Days of Milanese Anxiety

August slowly approaches its end. After more than a month spent studying in Yale, I felt the need to take some days off and enjoy the company of friends. Throughout the last month, Milan has been the frame of mundane moments of pleasure and quiet visions of beauty. Compared to many Italian cities, Milan’s rhythm breaks any expectation or stereotype. Crowded during working days, it becomes magnificently empty throughout the hottest days of summer. The nineteenth-century boulevards dry out and the traveler can enjoy some peace in the busiest city of the peninsula. While taking some deserved rest, I also felt the responsibility of showing the city to some fellow students. As any tourist, they arrived with their own set of thoughts and stereotypes, their own expectations about what Italy and Milan should be. I have been the mediator between their ideas and the city.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Milan is a city of many souls. The city centre is currently marked by the significant eighteen-hundreds renovations under Napoleon and, later, the kingdom of Italy. The broad avenues leading from the cathedral to the castle, in a beautiful game of perspective, are a prominent feature linking Milan to European metropoleis such as Paris and Berlin. However, the jewel of this period is certainly Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, built in the second half of the century to honour the first king of Italy. The fashionable venue is among the most accomplished examples of Art Nouveau in architecture (in Italian, this is mostly referred to as Liberty). Based on a cross shape, the building is made of two mosaic-paved avenues covered by vaults of iron and glass. Throughout the walls, friezes and statues look down onto the strollers. In the crossing, allegorical mosaics of the four continents epitomise the aspirations of Milan to be an international capital.

The cathedral’s rooftop

Along with the beauty of its streets and monuments, Milan inspires a deep sense of purpose. It is Italy’s window on the international stage, a financial centre, a cultural capital, one of the world’s fashion poles. It is easy, I believe, to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crowds throughout the streets, the shining shops, the lush palaces. I always carry in my mind the stereotypical image, common to all tourists, of the cathedral, an immense marble-covered structure, looking upon the viewer when he wriggles out of the subway. I always thought, in such moments of urban sublime, that I was being asked to compare my own pettiness to that example of majesty. I was being asked to confront myself with the great beauty of the past and, possibly, produce my own response to it. Needless to say, as I grew older and (hopefully) more conscious, I started feeling a vague sense of anxiety toward this inevitable confrontation. I realised the magnitude of the task.

Piazza Duomo

After a few days showing the city to my friends, I could appreciate its grandeur and beauty. As any city, it stands as a monument to men’s efforts and challenges, depicting hopes and sorrow of ages. Every street, each building layer after layer tells a story which fosters the men of today toward new, broader achievements. The transmission of memory, the propagation of shared culture and tradition are a consistent part of a city’s fabric. Anxiety is the natural reaction to the confrontation with the sublime, what is beyond one’s own means and powers. However, it is not an admission of defeat, as much as a call to try and try again to match the outstanding beauty and results of those who came before us.


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Piazza Duomo

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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