The story began in Milan, Italy. Like most Italian cities, it's built on a radial plan: except for a set of two or three concentric circles, all the streets shoot out like the spokes of a wheel from a single point. The very center of this gigantic bullseye is always the church. Not just a church, but the church, the duomo. The word simply means "cathedral" in Italian, but the English word doesn't convey the idea. You have to realize that not long ago no building could stand higher than the Duomo's spire; that the Duomo dominates the city's central piazza, and that when you are here, in Milan, in front of that bright white mass of spires you feel yourself at the naval of Milan, at the cultural, civic, commercial center of the first city in Italy.
Rome has its past, it's true; it was once "the eternal city". Venice has its fabulous charm, its singular beauty, and Florence the accumulated treasures of Renaissance art, but Milan is the city of today. It is the New York of Italy: it is alive, it vibrates, it attracts, it delights. Here you find the great designers -- of clothes, of furniture, of textiles, of books. Here you find artists of every kind, business of every kind. Most of Italy's commerce is transacted in Milan. Rome houses the bureaucracy, but Milan plays host to reality.
To return to the Duomo. It is the symbol of Milan, but it didn't always look the way it does today. It stood for centuries without a facade, until Napoleon arrived and ordered it done. He lived next door to the Duomo while he stayed in Milan, and once used it as an illustration of his famous composure. He said that if he were dropped head first from the summit of the Duomo, as he fell he would calmly look around and take in the sights, for such was the coolness of his spirit.
That's what he said, anyway. Lucky for him, no one was in a position to make him prove his boast.
Every day, there are crowds in front of the Duomo: people waiting for their friends, watching the street artists, feeding pigeons, or standing in the sun. On the sides and behind the Duomo there are larger crowds, passing from store to store, from bookstalls to restaurants.
Out of all the attractions that one finds in that place, there is one that seems reserved for foreigners. And that is, ascending to the roof of the Duomo. It is one of those things that a native will never do or at least admit to doing. Like the New Yorker who has never been to the Statue of Liberty, who has never ascended the Empire State Building. The visitor cries, "But how can you not have gone! It's right there and you don't take advantage of it?" The native can only smile and shrug. No, he's never gone and probably never will.
Yet Renzo one day climbed to the roof. Perhaps if he had never gone, if he hadn't done such a small, out-of-the-ordinary act, his life would not have changed. One never knows. Perhaps destiny or the devil would have met him in some other way. Still, this is how it happened:
Renzo found himself unexpectedly free in the middle of a week day. An appointment in the center of town was cancelled by the sudden sickness of a colleague. So he walked past all the shops, stalls, stores, and crowds and when he found himself in front of that compelling, sky-reaching whiteness, he decided to make the climb.