Journeys & Vagrancies of the Mind
Danse Macabre in Milan
by Stephen J. Chancellor
If your travels take you to Milano, for any good reason – fashion for the ladies, food for the gentlemen, or is it the other way around nowadays? – you will surely walk past or even enter the Duomo, the white cathedral of thousands finely carved details. I have seen it on many occasions and, each time I visit, I can´t help thinking that the building is to Catholic basilicas what an early 20th century bride in rich white lace is to the well but conservatively dressed woman of the Sunday mass.
But, no matter how impressive the largest church in Italy is (St Peter of Rome technically sits in the Vatican), a work of 17 centuries of influences, from the original “new basilica” St Thecla of the Roman Mediolanum to its most recent post world war 2 final touches, I am not here to speak of the merit of one church against another. It is an infinite debate as long as we are willing to consider any edifice of this class anterior to the 20th century. The aesthetic may not have fully died but certainly the attention and extra effort to details was lost somewhere along the way to the fast pace and practical consumption society imported from the youngest of the leading Western nations.
What I would like to suggest, however, is that, if your journey indeed places you in Piazza Duomo, whether coming from a walk from the Castello Sforzesco on via Dante where some accompanying men, laden like mountain mules with escalating number of bags, may feel that they are truthfully sentenced to an excursion in the various circles of hell (just look at their eyes as they wait by the changing rooms), or whether you find yourself reinvigorated in your superstitions by the simple act of crushing the genitals of a bull of mosaic on the floor of the gallery Vittorio Emanuele II, you may want to consider crossing the wide square towards the equally interesting but more discreet Brolo quarter of the city.
Not far, south of the Duomo, behind the Palazzo Reale, you should look for the Piazza Santo Stefano. It is only a block North of the Ca´ Grande also known as the Ospedale Maggiore. The complex, which now host the university, was commissioned in the middle of the 15th century by Francesco Sforza, which shows that the family was not just specialized in intrigues and fratricides. It was in its own times one of the first of community hospital, a revolutionary development in medicine and the city healthcare and sciences.
But let´s get back to the small square in question. As you may have already
connected the obvious dots on the treasure map of Milan, it is obviously where you can find the basilica Santo Stefano Maggiore (previously known as St Stephen in Brolo). Coincidentally, it is also the place where the duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza, two decades after the hospital was ordered, was assassinated on the day of the celebration of the saint, which, at the time of higher middle-age was uphold as a major patron. I know that when the Sforza´s name is mentioned, most of us smirk a nd raise our shoulders thinking, “but of course”, with little surprise. But to be fair to the Milanese illustrious renaissance heritage, the same reputation of plotting and feuding could be argued for nearly all major Italian families of such era from the shores of Tuscany to the suspended miracle of Venice. As it happens, the unfortunate ambush happened exactly where the original front postern used to stand, although the murderous act took place next to the remaining segment of one of the original columns of the St Stephen´s gate.
But that is not exactly where I am taking you (we are getting warm though). However, for those of you who have not yet had an indigestion of arts from the most prestigious to the most common places that Italy keeps opened and vulnerable to the four winds, you can eventually spare a moment for a quick glance at the basilica Santo Stefano, restored soon after the fire in the 11th century in the Romanesque style. With a little of imagination, you may even succeed in projecting yourself back in time, attending the baptism of Michelango Merisi, aka Caravaggio.
But come out now and follow me to another part of the square that you may have neglected otherwise (don’t forget the guide at the end of your visit – no checks, no, really). Opposite to the more recent campanile of St Stephen, I invite you to turn your attention to the church of San Bernardino, tucked discreetly against the preceding massive body of the basilica. The church in itself is more modest in size and lavishness than many which you may have entered in Italy. And to veil its attractiveness in even greater indifference, I can reveal that it is only as old as the 13th century and I am talking of the origins of the site. Added half a century after a sepulcher was erected in the late 12th century, there stood only a smaller version of the current 17th century more pompous version of itself, all ostentation kept relative next to the over-abundance of Italian architectural masterpieces.
Yet, it is exactly where my whisper, you know this voice in your head that you have been hearing of the last fifteen minutes, this intriguing suggestion that has been guiding you in the meanders of the past Milan from Duomo, or the Castello, to San Bernardino, is taking you… to a monument for and by the dead.
Aren´t you curious? You are only a few steps away, so please walk in. What are you waiting for? What´s to fear but your own fate? (grin).
You tell me you can hear me more distinctly. It is natural, we are so close now. I can nearly feel your life approaching.
Look, just here, at the end of a corridor that seems to say with the pious but unctuous voice of a prowling priest eager to probe at the imperfections at the surface of your soul, “Come in my office”. Go ahead.
Of course, you can always step in deeper in the atrium first and browse at the bright church itself. It will only take few minutes. I can wait. It is sort of my specialty, wait and observe. What I can tell you is that the church was initially designed to be small, connected to the basilica by an ambulatory past the sepulcher. But, since its restoration and expansion in the 17th century, it has been labelled as the most Piedmont-like one in Milan. That is because of its typical Baroque Rococo style elected by its designer Gian Andrea Biffi, a well-known otherwise local sculptor.
