Il Duomo di Milano, the cathedral church of Milan, is a towering Gothic marvel whose construction spanned nearly six centuries, beginning in 14th century and stretching into the 20th, including the odd episode where the cathedral’s facade was ordered to be completed by a conquering Napoleon.  From the outside, the ornate spires extends the cathedral’s immensity.

The cathedral’s intricate style, drawn from a variety of Gothic influences over the long centuries of its construction, seems to have struck a deeply love-hate chord with its global audience, but as a first-time visitor, I couldn’t help but be awed by the building’s enormity.  Coupled with the multitude of elaborate human images decorating the walls, it’s hard to not be impressed by the sheer scale of architecture and the depth of history, not necessarily in any academic sense, but just the human aspect: how many hands went into its creation, how many prayers cast in its chapel, how many lives and stories these stones have encompassed.

 

That’s often the feeling I get traveling through Europe, and on occasion in China (in Beijing, for example), places that have significantly deeper histories than the States – or even Shanghai, which feels more like a metropolis of the last century or two, most of its visible historical vestiges stretching back no further than European colonialism.  Sometimes, from visiting a church or a museum or a monument, you get a momentary glimpse backwards, but what’s more shaking and ineffable, I find, is the experience of one’s smallness – not necessarily in space, but more profoundly, in time.

In some ways, it’s a bit like traveling back – to antiquated villages along the Mediterranean coast, full of weekend markets and pétanque; the Alarde festival in Hondarribia, a Spanish town in Basque just across the French border; the Soviet-era architecture of Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaan Batar, or the country’s vast plains crisscrossed with tracks used by today’s nomads and the warmongers of Genghis Khan; or the gilded spectacle of Versailles, the faded allure of French pomp.  So many things you can’t experience today (except for maybe the French pomp).  You travel there for perhaps a brief stay, as a visitor, fueled by imagination and coffee, and hope to see what the fuss has been about.

But more than the novelty, you wander through these places, and you sometimes can feel for a moment the momentum and breadth of their histories, waters that stretch back hundreds or thousands of years and whose banks are wider than your simple presence.  How long the nomads have been staking their yurts in the Mongolian steppe, how you could never understand how the Alarde festival chants originated and could be shouted so fiercely, how the Pont du Gard presided over such ancient water, how you were just one of the millions of wishful writers that passed through Paris’ cobblestone streets.  How many priests and bishops have walked the Duomo’s aisles, how many processions, funerals and services and blessings, songs and prayers and incantations.  That is the true element of scale that, as these monuments age, replaces the physical one.

These sights and cities are thrilling in their own right, but there’s something else wonderful about stepping back to admire the richness of the temporal tapestry that these separate stories form, as if finding yourself oceanside trying to find the edge between sky and water, trying to decipher the mystery and scale of what’s beyond, but also the tangible measure of where your own feet are in the sand.

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