At the heart of Milan’s cavernous, deserted cathedral, on the evening of Easter Sunday (April 12th), Andrea Bocelli stood poised with uncertain steadiness next to the cathedral's grand organ.
It was only five weeks before (March 8th), that the great and ancient city had retreated into lockdown. Since then, a modern, functional city had buckled helplessly before the onslaught of a modern plague. Of course, a viral pandemic is not a plague, but it’s all we have to compare its devastating consequences.
At first, the emergency appeared local. But it rapidly replicated, spreading quickly to other functionally modern cities across Europe and America. By Easter Sunday, within and beyond Milan, a peculiarly pre-modern pestilence was raging at its most virulent. That evening, from the heart of Milan, Bocelli broadcast directly to the people of the city and beyond. Through musical expression, delivered without commentary, he sought to bridge the chasms of unmet emotions. From the cultural canon, he offered some contextual bearings for the many unleashed sorrows and uncertainties.
Lush orchestrations, choral fantasias and complex production values were no longer possible. With singular voice, Bocelli's selection of (mainly) sacred arias rang-out lamentations across an empty space. These arias, stored as classics within a secure communal memory, have always sought to embrace many of our more elemental yearnings. For some, they express a literal beauty and truth; for others, they provide access through analogy. For others again, commanded by the majesty of the human voice, they offer transcendent examples of human creative expression.
As Bocelli paused to pick up the organ’s first notes, the fading Spring twilight lingered through the cathedral’s enduring stain-glass windows. It was Easter, within the cycle of Spring; but traditional promises of rebirth and rejuvenation appeared hollow. In a pre-broadcast voice-over, Bocelli stated that for him Easter is, “the day we celebrate the trust in a life that triumphs... [It’s] a universal symbol of rebirth that everyone—believers or not—truly needs right now”. Between the promise and the present reality lies the chasm.
With the virus’ vengeance far from spent, the performance’s title—”Music for Hope”— appeared premature. The title may point to the immediate need to lift the spirits of a battered city. But five weeks is too soon for a shell-shocked citizenry to comprehend what so quickly overtook them so thoroughly. It was also only seven weeks since the first Italian death from the virus (February 22nd)— which now felt an age away. Since then, time has accelerated dramatically, and the people are yet to catch up.
Two months prior, few had ever doubted their assumptions around any number social, economic and cultural certainties. In the face of the virus, people have seen assumptions crumple before them. Grief at every level remains entirely unmet. Family and friends were rarely present for the rights-of-passages they assumed would be their right—the deaths and funerals of loved ones. And it must be difficult for people to comprehend the nature of so many mechanistically isolated deaths.
So where from here? In his pre-broadcast voice-over, Bocelli expressed the hope that what “evolves will be a model for the renaissance we hope for.” Yes, his concert is a seed for this very Italian construction for regeneration. Hopefully, it will eventuate.
But, before moving forward, people need to comprehend what just happened; channel their griefs and consider the scope and nature of what they have lost. We already know that life is not going back to before the virus so unexpectedly derailed it. There is much to mourn.
Bocelli’s concert was for consolation. Away from the city’s deserted streets and behind its shuttered facades, sheltered masses of contained humanity. They must have been swirling with bottled emotions that remain unmet in isolation. Via YouTube, the event created a socially-mediated virtual-commune. It was a jointly experienced event, allowing people to begin the process to comprehend and contextualise their inchoate understandings and feelings.
Bocelli finished by walking out of the Duomo's dark Gothic interior, to enter the soft fading light of the piazza. Advancing with the unsteady gait of an unassisted blind person, he appeared infinitesimal in the vast space. Finding his spot, he paused to sing the English language funeral standard, Amazing Grace. The images of empty public spaces from Milan to New York seemed to speak to the many denied funerals. No doubt Bocelli knows the chasm that needs to be bridged. “I once was blind, but now I see...”
Behind Bocelli loomed the massive facade of Duomo di Milano. Since 1929, when the Vatican seceded from the national state, it has been the largest church in Italy. Walk back toward the façade, and a writhing sea of sculptural figures seem to come to life slowly. Assembled over several centuries, they are the communal expression of how a community in a pre-industrial/scientific age understood themselves in relation to their cosmos and the actors within it. Together these scenes impart a fully-formed world view to help the people better comprehend the uncertainties and perils of their situations and times, and the threat of plague was never far.
The roof beckons as a three-dimensional creamy-pink marble vision of a celestial paradise—with Milan as its backdrop. Its towering stalagmites hold up daringly balanced civic protectors. Together with attendant flying buttresses and darting gargoyles, it provides an immersive tour through the pre-modern mindscape. It’s a complete vision, within a complex, interwoven yet entirely ordered universe. A statue of the Virgin—the city’s ultimate protector—presides from on high. In gold, she reflects the Duomo's dedication to Maria Nascenti (the Birth of Mary), an apocryphal event beyond the scope of the gospel. From inside, around and on top of the Duomo she reigns over a court of 3,400 statues, 135 gargoyles and 700 figures. It’s a living museum.
Sitting astride the original grid of Roman streets, the Duomo locates the very heart and soul of the city. Underneath is the site of the original Roman-era basilica (a word that originally describes the law courts and magistrates offices, later taken over by Christian churches). The expansive piazza which on which Bocelli appeared so small, overlays the Roman-era forum.
It can be hard to appreciate just how completely such a precinct represents the fullest possible expression of identity for an Italian city; communal, civil and religious—believers and non-believers alike. Bocelli, singing alone on Easter Sunday, was singing to and for Milan, and beyond. With the Duomo's long-established linage and fully realised role, on Easter Sunday at the height of the pandemic, Bocelli was singing from the mother church of the world.
As Bocelli stated as he began, “We will hug this wounded earth’s pulsing heart."