Saturday, March 15, 2008

Churches of Verona: Art Galleries for God

I have traveled more on Italian railways in a week than I traveled on British railways in the previous seven years. The quality of accommodation varies hugely. I boarded the train for Como clutching my second class ticket and settled into what looked like a dusty and unappealing second class compartment. When the ticket inspector toured the train, he politely redirected me from my padded first class seat into second class where I spent the rest of the trip to Como on a wooden bench. The last time I traveled on wooden seats was on the bus in Dubrovnik in 1996 - and that was a year after the end of the civil war when Dubrovnik had been badly damaged.

Mercifully the other trains have provided padding under my bottom. The trains on the main Milan-Venice line are as comfortable as those on the German and British systems. The only significant difference between first and second class was that found on British trains: second class has four abreast seats, first class is three abreast. The train going up to Stresa on Lake Maggiore had the extra appeal of double decker carriages, with a great view over the beautiful countryside from the upper deck. And they are much cheaper than British trains. The round trip from Milan to Verona cost less than 20 euros for over three hours of very comfortable transport.

(VERONA MAP: Click on map for larger view). The trips out of Milan showed me some of the glories of the Italian lakes and mountains, plus an unforgettable day in Verona. I knew practically nothing about this ancient city, which increased my pleasure at sights such as the restored Roman amphitheater, the cathedral, the church of St Anastasia and Juliet's House. Yes, that would be the Juliet whose tragic romance with Romeo provides a permanent bonus for the Verona tourist trade. The old Capulet house with the famous balcony was crowded with young people. The walls either side of the entrance to the courtyard were covered with heart drawings and signatures of young lovers. I did not cross the river to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, whose hilltop site provides a wonderful panoramic view of the city. As with Hong Kong and Singapore, it was a pleasure to be out on the brightly lit city streets on a Saturday evening. It had a vibrant, but safe and civilized atmosphere as people relaxed in the numerous restaurants and watering holes.

You could not say as much about parts of Milan itself. Railway stations in any big city tend to have a bad reputation and unfortunately in the case of Milan's splendid Art Deco structure it is fully justified. The huge piazza on the west side is a very fine public space, with the elegant Pirelli tower dominating one corner. Regrettably it is a magnet for drunks, hustlers and beggars galore. My hotel was only five minutes walk from the station, which meant I walked through this unpleasant zone far more often than I would have chosen; I used Milan's excellent Metro system repeatedly and inevitably came out of the subway exit in this piazza. It was not just the station area; beggars lurked everywhere in the city and were shameless in their soliciting, especially around church entrances.

The Naviglio area beside one of Milan's surviving canals is far more appealing to walk around. A serious deficiency in Milan is the lack of any substantial waterfront, The Thames in London, the Vltava in Prague, the Danube in Vienna and Budapest, the Seine in Paris, the lakes in Chicago and Toronto, all add hugely to the pleasure of life in those cities, as well as defining city areas. The shallow remnants of the Milan canals are still picturesque, but no substitute for serious waterways.

As with Milan's "lesser" churches, any church or cathedral I entered in Verona or other smaller towns was a art gallery for God. It is difficult and expensive enough maintaining the far less ornate British churches; how long the Italians can continue to preserve all these elderly buildings and their incredible splendor is open to question. St Anastasia, to name only one, had scaffolding all over the interior and I could inspect only part of its sculptures, murals and paintings.

Even the secular art galleries in Italy often look like a Catholic propaganda show. As I toured the Pinacotera di Brera, one of the top galleries in Italy, I passed a group of Japanese tourists surrounding Caravaggio's "Supper at Emmaus". Their guide was explaining this superlative masterpiece to them and I could not help wondering how she was commenting on it. You obviously cannot analyze such works purely on the basis of colour, composition, use of light, pigmentation and brushwork; the spiritual inspiration behind each explodes out of the frame, even with an artist such as Caravaggio who lead a highly, er, irregular life and used street people as his models for religious subjects. The majority of the pictures in the Brera were effectively sermons in light; the contrast between the religious imagery and the modern works which the Brera also saw fit to display was embarrassing. How could any curator think of placing such primitive creations under the same roof as Tintoretto, Mantegna or Raphael?

Living in a post-Christian country with a long Protestant history, it was strange to walk the streets of an almost totally Catholic country. The only non-Catholic structure I saw was the Jewish area of the extraordinary Cimitero Monumentale. Most of this cemetery had row after row of lavish Catholic family tombs, some almost mini-churches in their scale and ornamentation. There is a synagogue on the city map but I did not see it. I did not see a single non-Catholic church anywhere, though they do exist here and there.

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