The dynamo behind the country’s “economic miracle” in the 1950s, MILAN is an Italian city like no other. It’s foggy in winter, muggy and mosquito-ridden in summer, and is closer in outlook, as well as distance, to London than to Palermo. It’s a historic city, with a spectacular cathedral and enough ancient churches and galleries to keep you busy for a week, but there are also bars and cafés to relax in, and the contemporary aspects of the place represent the cutting edge of Italy’s fashion and design industry. Milan wears its history on its well-tailored sleeve: medieval buildings nestle next to nineteenth-century splendour, rickety trams trundle past overgrown bombsites left from World War II and Fascist-era bombastic facades. But the Milanese keep the best for themselves: peep through a doorway into one of Milan’s fabulous courtyards and you will be smitten.
The obvious focal point of central Milan is Piazza del Duomo, which, as well as being home to the city’s iconic Duomo, leads on to the elegant Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and Piazza della Scala, home to the world-famous opera house. Heading northwest from Piazza del Duomo along the shopping street of Via Dante takes you to the imperious Castello Sforzesco and the extensive Parco Sempione beyond. North, the well-heeled neighbourhoods of Brera and Moscova are the haunt of Milan’s most style-conscious citizens. Here you’ll find the fine-art collection of the Pinacoteca di Brera and, nearby, the so-called Quadrilatero d’Oro (Golden Quadrangle), a concentration of top designer fashion boutiques. Slightly further north is Milan’s most pleasant park, the Giardini Pubblici. Southwest of the Duomo, the shopping streets of Via Torino take you to the Ticinese district, a focal point at aperitivo time, and home to a couple of the city’s most beautiful ancient churches. Continuing south to the Navigli leads to the bar and restaurant area around the city’s remaining canals. West of the cathedral, the Museo Archeologico gives a taste of Roman Milan, while the basilica of Milan’s Christian father, Sant’Ambrogio, is a couple of blocks away. A little further west stands the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie and the adjacent refectory building, holding Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
Milan first stepped into the historical limelight in 313 AD when Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, granting Christians throughout the Roman Empire the freedom to worship for the first time. The city, under its charismatic bishop, Ambrogio (Ambrose), swiftly became a major centre of Christianity; many of today’s churches stand on the sites, or even retain parts, of fourth-century predecessors.
Medieval Milan rose to prominence under the Visconti dynasty, who founded the florid late-Gothic Duomo, and built the nucleus of the Castello – which, under their successors, the Sforza, was extended to house what became one of the most luxurious courts of the Renaissance. The last Sforza, Lodovico, commissioned Leonardo da Vinci in 1495 to paint The Last Supper.
Milan fell to the French in 1499, marking the beginning of almost four centuries of foreign rule, which included the Spanish, Napoleon and the Austrian Habsburgs. Mussolini made his mark on the city, too: arrive by train and you emerge into the massive white Stazione Centrale, built on the dictator’s orders. And it was on the innocuous roundabout of Piazzale Loreto that the dictator’s corpse was strung up for display in April 1945 as proof of his demise.
Milan’s postwar development was characterized by the boom periods of the 1950s and 1980s: the city’s wealth also comes from banking and its position at the top of the world’s fashion and design industries. Politically, too, Milan has been key to Italy’s postwar history. A bomb in Piazza Fontana in 1969 that killed sixteen people signalled the beginning of the dark and bloody period known as the Anni di piombo, when secret-service machinations led to over a hundred deaths from bomb attacks. In the 1980s, corruption and political scandal once again focused attention on Milan, which gained the nickname Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”). The self-promoting media magnate Silvio Berlusconi – Italy’s longest serving prime minister since World War II – is also Milan born and bred. And despite having lost his political weight he maintains his power base in the city’s media conglomerates as well as owning the football club AC Milan.Read More
The hub of the city is Piazza del Duomo, a large, mostly pedestrianized square lorded over by the exaggerated spires of the Duomo, Milan’s cathedral. The piazza was given its present form in 1860 when medieval buildings were demolished to allow grander, unobstructed views of the cathedral, and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was constructed to link the piazza with the showy new opera theatre, La Scala.
