Think of Milan. Think of an Italian city rich in millennia of history and culture; think of Napoleon’s capital of the Kingdom of Italy; the economic (albeit somewhat turbulent) epicentre of Italy; think of centrally planned neo-classical streets with a backdrop of snow-capped mountain peaks; think of the biggest household names in art, architecture, music, fashion, cuisine and sport. This was the city that I decided to visit for less than 24 hours last week to see if I could breath in some of the aforementioned, along with 5,000 Arsenal fans who were travelling from their London homes, across 800 miles of Europe, with possibly more emphasis on the sport part, to watch their team play in the ‘glamour’ tie of the Champions League second round.
I’ve always enjoyed European away days, if for nothing more than the social analysis of my fellow fans. If you travel on the supporters’ club buses from the airport to the city centre you are told that you have the day to enjoy the city. The standard response is for all the fans to pour straight from the bus, into the nearest bar and sample the beers there until the time comes to get back on the bus to the stadium.
A real highlight came two years ago on the Thomas Cook plane from Portugal back to London, after seeing Arsenal lose 2-1 to Porto. Not long before take-off I observed an overweight, middle-aged, balding gentleman, with his red and white t-shirt tucked into his trousers, settle into his place just in time for the safety briefing. He was placed in an aisle-side emergency exit seat, which gave him a perfect view of the event, given by a nervous-looking, young air stewardess. He stretched his feet out in front and let out a relaxed sigh as he put his hands behind his head whilst wearing a satisfied grin, very much like he was preparing for a strip tease.
The air stewardess went about her routine with exemplary professionalism, turning 360 degrees to show the passengers how to loop the threads through their life jackets. This merited a boisterous wolf-whistle from him and critical acclaim in the form of the words, “Very nice, darlin’”.
Next, she showed us where our emergency exits were. “I’d like to see your emergency exits” he retorted, in his dulcet cockney accent.
Still unflustered she continued and showed us how to attract attention outside the aircraft by blowing into our whistles. This too was great news for him and he informed her politely that she could blow his whistle if she liked. I think at this point she felt she’d done her job, stowed her briefing apparatus without so much a glance at the man and walked to the back of the plane, where she switched positions with a designer-stubbled air steward.
So Milan, home to one of the finest art collections in world in the form of the Pinacoteca di Brera, this time round, as TP art correspondent, I felt I’d enjoy the social experiment of taking two Arsenal fans on a trip through some of the enduring icons of art history and see how they faired.
These two fans just so happen to be my two brothers but I think they represent a fine cross-section of Arsenal fandom. W and G I shall refer to them as here. W is probably more socially refined than G but has never really cared much for art; he did create an abstract angel for the Christmas tree at home when he was five but that was really the highpoint for him. G studied English at University and possibly has a slightly more artistic inclination than W, but a recent graduate, he still retains a lads drinking mentality that would put his heart with the fans that spend the day in the bar.
It must be said, there weren’t many other people wearing Arsenal shirts inside the Pinacoteca di Brera, but the three of us tootled into the main courtyard, past the bronze copy of Antonio Canova’s somewhat tasteless statue of Napoleon as the Roman god Mars, straight past the entrance to gallery and through a set of double-doors. We ended up the Brera Art Academy instead and received several strange looks from hundreds of Academy students passing between lessons.
Back in the main courtyard we found the actual gallery up a flight of stairs. I could pretend to be the art guide again and whatever the standard of the guide, W and G were treated to some art historical gems.
We saw Veronese’s Feast in the House of Simon that landed him in front of the Counter-Reformation inquisition, with its sanguineous attendees, playing animals and wine-consuming children. We saw a room where a lady in a white lab coat was openly refurbishing Bellini’s Pietà. Tintoretto’s Finding the Body of St Mark was also on our agenda, telling the story of the two Venetian merchants who were supposed to have found the body of St Mark in Alexandria and smuggled him back to Venice in a basket covered with pork knowing the Muslims were not allowed to touch it. We saw Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin (left), a tribute to Renaissance laws of perspective and geometry combined with the much-debated symbolism of the man in red tights snapping a stick in the bottom-right corner.
I dare say W and G were showing signs of looking half-interested; they had nodded with understanding and made insightful points towards some of the works on display, none more so than when I said, “Here is a Titian…” W responded, “Bless you”.
I knew it was probably time to leave when we were viewing a Last Supper by Rubens in one of the final rooms and the respectful silence was broken by a piercing fart by either W or G, which echoed around the gallery walls.
We walked down towards the Duomo, the central piazza of Milan with its enormous Gothic Cathedral, the result of nearly 600 years of construction. As we approached from the North via the Galleria arcade an ever-increasing noise reverberated towards us off the high walls and glass roof. Closer to the Piazza, the roof was practically vibrating with sound and we emerged to a vocal cacophony created by a sea of red-and-white Arsenal fans who had set up a pre-match home outside the Duomo bars.
The Cathedral roof that you can normally climb to get panoramic views of the entire city was closed so we made do with a tour of the inside of the building. It was peaceful compared with the square outside, although even the thick masonry that separated us was not sufficient to block out the noise of the fans. Their rendition of ‘Guide Me O, Thou Great Redeemer’ displayed a wonderful sense of irony, the lyrics of the chorus modified to, “Your Cathedral, Your Cathedral, Your Cathedral’s F**king Sh*t!”
What an excellent and lucid summary of the thoughts of John Ruskin, who wrote in 1849 that the Cathedral steals “from every style in the world: and every style spoiled”. In summary he labelled it “utterly vile”.
A few solos of “There’s only one Westminster Abbey” started up, but due to the surplus number of syllables it didn’t quite catch on.
We had a few overpriced beers in the square and then caught the bus to the 80,000 capacity San Siro. What happened in the match is not something I care to dwell on, but even after getting well and truly destroyed 4-0, and suffering the away-fan ignominy of being held back in the stadium for 45 minutes after the final whistle, who couldn’t take heart in the fans response; pointing at the empty seats and singing, “You’re not singing any more”.
The journey back to the airport and the plane home was very quiet – no strip teases this time. But for all the disappointment of Arsenal’s worst European defeat there was a minor silver lining to it all in the shape of a small but palpable sense of privilege that comes with a trip of this nature. There may not be too many more like it at the current rate.
By Edward Lines