest, and so many others of mere historical value which can only be appreciated with the help of study, that it is quite necessary to acquire practice in viewing them. At first you feel lost and dis-appointed, and if you persist, while in this unfavorable condition, you are apt to overdo this sight-seeing business, and it is strange how utterly exhausted one may become by it, both in body and mind. In such a moment of prostration we were exhilarated by finding our-selves face to face with, and hearing the comments of, a characteristic American, upon the pictures in this Milan gallery, who altogether refused to give up his Yankee ideas in looking at the old masters.
On viewing a picture by Raphael, and a copy by the side of it nearly completed, he much preferred the latter. “The color is fresher, the sky is bluer, and the figures brighter.” When told that a million dollars would not buy the original, he went right back to it to take another look, saying: “Why in thunder don’t they put the price on the pictures, so that a fellow can know something about them ?” “What I admire more than anything else in these galleries,” he continued, “are the old frames. Look at the amount of gold these fellows put on them ! Wonder if it is real gold, or imitation? Guess it is solid; it stands the weather pretty well. Seems to be genuine gold-leaf. How much discount do you think they would make for cash ? Would they throw in an extra one if a fellow bought a dozen? ”
Standing before the rather muscular corpse of a saint painted by Tintoretto, he wondered “how many rounds that fellow fought before he got knocked out?” The scanty clothing of these old martyrs and saints shocked his American sense of decency, since he always imagined every figure he saw as moving about in every-day life. “I guess they did not have ready-made clothing stores in those days, or these old fellows were hard up. What clothes they do have look as though they were shot onto them, and as though they did not aim very straight, either. That old gent there grabbed his bed-clothes in a hurry. He would make quite a respectable appearance in an English cutaway coat and a fresh pair of pants. The artist should have given him a chance to dress. It is not fair to sneak about and copy these fellows in their night-shirts, and all torn at that. He is evidently begging the central figure to bring him his clothes.”
A martyr being killed by a knife cleaving the top of his head, our Yankee takes for a juggler balancing a knife on his head. “Perhaps, in an unguarded moment, he stole that cheese-knife from one of the citizens, and those two old roosters each side of him got on to his racket and grabbed him with those two hooks there, just as he was trying to escape to Canada. So, in order to cover up his crime, he mounted a block and pretended he only borrowed that knife to amuse the populace.”
In fact, there are many incongruous things in the old masters, even when viewed as they are, and not in the spirit of our Yankee. It is especially pleasant to follow the working of the minds of the earlier painters, and see by what plain, and sometimes childlike, means they accomplished their tasks in that religious and simple-hearted period. An artist who had never been in Egypt receives an order to paint ” St. Mark Preaching in the Market Place at Alexandria.” He has his own method of contriving to give his picture an Oriental cast. He puts St. Mark’s Church in Venice (since it looks rather Oriental) right into the market place at Alexandria, erects Cleopatra’s needle by the side of it and gives the neighboring houses a shut up kind of an eastern look, with rugs hanging out of the windows. Some patriarchal Venetian home costumes are ornamented with Turkish turbans ; women with white veils drawn over their faces kneel on the pavement ; camels and giraffes stalk about as proud representatives of that region; and St. Mark stands on the steps preaching to this stylish audience.
The incongruous grouping is done in such an Ingenious way that the effect is quite comfort-able and pleasing, if we only find a way of entering into the spirit of the old master. It is healthful to our minds to learn to get rid, from time to time, of our own particular ideas, and especially healthful to purify ourselves by the childlike spirit of a less sophisticated period than the present.