Italian Lakes (2013)

MILAN

The fashionable powerhouse that drives the Italian economy and clothes the world, Milan is also a very beautiful city with an illustrious past, magnificent galleries and splendid restaurants.

Main Attractions

Duomo

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Teatro della Scala

Quadrilatero d’Oro

Pinacoteca di Brera

Castello Sforzesco

Basilica di Sant’ Ambrogio

The Last Supper

Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia

Pinacoteca Ambrosiana

Founded by the Celts in the 4th century BC and one of the greatest cities in Italy ever since, deputising for Rome as the empire crumbled, and now undisputedly the wealth behind Italy’s economic engine, Milan presents a strange mix of traditional values and flash cash, the newest style and good old home cooking. It is often ignored in favour of the more obvious charms of the nearby lakes, but although it is a busy industrial city, it is well worth exploring, with some fascinating architecture, masses of superb museums, excellent restaurants and, of course, La Scala.

I58a_ItalianLakes_EC

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

The Duomo

Start in the heart of the centro storico beside the Duomo 1 [map] (daily 7am–7pm; www.duomomilano.it ; free). The first church on this ancient Christian site dates back to the 3rd century. It was replaced twice before the decision was taken to build this vast Gothic wedding cake confection in 1386. It took five centuries to complete, and it was not until 1966 that the last bronze panels were hung in the great west doors. With 135 spires and over 3,400 statues and acres of stained glass set in gleaming pinkish-grey Candoglia marble, it is 158 metres (518ft) long, 93 metres (305ft) wide at the transept and 108 metres (354ft) tall – the third-largest Roman Catholic church in the world (after Rome and Seville) and a cathedral that truly proclaims the wealth of the city. On top of the tallest spire, the gilded copper Madonnina, made in 1774, has become the symbol of Milan. A lift (entrance outside; charge) allows you to walk on the roof amid the gargoyles for a magnificent view of the cathedral and the city.

I39_ItalianLakes_EC

On the roof of Milan’s Duomo.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

Inside, 52 pillars, one for each week, separate out the five aisles. High in the roof arch hangs a crucifix containing a nail supposed to come from the True Cross. On the second Sunday in September, it is collected, using a strange lift designed by Leonardo da Vinci, and displayed to the public for two days.

There are several fine tombs, including the 11th-century stone sarcophagus of Bishop d’Intimiano, the 16th-century tomb of Gian Giacamo de’ Medici by Leone Leoni and, in the crypt behind the High Altar, the glass-encased tomb of the high society saint, San Carlo Borromeo, canonised for his work among the poor during the plague. Look out also for the bizarrely anatomical 16th-century statue of San Bartolomeo, who was flayed alive and stands in the south transept with his skin flung over one shoulder. In the north transept is a superb 12th-century gold candelabra.

102397

Piazza del Duomo

Outside the main doors, a brass line set in the paving marked with the zodiac is a huge sundial (no longer accurate since a shift in the earth’s magnetic field). A separate entrance in the piazza leads to the Palaeo-Christian Baptistery of San Giovanni alle Fonti (charge), where Sant’Agostino was baptised by Sant’Ambrogio in AD 387. On the south side of the piazza, the huge Palazzo Reale 2 [map] (Royal Palace), built in 1778 by Piermarini, was once home to the Spanish then Austrian governors.

The adjacent Museo del Novecento (Museum of the Twentieth Century; Piazza del Duomo 12; tel: 02-8844 4061; Mon 2.30–7.30pm, Tue–Wed, Fri, Sun 9.30am–7.30pm, Thu, Sat 9.30am–10.30pm, free entrance two hours before closing and Tue from 2pm) brings together around 400 works of 20th-century art, including pieces by the likes of De Chirico, Kandinsky and Kounellis, in a swanky gallery.

