There is a lot to see in the Northern Italian city of Milan. This is unsurprising for the second most populous city in Italy and the fourth largest in the EU. It is famous throughout the world for its fashion festivals, its sports teams and its influential stock exchange. For such a significant global city, it just happened that we were only able to spend a day there in between our time spent around Lake Garda and our flight home out of Milan airport. This was no where near enough time to devote to inspecting this huge descendant city of the Roman Empire. So we had one day to walk the centre of Milan and at least visit for a short time some of the amazing monuments that Milan is blessed with. The map below shows the direction of travel for our long walk that started with inspecting the jewel of Milan, the fabulous Duomo.
Our train from Bologna arrived in Milano Centrale and we had booked a hotel for the night just nearby. After we had settled in, we walked to the Metro and caught a train to Duomo station, probably the most central part of the city to begin our exploration. It is a very clear memory of mine walking up the underground steps of this train station, emerging into the daylight, and immediately seeing the spires of the Duomo emerging as part of the skyline, unsurprising given it was the largest church in the Italian Republic. This cathedral is so huge and complex that it took six centuries to build, from 1386 to 1965. It is built in the central pizza of the city which has been the centre of Milan since the original town of Mediolanum was settled here by the Gallic tribe, the Insubres, in the 7th century BCE. It was captured by the Romans in the second century BCE. It was here that Milan’s first Christian churches were built and this Duomo replaced a cathedral that was burnt down by fire in 1075.
Construction of the Duomo began in the late 14th century and the vision for this church building was massive as three buildings (two palaces and a baptistry) that were in the square were demolished to make way for the Cathedral. It wasn’t completed until the 20th century and it suffered from ever changing architectural theories and lack of funds. It began as a Gothic Church but little progress was made in construction in the 15th century so by the 16th century, the Italian designers were now advocates of the new Renaissance style.
This ancient building today needs continuous renovation; between 2003-9, the main façade was cleaned and repaired to reveal the original colours of the Candoglia marble used in the construction.
A visitor wishing to appreciate all aspects of this cathedral needs a lot of time to explore the exterior of the building, the interior with all its complexities as well as leaving time to ascend to the roof of the Cathedral to take in the views of the city; note the image on the left below that shows the view of the piazza and the city spreading out to the horizon beyond. Of course our day did not include time for a complete tour of this wonderful building as we had to keep moving.
Before leaving Piazza Duomo, it is worth having a look at the huge monument in its centre, dedicated to the first King of Independent Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II. He was a significant figure in the wars of independence throughout the 19th century in Italy, particularly the conflict with the Pope over the declining power of the Papacy in both the old Papal States and Rome itself. The most famous monument to this important character in the modern history of Italy is the huge ‘Wedding Cake’ monument in Rome, occupying the site between Piazza Venezia and Captoline Hill.
From the ancient to the modern times is only a short walk away from each other across the Piazza Duomo. To the left of the piazza looking towards the Duomo is what looks like a large triumphal Roman Gate that is the entry to the 1877 Grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. It is amongst the oldest shopping centres in the world but the merchandise it sells is very 21st century; if your interests and wallet are centred around opulence and extravagance then, this is the shopping mall for you.
It might be time to refer back to the map at the start of this blog and it can be seen that by strolling through this stupendous Galleria, you come out on the other side of the complex in the Piazza della Scala. On one side of this city square is the famous La Scala Opera House and is considered one of the finest in the world for its acoustic qualities. The only thing that competes with religious observance in Italy is the love of Opera, illustrated by the fact that a 14th century church, Santa Maria alla Scala, was demolished in order for this famous opera house to be built from 1776.
In the 19th century, the local planners decided there needed to be a significant piazza in front of the Teatro alla Scala and of course such a piazza needed a significant statue. One of Milan’s favourite sons was chosen as the subject so in front of the Opera House is a huge statue of Leonardo Da Vinci accompanied by four of his favourite apprentices. Da Vinci lived a significant part of his life in Milan (1482-1499, 1506-1513) and lived in Sforza Castle under the patronage of Duke Ludovico il Moro. It was a very productive period in his life but he is mainly remembered in Milan for his famous painting of the ‘Last Supper’ which is an important stop in any tour of this city. Given that this statue was started with a competition in the 1850s, Italy was not yet an independent country so when the statue was eventually finished in 1872, it was criticised by many as more part of the Austrian legacy in Italy rather than a monument celebrating an Italian hero. The drawing on the right below is from the inauguration day of the monument
From the Piazza della Scala it is a reasonable walk to the next major site of our visit to Milan. We headed towards Via Dante which leads up to Parco Sempione and the huge Sforza Castle on these grounds where Da Vinci himself spent many years. The castle itself has a long and complex history and its grounds were generally used as a military parade ground. However, in the late 19th century, the land around the castle was given over to the city of Milan and the extensive park that surrounds the castle today was built. This included the huge fountain (below) that we passed on the way to inspect the Castle and the museums that have a home here.
