Origins: Milan - #104

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

Milan has been an important city for well over 2,000 years. It was a significant political and commercial center for the Roman Empire, and it has maintained that position ever since.  The name Milan comes from an ancient word meaning “the center of the plain.”  It’s a reference to the fact that Milan was built in the middle of the Po Valley plain, a crossing point for a number of roads that came down out of the Alps and connected to the commercial trade routes in what is now Italy. 

Today, Milan is an industrial powerhouse. It is the financial and commercial center of Italy, a focus for electronics, publishing, television, textiles, international trade-fairs and fashion. This is the fashion center of the world.

But why?

OTTAVIO MISSONI:  It is very easy why -- Milano is Milano!

True, but Milan became the fashion center of Europe right after the Second World War.  Americans were the only people with enough money to buy good clothes, and they wanted things that were easy to wear and not expensive.  Paris wanted to stay with the costly stuff.  Italy saw their chance and started making fashionable clothes at half the price of the French.  And they were able to keep pace with the... changing fashions.

The commercial tone for the city of Milan was set all the way back in the Middle Ages.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  During the 300s a bishop by  the name of Ambrose was also governor of Milan. He was a talented administrator with a very clear idea of how things should be done.  He built a strong and powerful administration with one major objective:  to get rich.  He also didn’t think much of the idea of separating church and state.  He felt he had to control everything that was going on in the government and everything that was going on in the church.  And clearly that was okay to the people of Milan because today he is known as Saint Ambrose, and he is the patron saint of the city.

The church of Sant’Ambrogio was originally founded in the year 379 and is an excellent example of medieval architecture.  Saint Ambrose felt that acquiring wealth during your lifetime was not only acceptable in heaven, but if you spent some of your money on good works for the church you might even end up with superior accommodations in the afterlife... a thought which led the wealthiest families of Milan to put up the money for the construction of some splendid churches and some magnificent religious art.  It made good business sense -- put a little aside now and enjoy it later.  It was sort of a pension plan for Paradise.

As I travel around the world, I have come to realize that each city has at least two levels.  One is out in the open, and made available to the tourists.  It’s easy to find.

The other city is usually just a few streets away.  It’s not on the tourist maps because the residents want it for themselves.

The surface stuff is easy.  Most tourists stop by at the Duomo.  It’s Milan’s great Gothic cathedral and the third largest church in Europe.  They started building it in the middle of the 1300s and, as you can see, they’re still working on it.  Over 700 years and they are still trying to finish off the punch list.  There are 135 pinnacles and over 2,000 marble statues.  The local guides claim that the French stole the design for The Statue of Liberty from the one on the front there.  Hmm.  Could be.

Tourists pop into the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. It was built in 1865 and it is one of the earliest buildings to use a system of holding glass in place with cast iron. It was the prototype for the covered malls of the 20th century.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Most visitors also stop by for a look at Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of  “The Last Supper.”  Let me save you a little trouble here. There are usually long lines in front, when you get in front of the painting they move you along quickly.  And most important, when Leonardo was working on this painting, he was experimenting with a new form of paint.  A form of paint that did not work out so well, and the picture has been disappearing ever since.  Now, it’s thirty feet long and fifteen feet high and that’s impressive. But if you are interested in seeing the detail of the painting, you’re probably better off buying a color postcard from the guy who’s working out in front here.  You can look at it as long as you want and really see what’s going on.  So much for the stuff that’s on the tourist map of Milan.  Now let me give you an insight to the other Milan -- the Milan of the people who live here and love it.

This is Via Monte Napoleone, and every day it attracts thousands of tourists looking for something with a designer label.  But if you’re looking for great design without a label, let me suggest a short detour.

Just 100 yards down a side street at Via Gesu Number 5 is the Museo Bagatti Valsecchi.  It’s a 16th century Italian palazzo, filled with authentic furnishings and objects from the Renaissance.  During the middle of the 1800s, two brothers, Fausto and Giuseppe Bagatti Valsecchi decided that they wanted to live in a place that was just like a noble family’s household during the Renaissance.  This is what they built.  It’s open to the public and it’s the real thing.