I51a_ItalianLakes_EC

Piazza del Duomo.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

Opposite, on the north side of the Piazza del Duomo, is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II 3 [map] , built in 1877. Its architect, Giuseppe Mengoni, was killed falling from the scaffolding shortly before it was completed. The soaring spider’s web of iron and glass became the symbol of Milan and it remains fashionable to gather in “il salotto” (the salon) for coffee, cake and shopping.

Where

Fondazione Prada’s new premises in Largo Isarco, south of Milan, were designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, who transformed an old factory into a cutting-edge Museum of Contemporary Art (www.fondazioneprada.org ). Interestingly, the museum’s café, Bar Luce, was designed by film director Wes Anderson.

Piazza della Scala

Walk through the Galleria into Piazza della Scala, where a statue of Verdi stands in front of the neoclassical facade of the Teatro alla Scala 4 [map] (La Scala). Said to have perfect acoustics, this grandest of opera houses was commissioned by Empress Maria Teresa of Austria to replace the Royal Ducal Theatre which burned down in 1776 (it opened two years later). Its architect was Giuseppe Piermarini and it was built on the site of the 14th-century church of Santa Maria alla Scala. Owners of boxes at the old theatre paid for the new one in exchange for a private box here. There are four tiers of these. The theatre seats 3,600.

The season begins each year on 7 December, the Feast of Sant’Ambrogio, patron saint of Milan. Check the internet for tickets well ahead of time ( www.teatroallascala.org ).

I82_ItalianLakes_EC

Piazza della Scala.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

The Maestros

As one of the world’s great opera houses, La Scala has been linked with works by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, along with ballet and commedia dell’arte . The towering presence, however, is Verdi, many of whose operas, including Nabucco, Simon Boccanegra, Otello and Falstaff premiered here and, unusually for an opera house, his gloriously sombre Requiem . Arturo Toscanini became the artistic director, introducing works by Wagner and Puccini and premiering Madame Butterfly in 1904, when the scenes of jealous hostility caused riots in the audience, and the unfinished Turandot (after Puccini’s death) in 1926. He later reopened the theatre with a flourish in 1946, after its partial destruction by bombs.

The Museo Teatrale alla Scala (Largo Ghiringhelli 1, Piazza della Scala; tel: 02-8879 7473; daily 9am–12.30pm, 1.30–5.30pm, last entry 30 minutes before closing; www.teatroallascala.org ) has an extraordinary collection of theatrical memorabilia, from portraits, costumes and commedia dell’arte figurines to Verdi’s pianos and office, many manuscripts, and beautiful board games played by the fashionable clientele during intervals. Laboratori Ansaldo , the Costume and Scenery Workshops, are open for guided tours (tel: 02-4335 3521; Tue, Thu for individuals; booking essential).

The Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza della Scala 5 [map] (Via Manzoni 10; www.gallerieditalia.com ; Tue–Sun 9.30am–7.30pm, Thu until 10.30pm), showcases a wealth of 19th-century artworks, mostly by Lombard artists, from Canova’s stunning bas-reliefs to Boccioni’s pre-Futuristic works. Arranged across two historic palazzi – works of art in themselves – the beautifully displayed collections include some fine studies of Milan’s Duomo.

The Fashion District

Walk up the elegant shopping street, Via Alessandro Manzoni . To the right at the end of Piazza Belgioioso is the home of the author Alessandro Manzoni (1814–73), now Museo Manzoniano 6 [map] (Via Morone 1; tel: 02-8646 0403; Tue–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat 2–6pm; free).

In 1850, Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli started building a rich collection of fine and decorative arts, as well as more than 300 paintings from the 15th–18th centuries. The results are now on display to all in his home, a 15th-century palazzo , the Museo Poldi Pezzoli 7 [map] (Via A. Manzoni 12; tel: 02-794 889, www.museopoldipezzoli.it ; Wed–Mon 10am–6pm).

A couple of streets up, at the corner of Via Croce Rossa, Giuseppe Verdi lived at the Grand Hotel et de Milan for several years. He died on 27 January 1901 and 28,000 people lined the streets for his funeral.

