“What is the fatal charm of Italy?  What do we find there that can be found nowhere else?  I believe it is a certain permission to be human, which other places, other countries, lost long ago.” — Erica Jong

Binoy Kampmark writes: The city of mink, lying on ladies who seem to have stepped out of abundant wardrobes, worn not even in the name of extravagance so much as expected formality. This is the first impression you get in Milan, as you take to the streets of a city that prides itself as being Italy’s exception. It is the exception, because here, one finds banking that presumably works, a situation that does not prevent transactions with your international bank card as being declared ‘void’.  (Italian bancomats are notoriously rude.)

It is the exception because here the food is not up to scratch. Italy can boast a culinary diversity that is positively Asiatic in variety, but the same cannot be said of this affluent, aloof bit of the country. In Milan, where the fashion model reigns supreme, the food portions are small and unadventurous. The stingy hold fort; the ruthless dieticians seem in control.

Much of the food that is available has fallen victim to the cultural crimes of ‘international Italian cuisine’, though a clotty, creamy carbonara was not detectable. While such acts would be punished in other parts of Italy with suitable severity, Milan extols them in order to lure the gullible tourist. Tourists are, after all, the perfect fruit, to be squeezed and drained for all they are worth.

Mink maketh the woman, and at a restaurant such as San Babila Café there are everywhere, from frustrated French models awaiting a bill that will never arrive or established Russian models who, despite fading, still manage enough of a serve to stay in the limelight.  Indeed, the proprietors have been rather witty, naming pizzas after brand names. An edible crust filled Dolce Gabbana might come as a surprise but Milan is heavy with such references. Through the gigantic double arcaded Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, saturating commerce and a series of strategically located fashion shops are placed. The buyer of brand labels is not merely to be seduced but lauded.

A trip to Italy can produce various distortions for the visitor, the sort one has when the mind is addled by an excess of superb locally crafted food, regional wines and a generous dose of Baroque intensity. Then, there is the hand of the Catholic Church, whose spiritual and tangible presence seems permanent. In the Brera Gallery (Pinacoteca di Brera), the collection of works that stem from Church panels featuring the presence of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child seem endlessly rich, if perhaps a touch over-repetitive. The spectator is eventually left trying to identify the smallest detail to note the originality between one Virgin and the other, and this, for the untutored eye, can prove a challenge. But even the most vulgar eye would be able to appreciate the stunning array of works by Bernadino Luini in the first part of the exhibition.

This does not detract from several stunning collection pieces. One of the gallery’s very popular items is the tenderly rendered The Kiss (1859) by Francesco Hayez, though it might seem a touch sentimental and typical of the Romantic era. Then there is Tintoretto’s richly dark realization in Finding of the Body of St. Mark (1548), and the room that thunders the arrival of perspective in Western painting – Piero della Francesca’s Holy Conversation (1472-4), and Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin (1504) and Donato Bramante’s grim but beautiful Cristo alla colonna (1490).

As the visitor is going through this art cornucopia, one is reminded that the exhibition of art is as much a political act as it is a cultural one. To see church pieces, mosaics and paintings torn out from their original religious or secular abode is like seeing the amputated features of a body moved to different locations.

This species of vandalism is the tolerated one – if you have to steal or desecrate, make sure there is a museum at the end of the line to receive the piece, preferably with a fat pay check. Saints should know about this more than most, as they became collector’s items long before the birth of the museum – a finger here, a limb appearing with miraculous coincidence there, leading to profitable pilgrimages for the local authorities. The effect is much the same – removing church items is the effectuation of a grave robbery.

Napoleon’s rough handiwork in Milan provides another example of vandalism in action  – a vandal and a connoisseur of culture at the same time, a sentient savage who knew the practice of culture as much as he knew the barbarisms of destroying it. After dealing with the Austrians, who had themselves inflicted a host of cultural crimes against the city during their century long occupation, Napoleon proceeded to destroy parts of such buildings as the Castello Sforzesco, a fortress complex that remains astonishing even though most of its 1447 features disappeared. Then there is that delicate issue of Leonardo Da Vinci’s fragile Last Supper in 1796, which suffered unwanted attention from Napoleon’s soldiers when they bivouacked in the refectory.

The oil and tempera masterpiece, ill-suited to wall surfaces, nestles in the monastery next to the sobering majesty of Santa Maria del Grazie, a remarkable basilica that still retains its paleochristian character. In true Milanese cheek (and pocket), the Last Supper tends to be only possible to view by bookings made online – how Leonardo would have chuckled at such technological madness and its commodification at the hands of Dan Brown and company. One is, instead, reduced to seeing a description and reproduction of it outside, hovering about in the hope that the guards will be daft enough not to notice loiterers. But that is to be expected.

Milan is not merely the city of survival, it is a city of cultural survival. In addition to an assortment of diligent plunderers, long occupations and destructive raids – the Allied bombing of the city in 1943 was yet another effort to punch a hole in the city’s history, Milan, and for that matter much of Italy, adapt with an understanding only age provides. All of this, in spite of the mink.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]