The Financial Times
Published: October 26 2007
Does anyone love Milan? No one has left their heart in it, thrown a coin into one of its fountains (there aren’t any), longed to wake up there or seen it in the springtime.
A city named “in the middle” was never destined to inspire emotional extremes such as love. “Milan” derives from “Mediolanum,” the Roman name for a camp where trade routes between Spain, the east, northern Europe and Rome crossed. Trade dominates Milan, though showrooms and studios have replaced the steel mills, rubber, automobile and locomotive factories that propelled Italy’s industrial revolution. Milan has always been the nation’s financial capital.
Work still drives it. Conscientious week-day dinner guests stand at 11:45 and are out the door by midnight. If your family hasn’t been here the three generations at least that it takes to be a real Milanese, then you or your ancestors came here to work. No one comes to Milan looking for Tuscan sun. Milan has the greyest weather south of London and at weekends the Milanese leave. It is sad that people consider the ease of escaping to the Alps or the Ligurian shore one of the city’s main selling points.
Ignorant of its industrial past, most people think daily life here is just more of the partying models and designers that populate fashion and furniture weeks. However, we residents hardly swim in a stream of aesthetics and glamour. For us, the high glamour weeks mean traffic and obligatory restaurant reservations. In Dolce & Gabbana territory, where I live – their headquarters, runway space and restaurant are within a few blocks – it means packs of lounging bodyguards and honking drivers stuck behind the crowds.
Milan is easier to describe in terms of other – non-Italian – cities. Its low-lying position and pollution make its smogs as famous as London’s. As with New York’s relationship to Washington, Milan’s mix of finance, fashion and publishing counterbalances the political and diplomatic role of Rome. Blue-haired ladies with diamond brooches at La Scala could be at the symphony in Boston, another conservative, post-industrial city.
Some melancholy within me finds Milan appealing on a typically damp grey day. Perhaps it is the morning’s rising tide of industriousness. Men in navy cashmere coats cycle towards the financial district, child seats in use for children or briefcases. Mothers with flying coat tails and clutched by children in oversize crash-helmets zip by on motorini. School-bound teenagers shove each other on the orange trams. Doormen sweep their sidewalks. In bars, coffee cups clink and coffee grinders buzz. Milan’s ever-present diesel smell feels energetic and promising.
I love my Porta Venezia neighbourhood, in the area of the city walls built by the Spaniards in the 16th century. Successive foreign dominations are often used to explain southern Italy’s woes. But Spaniards, French and Austrians also dominated dynamic Milan in turns. Milanese are proud of the disciplined Habsburg administration and believe it helped save them from the south’s discouraging fate. Milan’s venerable commercial skills helped, too.
Less aristocratic or chic than the city’s Corso Magenta area or the fashion Quadrilateral, Porta Venezia is still central. Flat Milan is easily – if, through the traffic, perilously – bicycled and few things are farther than 20 minutes away. I can reach La Scala in 10 minutes. It takes half that to reach the Conservatorio, home of Milan’s venerable chamber music society. Such ease of access to see performances by top international talent compensates for the cramped seats.
The public garden with its dog-run is two blocks away from me. The Boschi–Di Stefano museum is off Corso Buenos Aires (supposedly Europe’s longest shopping street). Very understatedly Milanese, it hides in the unassuming apartment that belonged to the passionate collecting couple who donated it to the city. Its walls and walls of paintings by Carlo Fontana, Giorgio Morandi and other masters must make “real” museums envious.
On my block, Seralcalze, the tiny hosiery shop, keeps me in flashy tights that can hold a bad mood at bay for weeks. Strangers at home and abroad often remark (favourably) on my purchases here – lace in every colour, stripes, woollen or cotton ribs, and Gallo socks with their seasonal pattern-changes.
Imarika, the shop on my corner, helps me avoid shopping for clothes amid the Russian babes and tourists in the flashier fashion Quadrilateral. Imarika trawls international (Jil Sander, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Issey Miyake) and local designers (Daniela Gerini, Luisa Beccaria) for dateless clothes that look fresh for decades. Per fortuna, over time such extravagances amortize well and keep my spending on budget.
Drogheria Radrizzani, a third-generation Milan institution, is across the street. Originally, drogherie such as this sold coloniali, namely coffee, tea and spices. Nowadays they sell fancy daily necessities: wines, pasta, oils, handmade soaps, imported biscuits. My family would starve if Radrizzani closed. Wine-fanatic friends like their wine selection and prices; I like the family owners and well-priced truffles. On Saturday mornings, neighbours meet over their tastings of wines and cheeses.
If I wanted my domestic help’s brass-buttoned jackets or dresses with frilly aprons to be in this season’s colours, I would just go up the street and pay a visit to uniform-supplier Siti. It is another of those places that prove there is nothing Italians can’t make stylish and appealing.
Close by is also Mitarotonda, the music store near the Conservatorio that connects me to Milan’s rich musical past. The child Mozart performed in Milan, Verdi died in the city, Toscanini conducted La Scala. Ranged from the store’s floor to its ceiling, Mitarotonda’s banks of wooden drawers with handwritten labels contain the austere Urtexte, or original texts, for composers from Albinoni to Berio.
Yes, you can love Milan. It just depends on what kind of love. Milan is the spouse of Italian cities – familiar, reliable and attractive when necessary. With their patina of past passions and the temptations of potential ones, Rome, Venice and Florence are the lovers among Italian cities. All in all, I think I’ll stay married.
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