101988

To the right, Via Monte Napoleone, known to cognoscenti as Monte Napo, marks one border of the Quadrilatero d’Oro (Golden Rectangle, for more information, click here ), the heartland of designer Milan. The fashion may be next year’s, but the buildings include some of the finest neoclassical mansions in the city.

The wonderfully quirky Museo Bagatti Valsecchi 8 [map] (Via Santo Spirito 10; tel: 02-7600 6132; Tue–Sun 1–5.45pm; www.museobagattivalsecchi.org ) displays the private collection assembled by Fausto and Giuseppe Bagatti-Valsecchi. In the late 19th century, the aristocratic brothers had the dream of living in a true Renaissance palazzo (albeit with modern plumbing). The resulting collection of 15th- and 16th-century furniture, art, weaponry and even domestic utensils is as much a tribute to Victorian eclecticism as it is an elegy for the Renaissance era.

_DSF0004_ItalianLakes_EC

Museo Bagatti Valsecchi

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

For a timeline of historic Milan, head towards the Palazzo Morando Costume Moda Immagine (Via Sant’Andrea 6; tel: 02-8844 6056; Tue–Sun 9am–1pm, 2–5.30pm; free), which tells the story of the city from the 1700s to the 1900s through a collection of paintings, sculptures, objets d’art and period costumes.

Brera

North of the Fashion District, Brera is one of the younger, funkier inner-city areas, home to the art college, some excellent cafés and restaurants, art galleries and antiques shops – and the superb Pinacoteca di Brera 9 [map] (Via Brera 28; tel: 02-7226 3264; www.brera.beniculturali.it ; Tue–Sun 8.30am–7.15pm, last entry 6.40pm, Thu until 10.15pm). Started in 1803 to house works taken from disbanded religious orders, it has grown into one of the world’s great galleries, with works by Piero della Francesca, Van Dyck, Raphael, Lotto, Titian, Rembrandt and Canaletto, to name but a few.

Also housed in the same huge building, a 14th-century monastery with additions by Ricchino (17th century) and Piermarini (18th century), are the Museo Astronomico di Brera (tel: 02-5031 4680; Mon–Fri 9am–4.30pm; www.brera.unimi.it ; free) and the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense , a public library founded by Maria Teresa of Austria.

Behind the palace are the lush gardens of the Orto Botanico (Via Brera 28; tel: 02-5031 4696; Feb–June, Sept–Oct Mon–Fri 9am–noon, 2–5pm, Sat 10am–5pm, July–Aug, Nov–Jan Mon–Fri 9am–12.30pm, Sat 10am–4pm; www.brera.unimi.it ; free), also founded by Maria Teresa in 1774.

Just round the corner, the Museo del Risorgimento ) [map] (Via Borgonuovo 23; tel: 02-8846 4177, www.museodelrisorgimento.mi.it ; Tue–Sun 9am–1pm, 2–5.30pm) tells the history of Napoleon, Garibaldi and the Unification.

I166_ItalianLakes_EC

Pinacoteca di Brera.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

Castello Sforzesco

The city’s rulers generally chose to live outside the hubbub of the centre. A semicircle of grand boulevards is all that ever got built of Napoleon’s grand monument to himself. Earlier rulers did better. The original 14th-century fort was built by the Visconti. A century later, the Duco Francesco Sforza family replaced its ruins with the huge Castello Sforzesco ! [map] (Piazza Castello; tel: 02-8846 3703; castle daily 7am–7pm, museums Tue–Sun 9am–5.30pm; www.milanocastello.it ; castle free, museum charge), turning it into one of Europe’s most ostentatious courts with the help of artists of the calibre of Leonardo.

