Milan | Land of Alluring History
While Milan (Milano) may not be the first city a tourist thinks of when planning a trip to Italy, it has more than its share of attractions, not to mention history. For all its workaholic reputation as the money and business center of Italy, it’s a city with an influential past and a rich cultural heritage.
Consider that St. Augustine was baptized in a basilica that stood at what is now Piazza del Duomo; artists Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, the composer Verdi, the great tenor Enrico Caruso, and designer Giorgio Armani all lived and worked here; Toscanini conducted regularly at La Scala; Napoleon was crowned (actually, he crowned himself) inside the Duomo; Mussolini founded the Fascist party here; and the entire fashion world looks to Milan’s catwalks twice a year for the season’s fashions.
All this history, not to mention the considerable wealth generated by its favored commercial position, has left Milan with an abundance of art, cultural, and architectural treasures for you to enjoy.
The large Piazza del Duomo in front of the cathedral is Metro hub, and you’ll find plenty of things to do near the Duomo. In tiny Piazza dei Mercanti, you will feel as though you’ve stepped back into the Middle Ages as you stand beneath the stone market arcade in front of the 13th-century Palazzo della Ragione.
Jump forward several centuries to enter the elegantly domed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, facing the Duomo. Walk through it to emerge in front of the world’s most famous opera house. It’s all within a five-minute walk. You’ll find these and more of the best places to visit with this handy list of the top attractions in Milan.
Il Duomo (Milan Cathedral)
The massive Cathedral of Santa Maria Nascente, which the Milanese call just “Il Duomo” is among the world’s largest (it holds up to 40,000 people) and most magnificent churches, the ultimate example of the Flamboyant Gothic style. It was begun in the 14th century, but its façade was not completed until the early 1800s, under Napoleon.
The roof is topped by 135 delicately carved stone pinnacles and the exterior is decorated with 2,245 marble statues. The dim interior, in striking contrast to the brilliant and richly patterned exterior, makes a powerful impression with its 52 gigantic pillars. The stained-glass windows in the nave (mostly 15th-16th centuries) are the largest in the world; the earliest of them are in the south aisle.
Highlights include the seven-branched bronze candelabrum by Nicholas of Verdun (c. 1200) in the north transept, the 16th-century tomb of Gian Giacomo Medici, and the jeweled gold reliquary of San Carlo Borromeo in the octagonal Borromeo Chapel leading off the crypt. Behind the high altar, the choir has deeply carved panels, and misericords under the seats.
In the south sacristy is the treasury with gold and silver work dating from the fourth to the 17th century. A walk on the roof of the cathedral is an impressive experience, offering views across the city and extending on clear days to the snow-covered Alps. (An elevator ascends all but the last 73 steps to the platform of the dome).
Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper
The Gothic brick church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in the Corso Magenta, was begun about 1465, and its massive six-sided dome in the finest Early Renaissance style was designed by Bramante, one of Italy’s most influential Renaissance architects.
The church – and adjoining refectory, which holds Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper – were badly damaged in World War II, and during the repair work, old sgraffito paintings in the dome were brought to light. At the end of the north aisle is the Baroque chapel of the Madonna delle Grazie, with an altarpiece of the Madonna.
But the reason most tourists visit Santa Maria delle Grazie is to see da Vinci’s most famous work, painted on the refectory wall of the former Dominican monastery. The Cenacolo Vinciano, as it is called here, was painted on the wall in tempera between 1495 and 1497.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II: Luxury Shops and Elegant Cafés
Forming one side of Piazza del Duomo and opening on the other side to Piazza della Scala, the grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was designed by Giuseppe Mengoni and built between 1865 and 1877. It was then the largest shopping arcade in Europe, with a dome soaring 48 meters above its mosaic floor.
Marking the beginning of modern architecture in Italy, today it stands as a splendid example of 19th-century industrial iron and glass construction. And it’s still a beautiful, vibrant place where locals meet for lunch or coffee in its elegant cafés and browse in its luxury shops. It is so much a part of local life that the inhabitants of Milan refer to it as “il salotto” (the salon).
The Castello Sforzesco, held by the Visconti and the Sforza families who ruled Milan from 1277 to 1447 and from 1450 to 1535 respectively, was built in 1368 and rebuilt in 1450. The 70-meter Torre de Filarete is a 1905 reproduction of the original gate-tower.
The Castello houses the Musei del Castello Sforzesco, a series of museums, one of which features sculpture. The collection includes the Pietà Rondanini, Michelangelo’s last masterpiece, brought here in 1953 from the Palazzo Rondanini in Rome.
The picture gallery includes paintings by Bellini, Correggio, Mantegna, Bergognone, Foppa, Lotto, Tintoretto, and Antonello da Messina. Between the two rear courtyards of the Castello, a passage leads into the park, originally the garden of the dukes of Milan and later a military training ground.
Pinacoteca di Brera
The Renaissance Palazzo di Brera, built between 1651 and 1773, was originally a Jesuit college, but since 1776 has been the Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts). Along with a library and observatory, it contains the Pinacoteca di Brera, one of Italy’s finest art museums.
Much of the art was acquired as churches closed or were demolished, and the museum is especially strong in paintings by northern Italian masters. As you enter through the courtyard, you’ll see an 1809 monument to Napoleon I by the sculptor Canova.
Notable among 15th-century pictures are works by Mantegna (Madonna in a Ring of Angels’ Heads and Lamentation). The Venetian masters are represented by Giovanni Bellini (Lamentation and two Madonnas), Paolo Veronese, Titian (Count Antonio Porcia and St. Jerome), and Tintoretto (Finding of St. Mark’s Body and Descent from the Cross), and portraits by Lorenzo Lotto and Giovanni Battista Moroni.
