Bonvesin de la Riva’s wonderful Milan in Casa Testori
by Giuseppe Frangi
Milan, 1288. The city is one of the richest and most important in Europe, but its palaces are the theater of the all-out war that will lead to a historic shift. The local government of the ‘comune’ is about to be replaced by a ‘signoria’, with power concentrated in the hands of the Visconti family.
While the city is in shock, one authoritative intellectual has a clear idea of what his beloved city needs: to protect the heritage of freedom and democracy that the Comune fostered. With this goal in mind, he sits down and writes one of the most beautiful books ever dedicated to a city: his name was Bonvesin de la Riva, and his book was titled “De Magnalibus Mediolani”, i.e. “About the Wonders of Milan”. His work was an extraordinary portrait, painted through hundreds of tangible cues and outstanding figures, almost forcing the reader to love the Lombard capital: active, positive, perfectly organized, supportive, and well integrated with the surrounding rural area. Milan could be seen as a first example of urban self-sufficiency and sustainability, given the richness and fertility of the plain around it.
On the eve of this much-awaited Expo 2015, Bonvesin’s book was bound to make a comeback – and we are happy it did, in a new and engaging new interpretation.
Until April 19, Casa Testori, in Novate Milanese, next to Expo’s grounds, is holding an exhibition of original works by a group of popular emerging illustrators from Milan, who ventured into representing the book. It offers a fresh new look over historical material, and reflects true empathy with Bonvesin’s enthusiastic view of Milan.
For instance, Bonvesin praised Milan for the beauty and perfection of its name, Mediolanum – which included all the vowels and began and ended in ‘m’, which “being the widest letter, signifies the wide glory of Milan”. In Casa Testori, a wonderful installation by Marco Goran has golden cubes – inscribed with the ten precious letters that make up Milan’s ancient name – hanging down the stairwell.
Maria Corti once called Bonvesin’s style “eulogistic accounting”. So while the author stated proudly that there were 120 bell towers and 200 bells in the city, young artist Francesco Muzzi built an installation in which Bonvesin’s figures are precisely represented.
Milan’s perfection is supposed to be reflected in its round shape, so Davide Mottes has created and rolled out on the floor a large map of the city as it was in 1288 – allowing visitors to find their bearings between churches, palaces, and rivers in the city’s topography.
Finally, Milan has always been a strong manufacturing center: it was Europe’s leader in making helmets, armor, and shields, so Giacomo Bagnara has covered one room in wallpaper full of weapons, as splendid as jewelry. There is also a charming room dedicated to the 60 wagons full of cherries that Bonvesin claimed came to the city every day during cherry season: Francesco Poroli has represented each one of them, in a joyous parade that envelops the walls and is a feast for visitors’ eyes.
In short, the exhibition gives new life to Bonvesin’s outlook, so smart and full of wonder, and to his will to stir up Milanese people’s pride as they risked loosing their city. Unfortunately, Bonvesin failed at the time. But now we know he was telling Milan’s true story.
“Tutti i colori tranne il grigio. La meravigliosa Milano di Bonvesin de la Riva” (“Every color but gray. Bonvesin de la Riva’s wonderful Milan”) is open until April 19, Tuesday to Friday from 10 am to 6 pm, Saturday and Sunday 2 pm to 8 pm (closed on Mondays).