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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Renaissance Cities--Milan

Milan, 1493, Nuremberg Chronicle woodcut
When we think of the Renaissance we automatically think of Italy, but we must not fall into thinking of the Italian peninsula during this time as a nation. Far from it, the southern half of the Italian boot was the Kingdom of Naples. In the North was the most powerful of the city-states--the Duchy of Milan. To its east, the Republic of Venice and to the south of Milan, the Republic of Genoa. Dominating the northern midsection of the boot was the Republic of Florence. Sandwiched between Florence and the Kingdom of Naples were the Papal States, ruled from Rome, along with a half-dozen or so minor city-states such as Siena, Ravena, Ferrara, and Urbino to name just a few. In short, during Renaissance, the place was a political nightmare. Worse, it was also a bloody one for much of this time.

Milan's Santa Maria della Grazie today
Left to their own devices, the military and political quagmire would have been bad enough, but there were outsiders involved too. Naples was ruled during much of this time by Spain and France, who eventually captured Milan. Add to this a few militant popes such as Julius II, and the Renaissance and the art that flowed from it is all the more miraculous. Yet despite the turmoil, perhaps even causing much of it, there was great wealth here, which is always the prerequisite for great art. The city of Milan is something of a microcosm for the entire time and place. The ruling families (at various points in time), the Viscontis  and the Sforzas were ambitious, ruthless, educated, religious, and great patrons of the arts. They attracted architects and engineers such as Bramante, Leonardo, Amadeo, and Michelangelo, all instrumental in feeding the "edifice complex" that was as much a part of Milan and its rulers as the enlightened times in which they lived.

Central to the city of Milan were the Dominicans. Church and state were not separate but two legs of a single civic being, neither of which could have long survived without the other. The home of the Dominicans, the church of Santa Maria della Grazie (above, right) went from being a modest oratory in the middle-ages to a major cathedral with its own elaborate monastery complex by the fifteenth century. The church became the center of all learning in the city. It was here, in the refectory (dining hall) that Leonardo staged his Last Supper. It was in Milan that Donato Bramante learned his trade, laying the foundation for his laying the foundation for new St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Unlike Venice or Florence, or Rome, Milan (aside from the Last Supper, below) is not known for its painting but for its robust power and pursuit of scientific knowledge. Architecture engineering, science and religion were the key elements in its strong, towering presence as Milan cast a ponderous shadow over all of Italy during this time.

Milan's (also Leonardo's) most famous painting

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