There are no souls in the ossuary chapels, only bones.
Bones of old men and of children. Bones of the pious and the damned. Bones of criminals, heads lopped off for crimes and skulls left, forever, facing the alter of the church that condemned them. Skulls stacked in high rows, the center piece and arm reach of the cross, leg bones and arm bones piled together tightly with their balls outward facing, filling in the space between. Hundreds, thousands of eyes that saw their last light much more than 500 years ago, staring, for eternity into a world that is continually becoming something new, a place they’d never recognize if they could blink back the dust of lifetimes and truly see.
To me, these chapels, like the one less visited in Milan, are some of the most deeply holy places. They aren’t creepy. The bones are friends. They have eyes, very much like my own. People who lived and laughed, cried and loved. They walked miles. They celebrated victories and suffered crushing defeats. They raised children. They worshiped their gods and worked with their hands. They grew crops and buried those they loved in the same soil their bones were pulled from before they were stacked here.
I enjoy sitting among them, wondering who they are, where they are now, and how they see the world now that they’re no longer in need of the machines they used to traverse it. I wish I could ask them, but they are not here. They do not whisper. They’ve moved on. All that is left are the frames of their earthly bodies; stacked, with artistic reverence, with those of their neighbours.
Milan is a hive of activity and filled to overflowing with people going places and doing things. Fine suits, impractical shoes, oversized sunglasses, diamond crusted watches and scooters whisking in every direction. In the morning it smells like soap and coffee mingled with expensive perfume and the last whiffs of last night’s garlic overlaid with scooter exhaust.
Tea in the elegant shopping district adjacent to the square which the Duomo presides over with great dignity set me back almost ten euros. Just tea, and three little shortbread-like cookies that were “complimentary.” It was worth it to watch Milan wake and parade her brightest and best with purpose through the streets as the sun sparkled almost painfully through the spires of the great church, stretching her long arms toward the sky.
If you find yourself there, of course you must visit the church, go ahead and pay extra to climb the stone stairs up to the ramparts and wander among the spires and gargoyles. Taking a photo from the top of the wedding cake structure is better than you imagine it will be from the base. Walk the fashion district and marvel at the powerhouse designers who push art in clothing forward for the whole world. Look at the details: shoes, earrings, watches, ties. Buy a new dress, just for fun, and because you’re in the fashion district of Milan. Even a confirmed up-cycler like myself needs a new dress once in a while. Visit the Palace of Milan, and the basilicas, as many of them as you can stand. Sit in cafes and nibble the little plates of goodies they bring with your glass of Italian beer.
For me, dinner with Pierpaolo was the highlight, even if the metro station he told me to meet him at was closed and I had to walk an extra kilometer back from the next one. Folding into his giant bear hug felt like a homecoming. He hasn’t changed a bit. His hair, still a tangle of mess that makes him reminiscent of the animal muppet he impersonates when he sings, “mah-nah-ma-nah! do-do-di-do-do” His face it’s usual two day scruff. His nails just a little dirty and the wrinkles around his eyes a constant reminder of his smile. He pulled up in a slate grey Porshe two seater convertible, wearing a hand tailored suit in navy blue with a linen shirt, neither of which looked like they’d ever been pressed, and of course took me to his favourite fish house; where food is concerned, he always knows best.
The wait on the street was over an hour, another half an hour inside, and every mouthful was worth it. The tuna tartar was, in a word, spectacular. The salmon, perfectly crusted and not overcooked for even a second. The giant prawn dusted with breadcrumbs and garlic olive oil tasted exactly like you imagine the Mediterranean to before you’ve been there and been disappointed for the first time. If the food was perfect, the company was better.
The Last Supper…
If you see only one thing in Milan, make it DaVinci’s last supper. While his lovely lady in Paris is a profound disappointment: small, surrounded with crushing crowds, and shielded from her adoring fans with thick glass, his larger than life fresco in an unassuming monastery over near the Palace of Milan is breathtaking. Carefully restored within my lifetime, one passes through a series of climate controlled chambers, with a very small group of other visitors, before entering the chapel itself. Instead of protecting the painting, they protect the entire room, allowing visitors to stand without a barrier between themselves and DaVinci’s representation of the Christ and his buddies.
Of course I couldn’t help but think of the book Lamb and look for Biff in the painting; DaVinci appears to have left the Lord’s childhood friend out of the scene.
Jesus himself didn’t appear to be in attendance, even in his imposing likeness dominating the room, but DaVinci was definitely there.
Four years. That’s how long it took him to carefully lay down every brush stroke with his innovative dry method of plaster painting. If I changed the focus of my eyes and tuned out the hushed drone of the tour group asking quiet questions of their guides I could see his wooden scaffolding, lit with oil lanterns butted up against the end wall of the chapel.
I could hear the creak of the boards as he adjusted his weight, rubbed his eyes and reached for a brush with a different colour of paint on it. I could smell the sweat and the plaster, and I could hear the voices of his apprentices discussing the project.
His ghost hangs heavy in that room.
Almost as if he stood next to me with his arms crossed and asked me, “So, what do you think? I never expected it to be this big of a thing so many centuries later… but I’m glad people are still enjoying it.” I wanted to ask him if it was really John, or if it was actually Mary Magdalene sitting to the right of the Christ, but his ghost had evaporated by the time I formed the words.