DR. LUCIA DINA:  It was built personally by the two brothers, they superintended all of the work of the building, restoration, furnishings...

Dr. Lucia Dina is a specialist in Italian Renaissance art, and she’s guiding us through the building.

DR. LUCIA DINA:  For example, here we have an arch which was built in the nineteenth century and it was in the Renaissance style... you see the classical round arch and the two columns, but then, what they did was they inserted those two medallions you see.  Those are authentic.  They were made in the fifteenth century and they were bought by the two brothers in the antique market.  So instead of just putting them on the wall, they really gave them life again and they framed it in and out.  And they personally designed the arch and setting of all the things inside here.

BURT WOLF:  But they weren’t architects, they were lawyers.

DR. LUCIA DINA:  Exactly, yes, they were not, they had not a degree in architecture, but they were very good at drawings and they were very passionate of art.  So here we are in Fausto’s bedroom and this is his bed.  It was made in northern Italy in sixteenth century.  Quite comfortable.

BURT WOLF:  But the pillow is square...

DR. LUCIA DINA:  Yes that’s the way it was actually.  And it was actually a part of an altar which was then transformed into a bed.  So it’s really a work of art.  You can see Christ’s ascent to Calvary.  You can see it was something which belonged to a church actually.  And I know this room is a bit gloomy...

BURT WOLF:  Yes, gloomy is a good word...

DR. LUCIA DINA:  Isn’t it?

BURT WOLF:  Like a mausoleum.

DR. LUCIA DINA:  It is, it is.  Actually we wanted to preserve it like this with the same atmosphere because it was the taste of the nineteenth century, sort of romantic, dark, gloomy taste.  But we must not think that Fausto was a gloomy person, he was a very lively person.  He was a bachelor.  He had many girlfriends, so...

BURT WOLF:  Girlfriends that would come to this bedroom?

DR. LUCIA DINA:  They were supposed to do so, yes...

BURT WOLF:  Just checking, just checking...

DR. LUCIA DINA:  Maybe they liked it like this, I think it’s not really the taste for us...

BURT WOLF:  It sure is.

DR. LUCIA DINA:  You have to enter this different taste.

And this is the bathroom.  This was Fausto’s private bathroom, and it was not only the tub, but also the shower.

BURT WOLF:  This was his tub?

DR. LUCIA DINA:  Yes, this was his tub.  And on the ceiling, you can see that one of the roses was actually made of iron and it was the shower.


DR. LUCIA DINA:  It was a very modern invention for that time.  And the inspiration came from a very famous painting which is now kept in Brera, the Museum of Brera in Milan, it was made by Piero della Francesca in the fifteenth century, and when the brothers saw the painting they thought it was a good model for their shower and tub.  So this is how the whole thing came out.

So this is the Arms and Armors Gallery.  It was very fashionable in that time to recreate the classical Armors Gallery with all the antique art and armor.

BURT WOLF:  Just a room with all your family’s armor...


BURT WOLF:  That’s wonderful.  Is that an authentic piece?

DR. LUCIA DINA:  Yes, it is.

BURT WOLF:  Ah ha.  So during the Renaissance you had to be very careful about your weight.  You couldn’t just gain a couple of extra pounds and go into the tailor and say “Hey, Tony, would you let it out, I put on a little weight at lunch!”  I guess you could let it out, but it would cost you a fortune.

Bagatti Valsecchi is a little family place.  For a big-budget production, take a look at Castello Sfozesco.

Castello Sfozesco is a huge fortified castle and the 15th century home of the Sforza family.  The most famous of the clan was Francesco, a mercenary who became the Duke of Milan, and would duke it out with anybody if the money was right.  An iron hand in an iron glove.  Today the old homestead is a museum with paintings, sculpture, and craftswork. What most visitors to the Castello don’t see is one of the world’s great collections of antique musical instruments, and its just down the hall.

MARC BELLASAI:  Well this is a harpsichord that was probably built in 1571.  It’s almost entirely the original instrument...

Marc Bellassai is a Fulbright Scholar working at the Castello, and studying the history of Italian music.

MARC BELLASSAI: The museum has given us permission this morning to play it.  I’ve tuned it and I’ve even found a chair from the same period that I can sit in...