The most famous picture in the gallery is Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin (Lo Sposalizio), the finest work of his first period. Outstanding among foreign masters are Rembrandt (portraits of women, including The Artist’s Sister), Van Dyck (Princess Amalia of Solms), Rubens (Last Supper), and El Greco (St. Francis).
Opera at Teatro alla Scala
Considered the most prestigious opera house in the world, La Scala has rung with the music of all the great operatic composers and singers, and its audiences – the theater seats 2,800 people – are known (and feared) as the most demanding in Italy.
The season begins in early December and runs through May, but tickets are often difficult to come by. The best way of getting tickets is through your hotel concierge, but it’s worth checking at the box office.
The church of Sant’Ambrogio was founded in 386 by St. Ambrose, who was born in Milan and is the city’s patron saint. The present church is a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture, built in the 12th century around the choir from an earlier ninth-century church.
There’s a lot to see here, beginning with the large portico, also from the ninth century, and the atrium, whose carved stone capitals and portal rank it high among Europe’s best examples of the Romanesque period.
With all of Italy’s magnificent architecture and art from Ancient Greek and Roman, medieval, and Renaissance eras, it’s easy to forget that Italy also has some outstanding examples from the Art Nouveau period, known here as Stile Liberty.
Cimitero Monumentale, near Stazione Porta Garibaldi rail station, is an outdoor gallery of Art Nouveau sculptures, many by noted Italian sculptors. Behind a monumental and flamboyant striped marble portico, these monuments mark the tombs of Milan’s rich and famous from the late 1800s through the mid-20th century. A map in English helps you find the most outstanding examples.
San Maurizio and the Archaeology Museum
To many, the interior of the church of San Maurizio is the most beautiful in Milan. Built in the early 1500s as the church for a convent of Benedictine nuns, the entire interior is covered in frescoes of biblical scenes. Not only are these by some of the best Lombard artists of the 16th century – principally Bernardino Luini and his sons – but the colors of the paintings are as vivid as if they’d been painted yesterday. The long nave is divided into two sections, the rear one reserved as the nuns’ choir.
The extensive monastery was built over the ruins of the Roman circus and portions of the Roman walls, all now part of the Civico Museo Archeologico (Archaeology Museum), where you can see these excavated remains of Roman Milan.
For the young people who frequent the canal-side cafés and music clubs, Naviglio is one of the top things to do in Milan at night. Although it’s the most active in the evening, go in the daytime for the boutiques and artists’ workshops, and for the restaurants and frequent festivals held here.
From the outside, this church on a shopping street not far from Piazza del Duomo seems relatively small and unimpressive. Step inside to see that it is quite grand, its majestic, deep, vaulted sanctuary stretching into an apse that’s nearly the length of the main part of the church.
Or is it? Keep your eyes on it as you walk forward, and watch as it melts into an almost completely flat wall behind the altar. It’s all an optical illusion, a very clever trick played by the architect Bramante to give grandeur to a church with only a limited space.
An elegant old patrician house is the setting for this art museum, which originated in the 19th century as the private collection of Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli and his mother, Rosa Trivulzio. Highlights are paintings by Botticelli, Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, Guardí, and other artists, as well jewelry, silver, bronzes, porcelains, Etruscan pottery, armor, and weapons.
Textiles in the museum include Flemish and Persian carpets, tapestries, a large collection of hand-worked lace, and a very rare embroidery designed by Botticelli.
Museo Bagatti Valsecchi
Several things make this an especially interesting place to visit. Two brothers in the 19th century spent their lives collecting furnishings and decorative arts to make the interior of their Renaissance palazzo look as it might have appeared originally.
Not only will you see a home of that era in a livable state, as opposed to just rooms of display cases and walls of paintings, but you can follow their collecting process through the excellent English signage. So you get to share a bit of the excitement of the chase amid the historical and artistic information about each piece.
Most of all, though, it’s nice to see the furniture, tapestries, glassware, books, children’s items, and paintings by Renaissance masters in a household setting.
Leonardo da Vinci National Museum of Science and Technology
Housed in a former Olivetan monastery, the museum illustrates the history of science and technology from the work of early scientists into modern times. Of particular interest is the Leonardo da Vinci Gallery with working models of many of his inventions and machinery, created from da Vinci’s drawings.
In the physics exhibits are apparatus used by Galileo, Newton, and Volta, and there are sections relating to optics, acoustics, telegraphy, transport, shipping, railroads, flying, metallurgy, motor vehicles, timekeeping, and timber. In all, more than 15,000 technical and scientific objects represent the history of Italian science, technology, and industry.
The Romanesque basilica of Sant’Eustorgio was built in the 12th and 13th centuries, and its fine campanile was added a century later. The facade was not added until 1863. Look beyond the choir to find the Cappella Portinari, by Michelozzo in 1462-68, one of the earliest examples of Renaissance architecture. The frescoes are by Vincenzo Foppa.
Not far from Sant’Eustorgio is another church, San Lorenzo Maggiore, dating from the Early Christian period. Its Renaissance dome was added in 1574, but the mosaics in the chapel of St. Aquilinus are from the fourth century. In front of the church, the portico of sixteen Corinthian columns is the largest surviving monument of Roman Mediolanum.
Civica Galleria d’Arte Moderna (Modern Art Gallery)
Napoleon’s residence when he occupied Milan, this palace facing the Giardini Pubblici was new when Napoleon commandeered it. Today, it retains its original stucco work and decorative details inside, which adds to its interest as a showcase for Milan’s extensive collection of modern art.
The emphasis is on Italian art, from 19th-century Romanticism to post-impressionists, but the collections are far broader, with works by Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, Rouault, Modigliani, Dufy, and Vuillard. There is an extensive group of Neoclassical sculpture by Canova and his contemporaries.