• II 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. Instead of earlier static representations of Christ’s last meal with his disciples, Da Vinci presents a dramatic depiction of the scene, which was quite novel and marked an important new stage in the development of art. The painting, which had already begun to flake off before the destruction of part of the room left it exposed to weather, has been restored several times, a process which will probably never be fully completed. Entrance is limited and restricted to those with advance timed tickets

  • 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).

  • CASTELLO SFORZESCO

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. Other museums feature a collection of decorative art, prehistoric and Egyptian antiquities, a collection of musical history, and an armory of weapons and medieval armor. 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.

  • 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. Along with the ancient history of Milan, you’ll find Greek, Etruscan, and Roman finds from elsewhere in Italy, including sculptures in stone and bronze. Particularly good are the third-century sculpture of Maximilian, a bronze head, and a female statue with folded drapes.

  • 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.

  • 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. In the same building is the Museo Teatrale alla Scala, where you’ll find a collection of costumes from landmark performances and historical and personal mementos of the greats who performed and whose works were performed at La Scala, including Verdi, Rossini, and the great conductor Arturo Toscanini. If there is not a rehearsal in progress, the museum offers access to see the inside of the opera house itself, one of the world’s grandest.

  • SANT’AMBROGIO

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. Inside, be sure to see the pulpit with late Romanesque carving, and the richly carved 4th-century Stilicone sarcophagus underneath it. The casing (paliotto) of the high altar is a masterpiece of Carolingian art made in 835 at either Milan or Rheims. It’s easy to miss the mosaic dome of the original 4th-century Sacello di San Vittore, accessed through the last chapel on the right.

  • CIMITERO MONUMENTALE

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. 

  • NAVIGLIO

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. In April, the neighborhood along the canal is filled with flowers for the Festa Di Fiori, and the Festa del Naviglio brings concerts, processions, crafts, and an antique market. Barges along the canals are decorated in mid-June for the Sagra di San Cristoforo (Festival of Saint Christopher), and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi performs about 50 concerts on Thursday and Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons at the Auditorium di Milano.

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