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.