Milan’s vast Duomo was begun in 1386 under the Viscontis, but not completed until the finishing touches to the facade were added in 1813. It is characterized by a hotchpotch of styles that range from Gothic to Neoclassical. From the outside at least it’s incredible, notable as much for its strange confection of Baroque and Gothic decoration as its sheer size. The marble, chosen by the Viscontis in preference to the usual material of brick, was brought on specially built canals from the quarries of Candoglia, near Lake Maggiore, and continues to be used in renovation today.
The interior is striking for its dimension and atmosphere. The five aisles are separated by 52 towering piers, while an almost subterranean half-light filters through the stained-glass windows, lending the marble columns a bone-like hue that led the French writer Suarés to compare the interior to “the hollow of a colossal beast”.
By the entrance, the narrow brass strip embedded in the pavement with the signs of the zodiac alongside is Europe’s largest sundial, laid out in 1786. A beam of light still falls on it through a hole in the ceiling, though changes in the Earth’s axis mean that it’s no longer accurate. To the left of the entrance a door leads down to the remains of a fourth-century Battistero Paleocristiano where the city’s patron saint, Ambrogio, baptized St Augustine in 387 AD.
At the far end of the church, the large crucifix suspended high above the chancel contains the most important of the Duomo’s holy relics – a nail from Christ’s cross, which was also crafted into the bit for the bridle of Emperor Constantine’s horse. The cross is lowered once a year, on September 14, the Feast of the Cross, by a device invented by Leonardo da Vinci.
Close by, beneath the presbytery, the treasury features extravagant silverwork, Byzantine ivory carvings and heavily embroidered vestments. Here, too, is the Duomo’s most surprising exhibit: British artist Mark Wallinger’s haunting video installation Via Dolorosa. Commissioned by the diocese of Milan in a bold attempt to resurrect the role of the Church as a patron of the arts, it comprises a large screen showing the last eighteen minutes of Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, with ninety percent of the image blacked out, leaving just a narrow frame visible round the sides. Beside here is the crypt housing the remains of San Carlo Borromeo, the zealous sixteenth-century cardinal who was canonized for his work among the poor of the city, especially during the Plague of 1630. He lies here in a glass coffin, clothed, bejewelled, masked and gloved, wearing a gold crown attributed to Cellini. Borromeo was also responsible for the large altar in the north transept, erected to close off a door that was used by locals as a shortcut to the market.
To the right of the chancel, by the door to the Palazzo Reale, the sixteenth-century statue of St Bartholomew, with his flayed skin thrown like a toga over his shoulder, is one of the church’s more gruesome statues, its veins, muscles and bones sculpted with anatomical accuracy and the draped skin retaining the form of knee, foot, toes and toenails.
Outside again, from the northeast end of the cathedral you can access the cathedral roof, where you can stroll around the forest of tracery, pinnacles and statues while enjoying fine views of the city and, on clear days, even the Alps. The highlight is the central spire, its lacy marble crowned by a gilded statue of the Madonna – the Madonnina, the city’s guardian – in summer looking out over the rooftop sunbathers.
Santa Maria delle Grazie
Santa Maria delle Grazie
Due west from the Duomo, on Corso Magenta, stands the attraction that brings most visitors to Milan – the beautiful terracotta-and-brick church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, famous for its mural of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.
The beautiful terracotta-and-brick church of Santa Maria delle Grazie was first built in Gothic style by the fifteenth-century architect Guiniforte Solari. It was part of the Dominican monastery that headed the Inquisition for over one hundred years in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Soon after its completion, Lodovico Sforza commissioned Bramante to rework and model the Gothic structure into a grand dynastic mausoleum. Bramante promptly tore down the existing chancel and replaced it with a massive dome supported by an airy Renaissance cube. Lodovico also intended to replace the nave and facade, but was unable to do so before Milan fell to the French, leaving an odd combination of styles – Gothic vaults, decorated in powdery blues, reds and ochre, illuminated by the light that floods through the windows of Bramante’s dome. A side door leads into Bramante’s cool and tranquil cloisters, from which there’s a good view of the sixteen-sided drum the architect placed around his dome.
The Last Supper
Leonardo’s The Last Supper – signposted Cenacolo Vinciano – is one of the world’s great paintings and most resonant images. However, getting to see art of this magnitude doesn’t come easily (see The Last Supper: booking information and tours).
