A "trop athlétique" Napoleon

Last year, in the space of just a couple of months, I came across a statue of a naked Napoleon twice. The first time it greeted me as I entered Brera Art Gallery's inner courtyard in Milan, the second as I was about to leave the ground floor of the 'Iron Duke' residence in London.

The colossal figure, made between 1802 and 1806 by artist Antonio Canova, depicts the French General as Mars the Peacemaker in an effort to make the subject universal, yet the business proved to be a tricky one for the Italian sculptor as, alas, the bronze copy - which is barely visible in the below photo I took in Milan - ended up having more success than the original marble.

The Empereur loathed the statue so much he banished it into storage, where it remained until in 1816 the British Government purchased and presented it to the Duke of Wellington in recognition of his victory over Napoleonic France at the Battle of Waterloo. The statue has remained in Apsley House in London ever since.

It appears that Napoleon didn't object to being represented like the Roman god of war, but complained of looking "trop athlétique". Is it possible that, in spite of his renowned arrogance, he knew he was not a Greek Adonis? As for the Duke of Wellington, the story goes that he didn’t mind his guests using it as an umbrella stand.

Milan. A weekend in January. Part Two.

It continues from here.

The day was bright and warm, and people and pigeons were milling about everywhere but mostly in the streets leading to Piazza del Duomo. This square is so vast that its only landmark - the equestrian statue of Vittorio Emanuele II, first king of Italy - is always a long long way from whichever corner you may find yourself in.

After lunch, we decided to make the most of the clear day traipsing up to Le Terrazze, the Duomo's roof terraces. Well, I am using the word 'traipsing' loosely here, as we didn't think even for a second of clambering up the 158 steps! We took the lift, instead.

Hasselblad 500C/M -  Kodak T-Max 100.

Hasselblad 500C/M -  Kodak T-Max 100.

The name of the concrete beauty you see in the centre-right-ish of the photo above is Torre Velasca, a fine example of 1950s Italian Brutalist architecture which has always fascinated me. And here is a gallery of photos I took while walking in that forest of spires, statues, turrets and gargoyles which is the Duomo's roof. Warning - fetch your sunglasses as the roll was accidentally cross-processed.

Once we were back down to the ground, we joined the queue to enter the cathedral. Someone may find the interior of this building, which is an hybrid of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, rather overwhelming. And in fact, if you have the time and the energy to take a tour along all its five aisles - divided by 52 colossal piers, one for every week of the year - among all the sarcophagi, funerary shrines and statues, you really won't know where to rest your eyes. I rested mine on a modern work of art, which was only temporally exhibited: Paradosso by the British sculptor Tony Cragg.

Hasselblad 500C/M -  Lomography X-Pro Slide 200, cross-processed.

I trust this won't come as a shock to any of you, but we spent the rest of the afternoon walking along boulevards, doing shopping, eating and drinking.

Only the last day of my stay, I was able to look at the view from the window of my hotel room, for the previous morning it was still dark outside when we left to visit Leonardo's The Last Supper. It wasn't exactly stunning but I think it was interesting with its mix of old and new.

Hasselblad 500C/M -  Kodak T-Max 100.

On our last day we went west again to visit Sant’Ambrogio, Milan's most charming church.

Hasselblad 500C/M -  Kodak T-Max 100.

Hasselblad 500C/M -  Kodak T-Max 100.

Sant’Ambrogio is a graceful red-brick church that was founded in the 4th century by St Ambrose, the city’s bishop and future patron saint. The church we see today is a fine Romanesque basilica that dates from the 9th-12th centuries, with a perfectly preserved atrium that was built as a shelter for pilgrims.

We then visited the National Museum of Science and Technology 'Leonardo da Vinci', which is set within the cloistered former monastery of St Vittore.

Hasselblad 500C/M -  Kodak T-Max 100.

The array of exhibits is vast and covers all the sciences, but a star attraction is the Enrico Toti submarine, which was built in 1967 to track Soviet submarines in the Mediterranean. Viewing numbers are limited to six at a time, so I took care of booking well in advance.