The tower by the main gate was built in 1901–4, replacing (eventually) the Filarete Tower which blew up in 1521. Inside, it has three courtyards, the parade ground, the Renaissance Rocchetta Court (public area) and the Ducal Court (private residence). It is now home to several magnificent collections of fine and applied arts, including sculpture, furniture, tapestries, ceramics, musical instruments, weapons and Egyptian art. Highlights include Michelangelo’s Pietà Rondanini and Leonardo da Vinci’s ceiling in the Sala delle Asse.

I135_ItalianLakes_EC

Fountain in front of Castello Sforzesco.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

Behind the castle, the languid English-style Parco Sempione , once the castle’s gardens, covers a vast 47 hectares (116 acres). On the north side of the park, the overblown, neoclassical Arena @ [map] (Viale G. Byron 2; tel: 02-341 924) was built in 1806 by Luigi Canonica. It holds up to 30,000 spectators, has been flooded to stage mock sea battles and hosted Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

On the southern side, the Triennale £ [map] (Viale Alemagna 6; tel: 02-8909 3899; www.triennale.it ; Tue–Sun 10.30am–8.30pm, last entry one hour before closing) is the nearest thing this design-conscious city has, so far, to a design museum, with a permanent collection and excellent touring exhibitions.

Next to it, the Torre Branca $ [map] (Viale Alemagna; tel: 02-331 4120; www.museobranca.it ; Tue, Thu–Fri 3.30–7pm, 8.30pm–midnight, Wed 10.30am–12.30pm, 3–7pm, 8.30pm–midnight, Sat– Sun 10.30am–2pm, 2.30–7.30pm, 8.30pm–midnight, winter shorter hours) is a 108-metre (356ft) tall steel tower designed by Gio Ponte for the fifth Triennale in 1933.

Roman Milan

A couple of blocks south of the castle is the huge Museo Archeologico % [map] (Corso Magenta 15; tel: 02-8844 5208; Tue–Sun 9am–5.30pm, last entrance 30min before closing; free after 2pm Tue), with Roman, Greek, Etruscan, early medieval and Indian collections.

Further to the south again is the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio ^ [map] (Piazza Sant’Ambrogio; tel: 02-8645 0895; Mon–Sat 10am–noon, 2.30–6pm, Sun 3–5pm; free), built on the site of the 4th-century church of the martyr and Milan’s patron saint, Sant’Ambrogio (St Ambrose). The basic design of the red-brick church set the fashion for Lombard Romanesque, while inside its capitals are a riot of imaginative design, much of it pagan in tone.

The bell tower dates from the late 11th century, but the crypt, containing the tombs of SS Ambrogio, Protaso and Gervaso, is far older. The Byzantine bronze serpent is supposedly the one made by Moses in the desert and will supposedly come back to life on Judgement Day. The church has always attracted gifts, from the 9th-century golden altar to the reliquaries in the Treasury, housed in the Chapel of San Victor in Ciel d’Oro, part of the 4th-century basilica.

HDDEAGOSTINI_11185292_ItalianLakes_EC

Leonardo’s controversial masterpiece The Last Supper.

Fototeca ENIT

The Last Supper

When the monks went in for supper, did they admire the genius of the painting on the wall? Or was Leonardo’s masterpiece simply the dining-room decoration?

In 1494, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned by his patron Duke Ludovico Sforza to do a painting of the Last Supper for the refectory wall of the Dominican monastery in Santa Maria delle Grazie. The huge painting (measuring 46 metres/15ft by 88 metres/29ft), was to take him, on and off, four years to finish. It has become one of his greatest masterpieces, one of his most fragile works and one of his greatest enigmas.

Leonardo the inventor

The fragility comes down to Leonardo’s love of innovation. Instead of using the lengthy but durable process of painting on wet plaster that makes a true fresco, Leonardo decided to seal the stone wall with pitch, gesso and mastic, then use tempera (egg yolk and vinegar) with oil paint. This would allow him to use a greater range of colours and to rework portions of the painting if he wished. Unfortunately, while it looked gorgeous, it didn’t last.