Why should I mention this man´s name? It is true, there were other architects before and after him, some more illustrious and certainly few that deserved their own share of electronic ink… possibly a raised glass of decadent liquor. Well, I trust that you will understand soon. Come along and see what his mind has created. After all, it is the object of my invitation. Don’t thank me although you should be grateful that I have taken you away from the parasitic street sellers and digital pilgrims on a journey to a personal and narcissistic self-promotion.
You may wonder, especially you writers or you readers enthralled by characters as exotic as they are perverse, the same ones that you abhor and feed the coffee machine conversations at the office, if you possess what it takes to conceive such a place, especially if you consider for a moment that his realization dates back four centuries, in a time of blooming arts certes, but also of witch hunting and contemporary to the trials of Galileo.
I, for one, would love to have a drink with the man who decorates his walls with other people´s remains, meet him and chat away just the time of a traditional Milanese aperitivo. Yet, it is entirely possible that I met him, I seem to recollect, or is such memory only the delirious remain of a wishful dream. Sometimes, I can´t quite tell. It is as if it was long ago. My head sometimes feels so empty. It must be the age…
What? Did I give away the surprise? Oh, well, you are only steps, a fragile last breath, away and I may just tell you now.
And who is this? You ask me before we go down the tunnel of the rabbit to the chapel set aside. He is no one as impressive as the crowd that impatiently awaits you. Unless, like I must admit, you are partial to cheese. Indeed, it may be worth to bring up the anecdote that the church of San Bernardino is dedicated to San Lucio, the patron of cheesemakers, bless his soul, and consequently hosts his confraternity. Yes, here, next to the tomb of some descendant of Christopher Columbus. You are right though, we should pause for an instant and meditate a prayer to keep the holy gifts of Parmigiano, Pecorino, Burrata and Gorgonzola eternal (no preference here, only local references to start a quick plateau from).
But, now, come forward, don’t be afraid. I may begin to suspect that you have cold feet, not as much as mine (wink)… I won´t bite. I would need teeth, wouldn’t I?
Don’t you feel a stir at the end of the corridor? Let´s hope it won´t be enough to shake the ground and collapse the belfry of Santo Stefano onto the church, again. But I would not think so. It has only happened once and it lead to the subsequent restoration that has provided us with what you are about to see. I can hear some of your thoughts whirling like a draft travelling across our chapels. You are wondering if I believe that some kind of spiritual force might have provoked the fall of the tower to leave way to the macabre inspiration. I would not know, but it has provided a room, a view, and much company, for many of us…
I understand that the visit may torment some of you with unnerving visions and follow others into morbid nightmares. But I would rather think that is a deep subconscious and permanent fear that has led you here, the same fascination of death that has lived in your shadow since, as a child, you came to apprehend your own mortality and that used to keep you awake at night, when your classes of history and your own deductions have put a seal of insignificance and a traumatic perspective on your ephemeral and negligible passage. It is the ripper who has pointed a skeletal finger to its museum when you asked for direction. And here you are now, on the threshold of the door of its chapel of Bones.
It is without doubt a disturbing attraction, if only for the sinister but magnetically intimidating character of the unease that you have been seeking and has taken you here…besides my accurate steering, yours truly. And don’t lie to yourself, you do crave for the strangeness of unexpected emotions which abduct you from your comfortable and reassuring habits. You are so exposed to brutality and yet so alien to the reality of the mortiferous. You long to be close to the unavoidable truth of your future that you deny from all cycles of your life. When was last time you risked your life, or have you ever, knowingly like some of your ancestors did by duty or for survival. Instead you prefer to pretend, floating, like in the fantasy, a script or a game, in the anesthesia of the news and the immunization of your favorite TV shows.
Yes, the images of Mortem are all around but they are systematically counterfeited by cheaper emotionless representations or have been hypocritically weeded out from all the educational sources as deeply as down to the core morale of the fables. I no longer wonder how many children are isolated from the sincere purpose of the original books by the Disney corporation, blinded by one hand of Big Brother from the valuable trauma of enduring the death of the Little Mermaid while the second hand hangs lazily, allowing infants to indulge in their daily dosage of gruesome murders amplified on their overgrown on a flat screen larger than the home library. Did you ever tell your children what those evil three pigs, even the most lazy and untalented first ones, did? Did you tell them that they ate the poor wolf, noble animal forced to hunt well into exhaustion, in utter disregard for the implacable logic of the food chain (the exception of man apart – mankind does not respect the rules, it changes them at its convenience, often at its own detriment)?
I digress but you would be sour too if you had lived what I did and seen petrified what I have seen. Where am I? Here before you, in you? I am what we all are.
Are you in the chapel now? Of course, you are. From the moment your eyes have rounded on first sight of what is beyond the small inconspicuous door, your feet have moved forward with you even knowing. Curiosity has killed the cat. Not quite here though. It would take much more cat skulls than it has taken those of men to build this temple of bones. Captivatingly chilling, strangely threatening in its nature and yet peaceful in its dreadful concept. Personally, I think it is beautiful in a realistic and authentic way beyond the artistry. It is pure (to the bones, if I may), although I can see, in the shivers the obfuscation from some of you, the disapproval for such a treatment of humane remains. You have a point I suppose and with no further debate, I propose to remove from all museums worldwide mummies and skeletons of warriors, kings or commoners excavated by pillaging archeologists and Sunday academics.