BURT WOLF:  Oh... it’s a nice matching set... this little sign says “don’t touch,” but it’s not for us.  Go ahead.

MARC BELLASAI:  Okay let me open up the lid here.  Now, Italian harpsichords from this period were actually two instruments in one.  The inner instrument, which is the real part, the business end, and the outer case, which you can see here is decorated in gilt leather from the 1500s.


MARC BELLASAI:  And, uh, here let’s give it a spin.

BURT WOLF:  Before piano bars, were there harpsichord bars?

MARC BELLASAI:  This is the Renaissance harpsichord bar and while we’re here I’ve got another wonderful instrument to show you.  Here this is an organ built in Naples around the beginning of the nineteenth century.  And it’s got a very peculiar tuning system which I’ll show you in a minute.  But first there’s a small detail -- uh, you’re collecting those...

BURT WOLF:  Yes, “don’t touch.”  Part of my collection.

MARC BELLASAI:  Since electricity costs a lot in Milan, uh, you’ll have to work the bellows.  It’s very simple.  It’s not too strenuous.  You can leave your jacket on.  When you push the one down all the way to the bottom...

BURT WOLF:  Push this one down...

MARC BELLASAI:  All the way down, go ahead...

BURT WOLF:  Okay...

MARC BELLASAI:  To the bottom... now when it gets up to halfway, you let it go, push this one down...

BURT WOLF:  This is the halfway when that gets to halfway, then I push this one down... okay.

MARC BELLASAI:  That’s so the organ doesn’t go “ugh” in the middle of what I’m playing.

BURT WOLF:  I want to talk to my agent about this before we do any more.  All right let’s go...let’s go.

MARC BELLASAI:  Okay, here’s the same piece that I played before. 

BURT WOLF:  You get tipped for this or it’s just a regular set fee?

The antique instrument collection at Castello is only a small part of what Milan has to offer in terms of music.  This is the church of Saint Maurizio.  It was built in 1503 as part of a Benedictine convent. The community of 99 nuns came from the aristocratic families of Milan. They had the walls decorated with frescos that depicted scenes from the Bible, as well as pictures of the countryside. The landscapes brought the outside world into the convent and showed the women places that they were no longer allowed to visit. The organ was commissioned by the nuns under a contract that guaranteed that it would be bigger than any other in Milan.  It has been restored and once again presents the sounds of the Renaissance.  Dr. Alessandro Boccardi is an authority on Milanese music, and is demonstrating the instrument’s range.

Milan is also the home of the most famous opera house in the world, Teatro alla Scala.  It was built on the site of an old church called Santa Maria della Scala, “Saint Mary of the Steps,” and that is the origin of the theater’s name.

BURT WOLF:   You can start whenever you’re ready...    

La Scala opened in 1778 with a work written by Antonio Salieri.  He was the court composer in Vienna, and the teacher of Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt.  But in the end, he will probably be remembered as the bad guy who tried to kill Mozart in the film Amadeus.  Such is the power of the media.

La Scala was the home field for the great composers of Italian opera -- Verdi, Donizetti and Bellini. Puccini used La Scala for the presentation of La Boheme, Tosca, Tourandot, and Madame Butterfly. In 1920 Arturo Toscaninni became the artistic director of La Scala and during a period of reconstruction he took the orchestra on tour to North America. That gave La Scala an international reputation.

Attached to the main theater is a museum that contains an extensive collection of objects relating to the history of Italian opera.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The first Italian opera was presented in 1594.  It had grown out of the little musical spectacles that were being presented in the homes of the aristocracy to mark an important occasion: something like a birth, or a wedding, or a royal visit.  Eventually they became full-blown drama set to music. They also moved out of the homes and into the public theater at which point they became more varied, more dramatic, and more violent.

The opera season at La Scala runs for six months and starts each year on the 7th of December, which is the birthday of St. Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan. Getting a ticket through the box office is almost impossible. But if a visit to La Scala is your dream, you might consider the services of the baggarini.  The baggarini are highly specialized dealers who traffic in opera tickets. They pay students to stand on line at the box office, often for days at a time. The tickets that are purchased by the students are turned over to the dealers, who resell them for between two and five times the original price. That dog, by the way, is a special guide dog.  If you give him the code word, he will lead you to his master, who will sell you a ticket.  An easier system, however, is to consult with the concierge at a good hotel, who can usually direct you to the services of the baggarini.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the price!