Henry James likened the painting to an “illustrious invalid” that people visited with “leave-taking sighs and almost death-bed or tip-toe precautions”; certainly it’s hard, when you visit the fragile painting, not to feel that it’s the last time you’ll see it. A twenty-year restoration has re-established the original colours using contemporary descriptions and copies, but that the work survived at all is something of a miracle. Leonardo’s decision to use oil paint rather than the more usual faster-drying – and longer-lasting – fresco technique with watercolours led to the painting disintegrating within five years of its completion. A couple of centuries later Napoleonic troops billeted here used the wall for target practice. And, in 1943, an Allied bomb destroyed the building, amazingly leaving only The Last Supper’s wall standing.
A Last Supper was a conventional theme for refectory walls, but Leonardo’s decision to capture the moment when Christ announces that one of his disciples will betray him imbues the work with an unprecedented sense of drama.
Goethe commented on how very Italian the painting was in that so much is conveyed through the expressions of the characters’ hands; the group of Matthew, Thaddaeus and Simon on the far right of the mural could be discussing a football match or the latest government scandal in any bar in Italy today. The only disciple not gesticulating or protesting in some way is the recoiling Judas who has one hand clenched while a bread roll has just dropped dramatically out of the other. Christ is calmly reaching out to share his bread with him while his other hand falls open in a gesture of sacrifice.
If you feel you need any confirmation of the emotional tenor or accomplishment of the painting, take a look at the contemporary Crucifixion by Montorfano on the wall at other end of the refectory: not a bad fresco in itself, but destined always to pale in comparison with Leonardo’s masterpiece.
- Milan’s canals
Milan has two rival football teams – Inter Milan and AC Milan – which share the G. Meazza or San Siro stadium, playing on alternate Sundays. In 1899 AC (Associazione Calcio or Football Association) Milan was founded by players from the Milan Cricket and Football Club. Eight years later, a splinter group broke away to form Inter in reaction to a ruling banning foreigners playing in the championships. Inter – or the Internationals – were traditionally supported by the middle classes, while AC Milan, with its socialist red stripe, claimed the loyalty of the city’s working class. This distinction was blown apart in the mid-1980s when the ardent capitalist Silvio Berlusconi bought the ailing AC and revived its fortunes, leaving many an AC fan with a moral quandary. Their twice-yearly derbies are a highlight of the city’s calendar and well worth experiencing live.
Much of Milan’s accommodation is geared towards business travellers and, as a result, prices are high, rooms can be characterless and many hotels are booked up all year round. You’d be wise to reserve ahead, especially during the spring (mid-Feb) and autumn (end Sept) fashion weeks and during the Salone del Mobile in April. Hotel prices can more than double during these periods. In August, on the other hand, visitors are so scarce that some hotels shut up shop for the month and those that don’t might be prepared to negotiate over prices.
Eating and drinking
Eating and drinking
Whether you’re looking for a neighbourhood trattoria, want to watch models pick at their salads or crave a bit of well-priced ethnic food, Milan has it all – usually within easy reach of wherever you’re staying. If you don’t fancy a sit-down meal, make the most of the Milanese custom of aperitivo to curb your hunger. To the south of the centre, the area around the Ticinese and Navigli is full of restaurants and cafés but you should choose carefully as this is a touristy area and quality is not always a priority. The districts of Brera and Moscova are also popular in the evening, as well as several bargain places around the budget hotels near the Stazione Centrale and Porta Venezia.
Milan’s nightlife traditionally centres on two main areas: the designer-label streets around Corso Como and Via Brera and the canal-side Navigli and the adjacent Ticinese quarter, south of the city, where a more mixed clientele enjoys the lively bars, restaurants and nightclubs, some hosting regular live bands. But there are numerous other pockets – including the area around Porta Venezia, Le Colonne di San Lorenzo, Corso Sempione and Porta Romana – and Milan’s relatively small size and car-and-scooter culture mean that people are happy to drive to places out of the centre, so some of the more popular bars and clubs may require a bus, a bike or a quick taxi ride.
Milan is synonymous with shopping. If your pockets are not deep enough to tackle the big-name designer boutiques you could always rummage through last season’s leftovers at the many factory outlets around town, or check out the city’s wide range of medium- and budget-range clothes shops. Milan also excels in furniture and design, with showrooms from the world’s top companies, plus a handful of shops offering a selection of brands and labels under one roof.