Instead, I believe that we should leave it the way it has been for centuries, an homage for the tomb-less victims of the diseases of the old hospital of Brolo for whom the cemetery had been insufficient. Some say that some bones also belonged to the unwanted illegitimate children of Milanese women. It is a theory, the presence of such young skulls, not the libertine vagrancy of the women. Regardless, who they were, where they came from. Without this octagonal residence of eternity, they had nowhere else to rest. Here, they are not lost, they have a place, theirs, which has existed since before the erection church and hundreds of years prior to their Rococo display, of good or little taste.
And what about the next thrill seekers, the casual reader of the one paragraph culture from a travel guidebook or the nerdy adventurers of the paranormal… like you, they are entitled to their moment of contemplation of what their mind can´t fully process. One visitor, for example, who could afford it, fell in love with the place and was inspired to replicate its idea in his own realm. This man was John V of Portugal who built his own Capela dos Ossos in Evora marked with the words “We bones that are here, for your bones we wait”.
But really, didn’t you like that estranged sensation of unbalance, that nudge of your sanity, that ripple in your most conservative values (those that your parents have planted and, because they are now in conflict in your impulses of a life of few limits, cost you hours in costly therapy and fake drugs)?
Anyway, if it makes you feel better, I can tell you that some of the people staring back with envy at your flesh, have volunteered to be here. How can I say this? Except that people used to be more practical. They even had a term for it, until recently. Because it is not so often practiced, the expression is now falling in disuse, common sense. In the 17th century, crimes were as simple as one´s belief or culture. But if you or your family were wealthy enough, if you were found guilty, likely back then when justice was expedient and subjective, you could have bought yourself the way to a quick and somehow less painful death for a few coins. Now, if you don’t believe me, turn away from the Virgin or lower your eyes from the marvelous ceiling fresco “Triumph of Souls and Flying Angels” by the Venetian painter Sebastiano Ricci and just ask. Yes, them, the criminals, or what is left of them, lined on the wall of the external gate. They will tell you that a decapitation is worth every penny (or every Scudo, I should state) when torture is common. They preferred and were also rewarded with a certain measure of posterity. The question that I can´t tell you is if the employ of their skulls, and best tibias, was extra or was it the other way around?
When you walk out of the ossuary, because you will not have the patience to expect a conversation with anyone of its paralyzed congregation, you may think that such a place makes you realize that, especially for those of you who write, and before that hunt for extravagant and exciting ideas, the human imagination as the proverb could say is a poor substitute the actual realizations of mankind. If you run out of ideas to write, even for the twisted, horrific and grotesque ones, or when your civilian imagination feels dried off and impoverished by the repetitive erosion of the usual mediocrity, look around and study the world. After all, a destination such as the chapel of the bones may prove to be a much more captivating place than any of your fantasies may lead you to conceive. It is full of light and darkness but where one stops and the next starts may all be, in the end, a matter of personal arbitration.
Inspiration from real actions can be a stronger basic element in alchemy of creativity, thus making the imagination not the source but the catalytic energy to change the revelation of a troubling memory or a peculiar visit into a great tale.
Will I ever write about such chapel? There is always a possibility. Will it inspire me for the environment of scene or more in a book? Certainly. Don’t we all love skulls and are fascinated by the macabre that is coming our way? Wouldn’t we all want to come closer, to sense if not to understand the sources of our anxieties? Some even want to seek, master and train the fears that no one dares to speak of. There are men who stare above the well until they fall in, until the pits that they dig in their souls to see what is on the other side of our superstitions absorb them entirely. Their sacrifice of exploration becomes trade of immortality, sometimes translated into the magic spell of an unforgettable story. Is it what Poe, Lovecraft, King, etc… have done…ask yourself what would come out of their oozing minds if they had been in your shoes today, alone with all these empty sockets hypnotizing you.
And what if that was all there is, all that comes down to once consciousness is removed. A sculpted shape of calcium grinning from the mantle of a fireplace or from the shelves of chapel.
Now, I am sorry, forgive me for a second or two, but I must put on my best face. A Chinese tourist is taking a selfie next to me…if only my smile had not fallen off in the past four centuries. I just can´t place when this has happened. I used to be so charming, so much, they got my head for themselves (wider grin).
You should come back in November, on the second, the day of the dead or of all souls. No worries, I am not going anywhere. I would love for you to meet someone. Who? No one exceptional although her youth never fails to bring an air of freshness amongst us. Who? You ask again. If you insist. I wish I could point. Nevertheless, back there, on the left of the altar, there is a small skull, yes, that´s it, that´s her. She makes us so optimistic when she comes back to life and wakes some of us to dance with her…
It is my favorite day of the year, except, of course, for today and the pleasure of your company. By the way, if you are not doing anything else tonight, perhaps, we could go for dinner. I know a great place where we can have osso buco…
“We bones that are here, for your bones we wait”.