Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Sant'Ambrogio Holiday, Piazza Fontana all lit up

Today was the Feast of Sant’Ambrogio (St Ambrose), the patron saint of Milan. Just as every city in Italy has a patron saint, so the feast day associated with each saint tends to be a local holiday. Today, December 7th, is one day before the Feast of the Immacolata (Immaculate Conception) on Wednesday, which is a national holiday. So, in Milan there are two consecutive holidays in the middle of this week. But why stop there? A lot of people will have taken advantage of the proximity of Sant’Ambrogio to the preceding weekend and they will have made a “bridge” (un ponte), which is a way of linking the weekend to the following, mid-week holiday. I’m not sure how many people will attempt to span the Immacolata on Wednesday to the following weekend (in a kind of Clifton Suspension Bridge mega-ponte), but certainly, for many Milanese their pre-Christmas break started last Friday when they finished work – and most will not return until Thursday, which means they will have had almost a week off.

What a very civilised place to live, Milan. (Italian readers intending to move to the UK, please note that since all Bank Holidays (which is what we call public holidays in Britain) are on a Monday, there is virtually no opportunity to make a “bridge”. A Bank Holiday is more of a pier extending out from the pleasure-beach of the weekend. (The only exceptions to this are Good Friday (venerdi Santo), curiously NOT a public holiday in Catholic Italy, and, of course, the days between Christmas and New Year, although in these straitened economic times there is a trend for companies to call people in to work during this period.))

It snowed a few days ago, although most of the snow has disappeared. It’s only when you get out into what the Milanese call their “hinterland” (but which a native English speaker would refer to as the outskirts of the city), that there is still any (real) snow left. On the metro train into the centre I passed a derelict-looking barn, decorated with Christmas lights, glowing surreally among the corrugated brown fields, dusted with snow.

 Sant'Ambrogio is the day the Christmas
tree lights are turned on in Piazza Duomo.
And while the snow may have gone, the air was wet. It’s not quite rain, and far from being fog; it’s a kind of vapour hanging in the air, stirred easily by any wind, which means that an umbrella affords little protection. Standing under the portico fringing the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II (also known as the drawing room (salotto) of Milan), the moisture came in under the ornate arches, almost like the sea-spray washed up onto the deck of a ship. More Venice than Milan.

A thousand points of light: Piazza Fontana
I walked through Piazza Fontana, where the eponymous fountain has been elaborately decorated – nay, transmogrified – into a fountain of light, I suppose. The nymphs (or are they nereids?) on each side of the fountain were bathed in a slowly-cycling rainbow, with the splashing water rippling the light. The whole fountain was overgrown with sparkling fairy lights forming a carpet or net of steely highlights, all blazing out in the damp twilight. The effect (specially produced for the annual Festival of Light, a kind of secular, industry-sponsored Milanese Diwali or Channukah) was striking, but it was not unique. Opposite the fountain stood a small forest of tall, golden women, lamé nudes with their arms in the air, caught in a cheerleading moment of exuberance, and their hands strangely enlarged and distorted, suggesting not only the stubby branches of polled trees, but engorged reindeer antlers. Behind these gilded ladies the newly-refurbished hotel was hung with golden nets of light (ubiquitious nowadays, but at one time surely a traditional Sikh decoration, rather than a global design motif). And all this light, of course, was reflected in the sheen of the paving stones and cobbles that add to Piazza Fontana’s unique character. (Santa’s carbon footprint must be enormous, but there’s still something magical and eternal about lighting up the darkness at the end of the old year.)

Clanking and swaying as they heave into the Piazza, Milan’s traditional orange trams arrive like gondolas berthing in a port of light and shadow, disgorging their human cargo with a sudden snap of wooden doors, followed instantaneously by the smart flapping of steps (also made of wood) down onto which a cast of smartly-dressed burghers make their unsteady way: gentlemen in dark overcoats and felt hats, ladies of a certain age submerged in fur, youths sporting absurd woollen hats, puffed-up boleros and drainpipe jeans and leggings, like hip renaissance pages. Umbrellas blossom, an instant palate of colours squeezed onto the damp, grey air.

Golden Girls: Piazza Fontana statues