Curator Alberto Cavalli on the majesty of Milan's Oratorio dei Disciplini
Photographs Francesco Orsini and Pietro Pellegrino
The man who put together Homo Faber, the Michelangelo Foundation’s biannual celebration of craftsmanship in Venice, celebrates the tranquillity of a semi-abandoned chapel…
A ‘hole-and-corner’ is an old English term meaning a secret place: somewhere you go to escape the world, to be inspired and to contemplate and create. Where is your ‘hole-and-corner’?
My hole-and-corner is a semi-abandoned chapel inside of the Milanese basilica where I sing with my vocal ensemble, Harmonia Cordis. We organize a musical season dedicated to Early and Renaissance sacred music in San Calimero, a small but preciously decorated basilica in the centre of Milan; the Basilica is open to the public, but from the sacristy a staircase brings up to the first floor, where there is an abandoned chapel called Oratorio dei Disciplini. When the church was renovated by the architect Colla in the late 19th century, a new organ was built; and to construct the powerful bellow necessary to aliment the organ, part of this chapel was jeopardized by the new structure. So the space was deserted and the architect decided not to restore it in the eclectic, neo-byzantine style he adopted for the nave; and this is why here the frescoes of the 17th century can still be seen, though severely ruined. They are not very visible but they are quite refined.
Can you explain why it is so special to you?
Nobody usually comes up here: I am entitled to enter this space because of the musical activities we conduct in the Basilica, and when I need silence, beauty and a certain sense of sacredness I come here. It helps me to concentrate and makes me feel at the centre of something, though at the same time hidden away. This basilica is dear to me, as I love singing with my ensemble and I dedicate time and energy to our musical season; and this hidden chapel is like a space within the space, present but hidden at the same time, beautiful though a little out of fashion. It is mysterious and needs love, attention, care, silence – as we all do.
Is it important to you to have somewhere to escape from the hustle and bustle of life?
It is pivotal. Emily Dickinson, my favourite poet, wrote: ‘I could not bear to live aloud / the racket shamed me so’. I hate confusion, I hate people shouting and talking aloud, I hate messy places and the deafening absence of silence that sieges us everywhere. So I think that it’s important to cut out for oneself a place undisturbed by the useless noise of distracted people and to find a place where silence is like a music. It helps you, reverberating your own voice and focusing on your own feelings.
What do you like to listen to when you are working, and why?
I like to listen to a Flemish composer of the 15th / 16th century, Josquin des Près: he was a great genius, whose incredibly refined motets open abysses of beauty with their unexpected, vertiginous harmonic rapports. I also like to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach, whose timeless greatness is a lesson for everyone: not a note more than necessary, not a note less than necessary. And Vivaldi’s vocal works, too, are magnificent.
What elements do you think make a perfect ‘hole-and-corner’?
A certain sense of privacy. A good light, quite warm. A welcoming atmosphere: places, like people, do let you understand if you are welcome or not. The possibility of seating comfortably and of being left alone. The distance from everyday life. A feeling of cosiness.
Is it private to you or do you let other people visit?
The Oratorio dei Disciplini is at the same time public and private. Public, because it’s part of the San Calimero Basilica; private because nobody comes here. But from time to time we organise small concerts of chamber music there, for a very selected group of friends who can appreciate how special this experience is.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
My mother advised to not be afraid of being kind. Kindness might be seen as a form of weakness, but actually, it reveals strength and confidence: it’s a continuous exercise to show people that you care.