Thursday, 9 August 2012

Logos and Leonardo

Back to Milan for the second time in two weeks, Jules and I were hoping to gain a bit more of an insight into what makes this city tick. We were interested in its sense of ‘style’ that appears to have become so ingrained into the culture and character of the city. Certainly Milan has a reputation as an art and design capital, with a myriad of festivals held each year (i.e. Milan Design Week, Milan Furniture Festival, Milan Fashion Week, Milan Biennale to name just a few) that continue to attract interest throughout the world. This is a city that encourages creativity and has more recently inspired the likes of Giorgio Armani, Guccio Gucci, Miuccia Prada, Nina Ricci, Gianni Versace … and the list goes on and on. On the streets we could gauge that here art is more than just aesthetics but a serious business with countless high end designer shops competing for the attention of the style conscious Milanese. For them it appeared that it was all about the ‘brand’ and having the right product connections was as important as breathing.

While Jules and I also undertook our own retail research, we did find time to visit the Triennale Design Museum, which is regarded as Milan’s most significant cultural institution showcasing aspects of its modern design history. While it was interesting, we felt that it didn’t totally capture the full dimension of this city’s creative achievement. For us, this could be seen better by simply looking through the logo branded shop windows of which there are plenty!

As we walked to the Triennale, we passed through the Sforza Castle, which is a 14th century reminder of Milan’s historical past. This magnificent structure is made even more famous due to some of the ceiling decorations by Italy’s greatest artist and designer, Leonardo da Vinci. The Milanese are particularly proud of the influence of the city upon the career of Leonardo, with the ‘great man’ establishing a strong connection with the city by basing himself here for 17 years (1482-1499) and then returning again several years later (1504-1508). He is honored in Piazza Della Scala with an impressive statue by Pietro Magni (1872) that overlooks the world-renowned opera theatre, La Scala. However, Leonardo’s most significant monument would have to be the fresco he painted in the refectory of the Santa Maria della Grazie …’The Last Supper’. Regarded as the most reproduced religious image ever, it is such a popular attraction that today you need to book well in advance in order to view it. Thankfully, Jules did just that as we turned up at our appointed time only to witness a number of disappointed tourists being turned away. Having a ticket however doesn’t mean that you are immediately free to walk in; there are a series of waiting areas that each group (around 25 people) must work their way through before finally proceeding to the 15 minute viewing. Following much anticipation, the glass doors finally slid open and we entered a relatively small room that was sparse and dimly lit. On the far wall under soft light was the iconic fresco, which on first sight stunned our small group into silence, as it must do for virtually every group when they see it for the first time. It is fortunate that the fresco actually still exists at all, after being bombed to near destruction during World War II; yet somehow it survived and it’s restoration has remained an ongoing project ever since. The latest was completed in 1999 and saw years of over-painting being taken back to reveal Leonardo’s original brushwork. The result is less colourful, but with its inconsistencies in condition, it somehow makes the piece far more authentic, revealing the experimentation of early fresco techniques. It is was certainly no less impressive and as we sat on the simple wooden benches, there was a quiet reverence for both the religious subject matter and for the skill of the artist who depicted it.

While our stay in Milan was short, we managed to gain just a small glimpse of its impressive art and design history, both from the past and present. Similar to Paris, there is a certain confidence in this city and it’s citizens based upon a well-established foundation of creative achievement. It is certainly dirty, loud and gritty, which is in stark contrast to the polished and refined items that are produced here. Like the bright red Ferrari’s that are built just outside the city, it continues to provide the world with many of the unmistakable tokens of success and provides the setting from which great designs are launched.

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