By 1517, the painting had already begun to flake off. Within 60 years, in 1556, Giorgio Vasari was describing some of the figures as unrecognisable. A door was cut in it in 1652 (chopping off Christ’s feet), and for a while a curtain was hung over it, which only trapped the moisture and made matters worse.

Restoration

A clumsy attempt to restore it in 1726 used oil paints, and another in 1770 started overpainting the whole thing before it was halted by public outcry. The refectory was used as an armoury and a prison, and in 1821 an attempt to move the whole painting nearly destroyed it completely. Further attempts to clean it didn’t help, and in 1943, the refectory was bombed. Eventually, from 1978–9, a careful scientific effort began to remove everyone else’s work, restore and stabilise the original painting, headed by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon. The results are spectacular, although inevitably controversial. Il Cenacolo is now heavily protected from the environment, with visitors restricted to one group of 25 every 15 minutes in an attempt to prevent further deterioration.

The painting is divided into four groups, with Jesus softly illuminated as the tranquil central figure. The disciples gesticulate with typically Italian vigour, with the exception of the recoiling Judas, depicted in shadow clutching his bag of silver. With confusion all around, Jesus calmly reaches out for his bread, his other hand open as a gesture of sacrifice.

Above the main painting, four lunettes pay tribute to the duke, his wife, Beatrice and their children.

_DSF0201_ItalianLakes_EC

Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

Where

Tourist Information
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (corner Piazza della Scala), tel: 02-8845 5555; Mon–Fri 9am–7pm, Sat 9–6pm, Sun 10am–6pm. Also at the Central Station and at all airports. City Sightseeing ( www.city-sightseeing.com ) run hop-on, hop-off open top bus tours (ticket validity 24 or 48 hrs; multi-lingual commentary) from Piazza Castello and various other points around the city.

Looking for Leonardo

Somewhat out on a limb geographically, Milan’s single most famous sight is Leonardo da Vinci’s fabulous painting of The Last Supper , known to the Italians as Il Cenacolo . It “hangs” on the refectory wall of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie & [map] (Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie 2; tel: 02-9280 0360, www.vivaticket.it ; www.legraziemilano.it ; Tue–Sun 8.15am–6.45pm, visit last 15mins; book at least a week ahead in low season, at least a month or two in high season). On the opposite wall is a painting of the Crucifixion by Donato Montorfano (1495). Once inside, you will have only 15 minutes to admire the work, so do your homework first.

A couple of blocks south, the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci * [map] (Via San Vittore 21; tel: 02-4855 5558; Tue–Fri 9.30am–5pm, Sat–Sun 9.30am–6.30pm, summer Tue–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat–Sun 10am–7pm last entry 30 minutes before closing; submarine: guided tours from 10am; www.museoscienza.org ) is an extraordinary museum of science and technology with plenty of things to press and pull for children, a submarine to tour and full-sized models of Leonardo’s scientific inventions.

Early Christians

Walk east along the Via dei Amicis, then cut south through the ruins of the Amfiteatro Romano to the Basilica di Sant’Eustorgio ( [map] (Piazza San Eustorgio 3; tel: 02-5810 1583; daily 10am–6pm; church free, museum charge). This is one of the city’s oldest and most beautiful churches, built on a palaeo-Christian burial site (accessed from the cloister) outside the city walls. Rebuilt in the 12th century, it supposedly houses some of the bones of the Magi, brought here by St Eustorgius (San Eustorgio), 9th bishop of Milan, in the early 4th century. Frederick Barbarossa stole them in 1162, but some were returned in 1903 and they now live in a simple Roman sarcophagus in a side chapel. The artistic highlight is the Portinari Chapel , gloriously painted by Vincenzo Foppa (1455–68). The cloisters’ Museum Diocesano (Diocesan Museum) has many treasures.

