Last week I went to Milan, I was excited at the chance to visit the famous Brera art museum and the contemporary art Foundation Prada. So the first morning after a perfect Milanese coffee and croissant at an open air cafe on the Piazza Doumo, I headed for the nearby Pinacoteca (from the Greek for picture gallery) at the Palazzo Brera . A Sunday so to my delight free entry (always nice for artist's budgets!), across the courtyard and even the drizzly sky didn't dampen my spirits at the prospect of seeing this important collection of Italian art.
The Brera was founded by Princess Mary Therese of Austria in 1776, ( she had set up the Brera Botanical gardens in 1774 for medical and pharmacy studies) initially as an aid for art students at the Academy. Napoleon Bonaparte turned it into a public museum in 1809.
The collection is so vast that I'm going to mention a few of my favourites, to avoid giving you a case of 'Stendhal syndrome' - basically an 'aesthetic' experience that overloads the psyche and produces dizziness and suffering, a condition described first by the French author of the same name - also by many 19th century critics, and given credence in contemporary science insofar as the same cerebral areas that are activated during exposure to art - are the ones involved in emotional responses ...a case of 'love sickness'!
Room V1 is where I found the main Bellini (Venice 1430 - 1516) and Mantegna collection. I first saw a Giovanni Bellini painting, of St Francis in the desert, in the Frick NY about 25 years ago, I never forgot the beauty of this image, the whole scene bathed in yellow light, the figure of the saint so moving.
In this room the Bellini Pieta is a stunningly affecting painting, the emotional intensity conjured up by this scene compels you to stay with it it for some time. Bellini's figures are always so tenderly painted. Here Mary holds the dead body of her handsome son, her face is so close to his -you imagine she is trying to breathe life into him again, as she brought him into the world with his first breath she is in agony at his lifelessness. This is very strong empathy in painting for the times, and the flat horizon line of the grey sky behind the figures suggests nature is mourning in unison.
Next I looked at Andrea Mantegna's wonderful grisaille painting of 'The Lamentation of Christ" the dead body seen in extreme foreshortened perspective, a new and audacious experiment in painting. Like that of his brother in law (he married Bellini's sister!) Mantegna's ability to create emotion makes you take a deep breath. Elsewhere there is a stunning and huge Bellini of a saint preaching in Constantinople, the architecture is so immense and fabulous it is suggestive of an epic Hollywood movie, only here the whole scene is suffused with almost magic pink white light ( the pink walls and white robes of the veiled women radiating the vast public square) . The mighty artist Albrecht Durer wrote of Bellini "Still he is the best painter of them all".
The next day I visited the magnificent gothic cathedral of Maria Nascente (nativity) in piazza Duomo, started in 1386 the labouring craftsmen of six centuries spent 600 years creating this masterpiece, The Bronze doors have images from the bible referring to the story of Christ's birth, gorgeous to study up close, and years of worshipers have polished some parts bright gold, ie; the head of baby Jesus, and the feet of the grown Christ on the cross, the walls and spires are bristling with carved stone figures from the christian story, each a testament to the talent and workmanship of generations of artist/workers.
Inside cathedral the hush of the atmosphere is evocative of the innumerable worshippers who have come here to pray over the centuries, the light of the Italian sun shining stained glass colours into glorious windows of heavenly imaginings, all from different eras. The windows tell of the artistic fashions changing over time, though all invoke the most uplifting and yet sombre feelings of awe.
Each morning my friend and I had our coffee and croissant at the same outdoor cafe on the piazza opposite the cathedral so we could bask in its glory as the city woke up and bustled around us.
The Foundation Prada is a modernist architectural beauty on the outskirts of the city centre. It rises gleaming in its minimal elegance and houses a considerable collection of contemporary art, mainly installations and videos, a little too cool for school for the most part in my opinion ..after the previous art viewing. USA artists Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin currently showing 'Whether line' - a multi media installation "investigating the perpetual promise of new terrain, and the inherent instability of territorial appropriation" ... " An immersive intervention where visitors navigate constructions suggesting both agency and containment, an active state of limbo. Aural and visual echoes of nature and daily life will merge with distortions of familiar spaces..' There was a movie to go with this exhibit but it was past show time. Some delights make the collection really worth the visit, the rain room for instance and a room with giant papier mache mushroom sculptures hanging upside down from the ceiling I really liked. A Thomas Demand (UK) recreation of caves and stallactites etc., accompanied by wonderful drawings.The architecture and the diagonal walkways lined with pollarded trees reminded me of De Chirico's dreamy city scapes. Best is the tower gilded all over (really!) with gold leaf , it glimmers and glows in the Italian sun like a visitation from a Bellini painting. A magical Rapunzel tower that any fashionista would die for! We ended our visit with a cocktail on the terrace, high up over views of Milan it was a perfect sundowner served by charming waiters, then we headed uptown for dinner with some Irish/Milanese artist friends who came here a long time ago and have thrived in this wonderful city.