midnight in milan

an appreciative tour of a timeless city

When people think of Milan, they usually think of shopping, the gothic Duomo di Milano cathedral at the city’s center, and then more shopping. Milan is a city famous for its impeccable style and lauded for its timeless beauty that attracts countless tourists every year. In this increasingly commercialized, technology-oriented age, tourists jump from designer store to designer store, reveling in the excitement of the sales season and taking selfie after selfie in front of the colossal marble church structure, or along the cobblestoned streets of Monte Napoleone (Milan’s premier fashion high street). As a person born and (mostly) bred in Milan, I can attest to the fact that shopping and taking pictures to show off how “cultured” and “worldly” we are can be fun to a certain extent. I, too, have been guilty of posting “candid” pictures of myself on the Duomo’s rooftop, with some cliché caption of how much I love and enjoy my city. But this winter break, I wondered: had I really been enjoying my city in its entirety? Or was my obsession with retail and artsy photographs distracting me from appreciating the history and majesty of a city that lived through wars and revolutions?

Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell To Arms” follows the life of American Lieutenant Frederic Henry as he works as an ambulance driver for the Italian army during the First World War. In the story, Henry becomes injured at the Italian front and is taken to a hospital in Milan to recover. As I read the book this winter break, I observed Henry’s awe for the majesty of the city, which became a safe haven for the protagonist amidst the turmoil of the war. Certain events in the book were inspired by Hemingway’s own experience as a soldier at the Italian front. Reading the novel while vacationing in Milan, I realized that an American author who spent a couple of years in and out of Milan at the beginning of the 20th century knew, in some ways, more about my city than I did. Had I ever stopped to admire the city’s architecture in all of its grandeur? The Duomo’s marble walls had survived bombs and catapults throughout the Second World War; the cobblestoned pedestrian streets remained intact despite the city’s increased modernization; and the walls of traditional trattorie (eateries) on the outskirts of the city held pictures of families from decades ago who cooked homemade meals to welcome soldiers and travelers to their bustling city. Taking a step away from the ever-glamorous yet completely commercial likes of La Rinascente, Milan’s renowned department store, I realized just how much this city had to offer.

I decided to follow Henry’s path in “A Farewell To Arms,” which took me from the Duomo di Milano itself to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and then onwards past La Scala opera house to ancient housing structures previously inhabited by Milan’s wealthy. Though these are typical tourist spots that I’d been to many times, this time I looked at these places through Henry’s eyes. Pulling my attention away from shops like Prada and Luisa Spagnoli, I turned instead to the glass-vaulted arcades that sheltered the masonry buildings decorated with beautiful yet simple frescoes. Built between 1865 and 1877, the Galleria was a never-before-seen architectural undertaking, and I wondered about how difficult it must have been to construct such a structure without the use of modern-day technologies that we take for granted. At the Galleria’s opening, did an 18-year-old girl in a long petticoat-filled dress stand in my same spot and look up at this structure in awe?

I walked along the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, enjoying the golden glow of the Sun shining through the arcade, until I got to Piazza della Scala, the opera house, on the other side. I imagined getting onto a horse-driven carriage, like Lt. Henry did, and trotting off down the deserted stone streets. The angry, honking cars and throngs of selfie-stick-bearing tourists disappeared, and in their place appeared rickety carriages and people in early 20th century clothing. I drowned out shouts of “Photo! Photo!” and “Bus Tour!” and as I looked at La Scala I imagined 19th century theatergoers in their grand clothing, looking for an escape from Italy’s political mess and the trials of everyday life. How did they feel when the opera house shut down in 1914 with the onset of the war, and the world seemed to be set ablaze? The battle fronts were very close to home, especially for Northern Italians, and life as they knew it was put on hold so that public industries could go towards the war effort. Nurses and ambulances replaced wealthy women and carriages on the cobblestoned streets, and I wondered just how much death and heartbreak the city’s quiet walls had seen.

Walking into the olden churches, including Santa Maria delle Grazie, I wound my mind back hundreds of years. Instead of following a fast-talking, stress-inducing tour guide with a thick accent, I tried to imagine the Milanese in the 17th and 18th centuries padding quietly along the stone floors in an attempt to find peace in Italy’s hub of industrialization. The cold, cracked walls held secrets of friars, dukes, and nuns from centuries ago, and the fading paint on religious structures and frescoes made me think of all the people who had admired these objects before me, and who were long cold in their graves. Just the thought of it all made me feel so small, an insignificant speck in the history of a timeless city. It was an intense yet incredible experience to comb through the metropolis and try to pick up the secrets and stories that centuries of Milanese people left behind.

So if you ever visit my wonderful city, why don’t you try a more spiritual form of tourism? Of course, shopping for a day is a must, but Milan has a whole other historical dimension to it that isn’t obvious at an initial, superficial glance. The ghosts of generations of Milanese surround you, eager to show you the place they called home and to tell you their stories—if you’ll listen to them.