The 5 Commandments of Visiting Cathedrals
Despite the lack of historical sites in Milan, there's still alot to be amazed by if you grew up in a midwestern American cornfield. Or, anywhere in the United States, for that matter. Our oldest architecture is only around 200 years old and even those buildings tend to lack the dramatic presence of, say, a European cathedral. Even in a city like Milan where the majority of the buildings were renovated or built anew in the early 1900's, you can count on a smattering of glorious cathedrals to be in awe of. However, there is a certain "cathedral protocol" you must be aware of. Just a few small, harmless rules that can be the difference between enjoying a gilded altarpiece in peace - and getting kicked out of the church by an angry Italian nun. Take it from me... I seem to have broken them all.
1. You can't enter a cathedral unless you're wearing a blanket that covers everything except for your pupils and one nostril for breathing purposes.
Okay, obviously that's not true, but you do have to be modestly attired. On one of my first days here, I headed straight for il Duomo. It was warm out, and I was wearing shorts (the infamous PINK SHORTS), a tank top, and a scarf. Since the Duomo is such a major attraction, you have to pass through a minor security check before entering. This consists of having your purse or bag looked at and then having yourself looked at by a grouchy old man. He is equipped with an image similar to the one below. If you're in violation of the dress code, he simply points and waves you away. Needless to say, my scandalous shoulders and knees were not allowed inside Duomo that day.
2. Some cathedrals open for a few hours in the morning, randomly close in the afternoon, and open again in the evening. You can't wander in when it's closed.
I've adopted a sort of aimless wandering exploration technique, so I never know what I'm going to stumble upon. When I find a church I haven't seen yet, going inside is one of my favorite parts. Most cathedrals here are domed, which for the inside means frescoes, frescoes, frescoes (usually). Anyway, the flaw in my aimless wandering plan is that I never really know if these places are open to the public or not. I sort of just... try to walk in. Nine times out of ten this is fine; the church is open and it's just me, a few other tourists, and a security/guide/nun/priest/person sitting at a table with informational brochures/etc person. Except for the time I tried to enter the Basilica di San Carlo a Corso. Excited by finding the place (in the middle of an extremely busy shopping center, of all places!) I just strolled up to the front door and walked on in. In hindsight, I should have paid attention to the sign that said the cathedral was closed to the public between 2pm and 5pm for afternoon masses. As the door shut behind me with a bang and thirty or so heads whirled around to see who was making such a racket, I said a quick little prayer to a Jesus statue on my left that showing up uninvited to mass wasn't going to become a habit for me.
devil priest wears Prada Armani.
Many churches have a place where you can donate money. This isn't uncommon. What's uncommon is a church having a priest who takes advantage of your lack of Italian, lures you into his office under the guise of showing you a really cool painting or sculpture because all you know how to say is "Ho studiato la storia dell'arte" (I studied art history), and then demands money from you. And yet, this very thing happened to me.
I entered Santa Maria della Scala in San Fedele thinking I was prepared; I was modestly clothed and made sure to read all signs before creaking open the old wooden doors. The inside was gorgeous (it will likely get its own post later on), and I was lost in a dark, eerie pieta sculpture when a priest of the cathedral approached me.
"Parli Italiano?" He asked.
"Si, ma solo un poco," I replied. "Only a little" didn't seem to register; the priest smiled and began rattling off the history of the church at a mile a minute. I understood quite a bit - enough to tell him a little of what I knew about the artists from my art history classes in college. He talked for ten minutes or so, showing me each chapel individually and explaining what I'm sure were interesting historical tidbits.
"Ora, io vi mostrerò una parte speical e importante della nostra amata Chiesa," (Now, I will show you a special and important part of our beloved church). What could this be? A painting undergoing restoration? A medieval statue dug up in the yard? AN ORIGINAL MICHAELANGELO? (Michaelangelo didn't even have patrons in Milan. Come on, Emily).
None of the above. It was the priest's office; a modest room save for the Armani jacket flung over a chair. "Così quanto si può donare alla nostra chiesa oggi?" How much can I donate to the church today, he asked. I would have replied with a polite "Niente," and promptly walked out, but he did give me such an educational tour... plus, he was slightly blocking the door, which would have made for an awkward escape. I fumbled around in my purse - clearly, I was going to give him something - yet he proceeded to thrust his palm at me and shake it.
"Dai donare! Dai donare!" Donate! Donate!
I gave him a 50 cent coin, made the sign of the cross, and left before I ended up buying him a scarf to go with the jacket.
4. God is always watching.
There is always so much more than what meets the eye in cathedrals. Or rather, so much more than what the public is allowed to see. Most churches allow access to the main part of the interior; this includes the nave (central aisle) and the open chapels that line each side. But cathedrals also have baptistries, treasuries, cloisters, sometimes courtyards, administrative offices, and plenty of other hidden rooms and things to
not be allowed to see.
Sometimes, you're lucky enough to enter an empty church. No other tourists to get in your photos, no locals trying to pray and making you feel a little guilty with each click of your camera. Most importantly, no security/guide/priest/nun/whatever person hovering in a corner, making sure you don't touch anything you're not supposed to. I found myself in this scenario the other day inside the Basilica of San Lorenzo. I was the only soul in sight - or so I thought.
I was taking my time wandering the nave and the chapels when I noticed a door slightly ajar. So, I walked right in. I barely had time to figure out what the room was when I heard a harsh shout. A short, ancient man had been immaculately conceived behind me and was snapping at me to get out. Either he was just a very angry man by nature, or the room held a relic of the cross, because I was certain I was about to be burned at the stake from the way he reacted.
I'm sure you can guess what happened next. The invisible man reappeared before I even had one foot over the barrier and this time, I didn't push my luck. I left the church with this mediocre shot of the altar.
5. Jokes aside, be respectful.
Admittedly, I shouldn't have tried to get up close to the altar in San Lorenzo. But the other mistakes I've made are simply novice errors, and now I know better. The bottom line is, these cathedrals are sacred places to alot of people, whether they're there to worship God or to worship the artists that bring the church to life. Dress appropriately, read the signs, stay out of off-limits areas... but keep an eye out for that greedy priest.