The real estate that Castle Sforza was built on is close to the centre of Milan and so has a long history as you would expect of a city over 2000 years old. It was in this area that the Romans built their own local fortification when Milan was briefly the capital of the Roman Empire. The medieval castle was built on this site in the 15th century, replacing an earlier castle, only to be destroyed itself in 1447. It was reconstructed by Francesco Sforza and it continued to be embellished by the time Da Vinci was invited to join other artists decorating the castle by his son, Ludovico Sforza, at the end of the 15th century. By the mid 16th century, the castle was a complex fortress (See below right) but wars over the next 50 years saw the castle exchange hands a little too regularly.
After the unification of Italy in the 19th century, the castle was handed over to the city but its peaceful usage didn’t stop it being a target of the German Army during World War 2 and it was again severely damaged by warfare. Today this huge building is home to nine separate Museums and inspecting all these exhibitions was not possible for a couple of tourists who still had many places to visit over their one day in Milan.
We spent most of our time inspecting the art collection in the Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco which includes paintings by Canaletto, Tiepolo, Titian and Tintoretto. We also examined the beautiful medieval sculptures as well as spending time in the Museum of the Rondanini Pieta which is mainly given over to Michelangelo’s last sculpture. The great master worked on this Pieta from 1552 until the last days of his life in 1564. This sculpture stood for centuries in Rome before coming to this museum. It has an unfinished quality about the sculpture and has provoked much discussion over the centuries as to Michelangelo’s purpose with this final work of his amazing career.
Looking at the map of Parco Sempione earlier in this article, the reader can see the Arena Civica on the right-hand side of this huge park. It was built as a multi-purpose stadium in 1807. In the 19th century it was used for events such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as well as Roman style naval battles. It was also the site of the world’s first female parachutist in 1824 dropping into the arena from her balloon supported gondola. (Image to the right). Today it is mainly used for football matches but in the past it has hosted many famous world singing stars such as Joe Cocker, Lou Reed, Ringo Starr, Rod Stewart etc.
We were able to enter the arena and go for a walk around its grounds before heading out again towards the next major landmark in Parco Sempione, Arco della Pace (the Arch of Peace). It is a triumphal arch began in 1807 in Milan when the city was under the control of Napoleon’s troops. This arch was not the first for Milan, the Romans had built a triumphal gate into the walls surrounding Milan which was eventually incorporated into Castle Sforza. Construction of this gate began under Napoleonic rule but was stopped when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo and Austria took control of Italy for the next half a century. The gate’s construction started again under Austrian Rule but was not completed until 1838. This gate was the scene of tumultuous events towards the end of Austrian rule when the Austrian army escaped the city after the city rebelled in 1848 and was also where a French army entered the city in 1859 led by Napoleon III.
From the Arco della Pace we decided to make our way towards the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie for our last stop of the day to inspect Da Vinci’s famous ‘Last Supper’. As can be seen on the earlier map of Parco Sempione, our trail passed by another significant building in this area called Triennale di Milano. It is a Design and Art Museum built between 1931-33. Over the years it has held many international exhibitions of art and design.
The map of our tour trail at the start of this blog shows the route from Parco Sempione to Santa Maria delle Grazie. This church is a World heritage Site which was constructed on the orders of the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza and completed in 1469. It became the burial place of his family. Apart from its age and its beautiful architecture, this church is world famous for the painting in its dining room by Leonardo Da Vinci, the ‘Last Supper’. The fame of this mural has overshadowed the fact that this church was also home to another masterpiece, an altarpiece by Titian (1848-1576) entitled ‘Christ receiving the Crown of Thorns’. However this painting was looted by French troops in 1797 and is now in the Louvre.
There are many issues that surround Da Vinci’s painting which are beyond the scope of this blog. Suffice to say, a viewing of the ‘Last Supper’ is an essential bucket list item for many world travellers, particularly given that it is a masterpiece that will struggle to survive the difficult conditions it exits under on the deteriorating refectory wall of Santa Maria delle Grazieit that it is painted on. It was lucky to survive an Allied bombing raid of Milan in 1943 as can be seen in the image below right. The wall holding the ‘Last Supper’ had been sand-bagged to protect it.
We had a very enjoyable, if hurried day, seeing as many of the sights of Milan that we could fit into the available hours of our day. It is a regular complaint of tourists that there is not enough time in their touring days, in fact in their life, to see everything they want to see in places like Milan. They either get stoical or ensure they return to Milan with many more days available to them!
APPENDIX 1: The Last Supper