The Canal Quarter

Just south of here is the district of Navigli (“canals”), where you can see the last of the many canals which once crisscrossed Milan. These days the warehouses have been transformed into clubs and restaurants, and this has become one of the centres of the city’s nightlife.

Walk back north along Corsa di Porta Ticinese, where a line of 16 Roman columns stands in front of the octagonal 16th-century Basilica di San Lorenzo Maggiore , [map] (Corso di Porta Ticinese 39; tel: 02-8940 4129; Mon–Sat 8am–6.30pm, Sun 9am–7pm; church free, cappella charge). This began in the 4th century as a square church, and was rebuilt in the 11th century, before it was given its Renaissance make over. The church has fine early medieval frescoes, and the 4th-century Cappella di San Aquilino still has its original mosaics. Before heading north, wander round to Piazza della Vetra to see the Lego-block back of the church. This seemingly peaceful place was the city execution ground until the 19th century.

_DSF0100_ItalianLakes_EC

Navigli, the canal district.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

Heading back towards the Duomo, the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana ⁄ [map] (Piazza Pio XI 2; tel: 02-806 921; www.ambrosiana.eu ; Tue–Sun 10am–6pm, last entry 5.30pm) is Milan’s oldest museum, founded in 1618 by Cardinal Federico Borromeo. Art gallery and library rolled into one, it contains a truly extraordinary range of masterworks, including 35,000 manuscripts and more than 700,000 printed works, 2,500 of them printed before 1500. The collection contains Cardinal Borromeo’s favourite work, Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit , and also reflects the founder’s preference for Flemish and Venetian art. However, later bequests have broadened the Pinacoteca’s appeal by including medieval Lombard sculpture, German old masters and Tuscan Renaissance masterpieces. Foremost among the Venetian masterpieces is Titian’s Adoration of the Magi and Rococo works by Tiepolo. Renaissance works include a luminous Botticelli Madonna and Raphael’s cartoon for the School of Athens . Other treasures include a 5th-century copy of the Iliad, as well as the Codex Atlanticus, complete with over a thousand pages of scientific and technical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci.

_DSF0092_ItalianLakes_EC

The Cimitero Monumentale is an open-air art gallery.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

Cimitero Monumentale

One of the grandest and strangest monuments in Milan is the vast, striped Cimitero Monumentale ¤ [map] (Piazzale Cimitero Monumentale; tel: 02-8846 5600; Tue–Sun 8am–6pm, last entry 30 minutes before closing; free), built in1866 by architect Carlo Maciachini. Many graves include monuments and sculptures by top artists, and people buried here include Toscanini and Manzoni.

Sporting Milan

To the Milanese, sport is right up there with fashion and food. Cosily two of Italy’s top football teams – Internazionale and AC Milan – share the Stadio San Siro ‹ [map] . The Museo Inter & Milan (Stadio San Siro, Via Piccolomini 5; tel: 02-404 2432, www.acmilan.it ; www.inter.it ; www.sansiro.net ; 9.30am–6pm; variation possible on match days) has tours of the stadium and plenty of memorabilia. Tickets for matches are available through the teams’ websites.

San Siro is also the Milanese home of horse racing, and even those not interested in the races may want to stop at the San Siro Racecourse (27 Via Ippodromo; tel: 02-482 161; daily; www.ippodromitrenno.it ; free) to see the world’s largest equestrian statue. In 1482, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to build the giant bronze horse, but the plaster cast, 16 years in the making, was destroyed during French invasions. The present-day version was created by the “Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse Incorporation” founded by an American pilot, Charles Dent. Sculptor Nina Akamo made the vast statue on the basis of Leonardo’s many drawings. Cast with 12 tonnes of bronze, it was inaugurated in 1999, 500 years after the original was destroyed.

Tip

The MilanoCard ( www.milanocard.it ) is a 1-, 2- or 3-day pass, costing €7, €13 and €19 respectively, offering free public transport and free or discounted access to 20 museums in the city and many other tourist attractions.