In 1987 the Four Seasons group purchased an 18th century palazzo in the most fashionable district of Milan, and started converting it into a small hotel.  As the construction got underway the workmen discovered columns that looked considerably older than the palazzo.  Then a fresco showed up that was clearly from the Renaissance. Within days, they realized that beneath the palazzo was a complete cloister that had belonged to a convent founded in 1428.  The original plans for the building were given up. A new design was made and based on the ancient structure. The cloister became the center of the hotel.  The lobby is the original chapel.  The public and private rooms surround a garden that was modeled on 15th century period drawings.

Everything about the hotel is quiet and restful and the nuns would have enjoyed that aspect.  But they were an order that avoided the comforts of life, so there’s no telling how they would have responded to one of the most luxurious properties in Italy.  Twenty-four hour room service. Twenty-four hour concierge service. A staff devoted to comforting their guests. A restaurant that has become a favorite of local food lovers as well as the residents of the hotel.  It’s quite possible that the nuns might have none of this. On the other hand, Saint Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan, was into the good life and he would have loved it. Especially the cooking.

This is executive chef Sergio Mei, and he’s preparing a traditional Milanese dish that he’s adapted for the home kitchen --minestrone alla Milanese, the vegetable soup of Milan.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Let me show you what’s in this recipe:  onions, leeks, celery, carrots, potatoes, green beans, fava beans, savoy cabbage, zucchini, spinach, parsley, tomatoes, tomato sauce, rice and at the end, parmesan cheese.

And here’s what happens to them.  First, a little olive oil goes into a large sauté pan or stock pot.  As soon as the oil is hot, in goes a cup of chopped onion... a cup of chopped leek... a cup of chopped celery... two cups of chopped carrots... two cups of chopped cabbage (if you can get Savoy cabbage it’s best but any cabbage will do).  Then two cups of fava beans go in... followed by one cup of green beans that have been cut into small pieces.  Next, two cups’ worth of potatoes that have been peeled and diced.  A little stirring.  Then one cup of cubed zucchini, a cup of chopped spinach and a half cup of tomato sauce. A little more stirring. The in go six cups of warm chicken broth.  All that simmers for five minutes, at which point two cups of rice go in... a little salt... more stirring and fifteen minutes more of simmering with the cover off.

While that’s cooking, two tablespoons of rosemary are sautéed in an ounce of olive oil and then added to the soup. Then a quarter cup of chopped parsley and a half cup of grated parmesan cheese go in. A quick taste --

BURT WOLF:   Fantastico!

-- and it’s ready to serve.

Sergio’s second recipe is for chicken in a citrus sauce. A little salt goes onto a chicken that has been cut in half and had all of the bones removed expect for those in the legs. When I do this dish at home I will probably use boneless chicken breasts with the skin on.  Life in the kitchen should be as easy as possible.  A few grinds of fresh pepper go on.  A few sprigs of rosemary.  Some sliced garlic.  Some slices of shallot, and a little oil.  The chicken marinates for a moment in those ingredients while a half ounce of olive oil heats up in a sauté pan. The chicken goes in with the marinade ingredients and cooks on one side for five minutes or until the skin has begun to crisp. Then it’s turned over and gets five more minutes of cooking. Two ounces of pine nuts are added. A little white wine... a hit of red wine vinegar... the juices of a lemon, the juices of an orange and three tablespoons of chicken broth are added. Two tablespoons of raisins.  Five minutes of simmering, and it’s into a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for ten minutes. When it comes out, the chicken is removed from the pan and a sauce is made by adding a little chicken stock and scraping the pan drippings into it. Then the chicken is sliced... placed onto a serving plate with some polenta and topped with the sauce.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that’s a quick look at the Italian city of Milan -- world famous for business and fashion -- but when you get to know the place, you find out that it’s just as important in terms of history, art, music, and great food.  I’m Burt Wolf.