Hasselblad 500C/M -  Kodak T-Max 100.

Hasselblad 500C/M -  Kodak T-Max 100.

So, this is how the year started, and I still have a lot to share here before it will end.

Milan. It all started with a fresco.

I spent the first weekend of this year in Milan to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, aka the Cenacolo Vinciano, and a couple of other things to please those who were travelling with me. Cough cough, more on that later.

Because it was before the Epiphany, that in Italy marks the end of the Christmas season, streets were still adorned with Christmas lights and decorations, crowded with people meandering around after days of binging on panettoni, and dotted with roadworks and temporary signposts as the city was getting ready to host Expo 2015.

I had visited the city before, but I'd never had the opportunity to see the Cenacolo Vinciano, for this is the kind of attraction you are more likely to find in a list of works-of-art-to-see-before-you-die than an adventure generator for spontaneous travellers.

After the success of The Da Vinci Code – both Dan Brown’s novel and film, visitor numbers to this attraction has risen sharply. Besides, in order to preserve the fresco, only twenty-five visitors are admitted every 15 minutes hence, if you let me do the maths for you, about 320,000 visitors are allowed in per year. The long and the short of it being that, if you are thinking of paying a visit, you should book your ticket as soon as you can. I booked mine in mid-November, and then planned a trip around it.

Science has played an important role in the preservation of this unconventional fresco - Leonardo painted it on a dry wall rather than on a wet plaster, but learning that the work survived the Napoleonic regime when the refectory became a stable and the wall was used no less than for target practice, and World War II when bombs fell on the building, made me think of a miracle!

Leonardo’s Cenacolo is really what everyone says it is: a masterpiece of emotional insights to be read in the Apostles’ facial expressions. In the gift shop you will find these “moti dell’animo” (in the artist’s words) reproduced endlessly on all sort of souvenirs, from kitchen aprons to mouse pads to anything-you-like or dislike. Actually some are so tasteless you may find it hard to believe the Quadrilatero della Moda (Milan’s fashion district) is a stone’s throw away. But I didn’t walk away empty-handed as I bought a postcard of The Crucifixion (1495) by Donato da Montorfano, which stands on the wall facing Leonardo’s masterpiece (could you think of a more unfavorable place?) and therefore catch few people attention. I’m always one for supporting the underdog!

Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church where The Last Supper sits, has a superb brick-and-terracotta exterior, and below is a photo of the grandiose dome from one of its peaceful cloisters.

Hasselblad 500C/M -  Lomography CN 800

The historic heart of the city is compact. A short journey by metro was necessary to reach Santa Maria delle Grazie from our hotel, but then we moved on foot, passing by the imposing Castello Sforzesco on our way to the Pinacoteca di Brera, one of the finest collections of Italian masterpieces.

Let me digress for a moment and tell you something about travelling with an art historian: this is not for the faint-hearted! You might think that is because of a desire by part of the aforementioned art historian to tick off as many as possible cultural must-sees in the chosen destination, when actually it is quite the opposite as visits to monuments and art collections are more similar to thorough investigations. As a result, exhaustion by boredom more than by physical fatigue is likely to affect the poor ill-fated significant other, family and friends. However, every now and then, we too can be considerate and do our best to linger less in art galleries and the like. And this is exactly what I did while visiting the Pinacoteca di Brera.

Hasselblad 500C/M -    Lomography CN 800

Hasselblad 500C/M -  Lomography CN 800

Leaving Brera district, we strolled along Via Verdi, passed by Teatro alla Scala and entered Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, which is a light, airy, glass-and-iron 19th century shopping arcade known also as ‘Il salotto di Milano’ - Milan’s drawing room. Going through it, we found ourselves facing the Duomo, Milan's sumptuous Gothic cathedral. To be continued.

Hasselblad 500C/M -  Lomography X-Pro Slide 200, cross-processed.