The Duomo

The great cathedral of Milan, aka the Duomo, was begun in 1386 and, as everyone insists on telling you, took more than five centuries to complete. They should have stopped sooner. Much, much sooner.

The Duomo is indeed an impressive structure; "awe-inspiring" might not be too strong. The sheer physical size is staggering, let alone the quantity and quality of skilled labor that it represents.

It is not, however, beautiful. Mark Twain thought it was, and went on about it at great and admiring length, but then Mark Twain thought Titian's Venus was obscene.

The basic layout and proportions aren't too bad, though rather on the blocky side, lacking the soaring lightness of a Gothic cathedral. But, quite simply, they stuck too much crap onto it. The cathedral at Amiens is beautiful; so, in a different and simpler way, is the oldest of all the great Christian churches, Haghia Sophia. So is Notre Dame, at a lesser level. The people who built those churches knew when to quit. The people who built the Duomo didn't.

And the closer you get, the tackier it looks. Apparently the idea was to cover every possible square foot with ornamentation - especially statues. The books say there are over 3000 statues on the exterior alone, and I believe it. They aren't incorporated gracefully into the overall design, either, like those of the great French cathedrals; they just sort of hang out there. And where they didn't put statues, they filled in the space with all sorts of elaborate and generally tasteless gingerbread.

In fact this is exactly what a cathedral would look like if my mother designed it.

Still, it has its points; while the overall effect is excessive, some of the individual parts are very beautifully done indeed.

I don't know what the rose signifies; some custom, no doubt. The locals seem to be very free and familiar with the Duomo - in contrast with the situation around Notre Dame, where the Parisians have just about been driven out by the hordes of tourists - and the broad front porch (or whatever it's called) is apparently a popular spot for young people to meet and hang out.

As is the great square in front of the church:

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Strother Martin is alive and well and living in Italy! We never did find out just who this guy was, but he put on one hell of a show - not a great voice, guitar technique definitely on the crude side, but in between songs he had a spiel that wouldn't quit. Unfortunately we couldn't understand a word, but it must have been effective because people kept coming up and buying these tapes and CDs that he had for sale.

Phyllis wanted to see the inside of the church. I was less keen, but I went along. As we approached the doorway, though, we were stopped by a bunch of armed guards. Apparently the Italians had decided that this was one of the sites that needed protecting. Well, considering the religious attitudes of the current bad guys, it wasn't too farfetched to think that a major Christian church might be a potential target. (Though there had been no guards at Notre Dame.)

These guards, however, were not soldiers; or rather there was a small contingent of soldiers in battledress, but they seemed to be there mostly as backup in case of trouble. The primary guarding was being done by Carabinieri - Italy's famous, or infamous, semi-military national police.

We had seen these characters around town, without ever getting close to them; in fact we'd given them a wide berth. The ordinary Milan cops, the ones who paced the streets and pretended to direct traffic, seemed innocuous enough - a bit on the comic-opera side, if anything - but the Carabinieri were downright scary as they strutted about in their barely-crypto-Fascist uniforms: jackboots, SS-style caps, submachine guns, yeegh. I didn't take any pictures of them. I didn't want to attract their attention. I had heard that Fascism had never really become extinct in Italy, and after a look at the Carabinieri I believed it.

Now, though, one of them was motioning very imperiously to me. I walked over and he ran one of those magnetic paddle gadgets over me, rather incompetently - he missed at least half a dozen places I could have hidden a gun or bomb - while I studied him covertly. Obviously a rookie; you can always tell when a man is unaccustomed to the clothes he's wearing, especially the footgear. Young, no more than twenty or so, quite possibly younger; very tall, especially for an Italian, tall as me but skinny as a rail, with a long neck and a gigantic Adam's apple and an oversized head. Crooked nose; I bet he got punched a lot before he joined the force, and I bet I know why. Hair cropped almost flush with the scalp. Big pop eyes like a lizard's.

Barney Fyfe, in other words; ridiculous as hell, except he had the full authority of the Italian state behind him. Not to mention a gun, which I figured he would really like a chance to use; his kind always do.

So I stood still while he checked me out; and then his magnetowhatsit went beep as it found the little Swiss-army-style penknife in my pants pocket.

He stepped back, laying aside his paddle, and gestured excitedly for me to empty my pockets. When he saw the little knife his eyes went wide; you'd have thought I'd just whipped out a small nuclear warhead. After a moment, very carefully and gingerly, he reached out and lifted this fearsome weapon from my palm. He studied it for a moment and then raised a white-gloved hand in front of my face. Extending a forefinger and waggling it from side to side, he said loudly and solemnly, "No!"

Then he paused. Clearly he didn't know what he was supposed to do next. By now the other Carabinieri and the soldiers, standing behind him, were watching the whole scene and cracking up at the New Guy making an ass of himself. Finally one of the other cops, evidently an officer, came over - wiping his eyes none too surreptitiously - and whispered something to him. His face flushed a little, but he kept that same super-serious expression as he gestured me toward the door.

The interior of the Duomo wasn't quite as overdone as the outside, but it wasn't all that great either; certainly not in the same league as the inside of Notre Dame. There were some pretty impressive paintings, though. We didn't stay long. When we came out, one of the soldiers handed me my knife and grinned broadly. Pencil-Neck was nowhere to be seen.

It had been a comical incident, on the whole, the sort of thing you tell people about when everyone gets to trading funny travel stories. All the same, I wasn't entirely amused. Jackass or not, the son of a bitch had given me the creeps. I had seen faces exactly like his staring out of old photos of the SS.

But once clear of the church and its guardians, the bad mood cleared; the sun shone warm and bright on the great square before the church. We moved on.