Seeing Beauty

Even in Places Not Famous for It (Like Milan)

Rossella started high school last week, she’s going to liceo artistico (art high school). Monday was the first day of regular classes, so they’re moving through the timetable and meeting their teachers one by one. For religion class they have a Catholic priest, who nonetheless explained that his class would not be catechism: “I’m not here to convert anybody.” He asked the class why they had chosen liceo artistico; someone must have mentioned creating beautiful things, because the conversation then moved on to how to define beauty. Ross tried to express something about beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Her example was: “My mother loves India and sees beauty in it; my father can’t understand how anyone could see beauty in a place of such poverty and squalor.”

I was struck by this, because I haven’t often talked or written about India in terms of beauty (partly because I don’t have much gift for physical description). Ross is right, I do see beauty in India, and in most other places I’ve visited. Where I can’t find beauty, I can usually at least find humor and interest. I guess that is my particular, peculiar gift.

There is beauty almost everywhere, if you are open to it. Take Milan, for example. At first glance it’s drab and dingy, and not considered much of a tourist destination. As an industrial center, Milan was heavily bombed during WWII, and afterwards rebuilt hastily – and often tastelessly. The few impressive pieces of architecture left are too over the top to be called beautiful: the world’s most Gothic cathedral (unfinished – after 600 years they’re still adding frills), and a huge marble railway station, the very epitome of Fascist architecture.

But, if you’re willing to look, you can find fascinating things. One of my favorites is an apartment building in via Vivaio, done in heavy stonework to look rather like a castle, adorned with huge cherubs near the roof. Peer into the entryway and admire the interplay of red brick, polished gray stone, and golden tiles. Weirdly, you might hear a peacock’s harsh call. This is from across the street. That place is owned by a wealthy retired couple, who obtained permission from the Milan city government to knock down the adjacent building and create a huge garden for themselves, by willing the entire property to the city after their deaths. In the meantime, they have filled the garden with peacocks and flamingoes.

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