For as many times as I’ve been in Italy, I’ve somehow never made it to Milan. And when I finally decide to go, I’m told there isn’t much to see, that I don’t need more than a day or two in Italy’s financial center. But I think Milan is one of those cities you have to be open to; and when you take the time to explore, you’ll find you like it. Don’t judge it as industrial and uninteresting – 60% of the city was destroyed during WWII. On the exterior, it’s a newer city, perhaps with seemingly less character than another Italian metropolis; but many of Milan’s beauties lie indoors. It’s a city of hidden gems – take La Scala, the pinacoteche (art galleries), the Galleria, the churches, the libraries, the countless museums. If you give Milan a chance, you could be pleasantly surprised.
Trivia: Ernest Hemingway was injured in Italy during WWI, recovered in a Milanese Red Cross hospital, fell in love with his nurse, and was consequently inspired to write “A Farewell to Arms.” Not far from the city’s iconic duomo, a plaque hangs discreetly along Via Armorari, where the hospital once stood, and where literary buffs might play scavenger hunt and find inspiration of their own.
You might wonder what kind of setting Milan provides for writers like Hemingway. Well, let’s see. Walking down the street, you find remnants of ancient villas interspersed between modern apartments. This one is on a side street off the Corsa Magenta.
You might prefer a more intact bit of history, like the Castello Sforzesco, former home of Milan’s powerful Sforza family.
Or maybe you’d prefer a view of the medieval fortress from a more modern construction. Gosh, wouldn’t it be great to have a penthouse flat, with that rooftop garden? (Look at the top-most floor to the right.)
Or maybe you just want to live in a forest, period. The high-rise Bosco Verticale might be more your style.
Did you know that Milano was once full of canals? Napoleon changed that aquatic cityscape, but you can still get a taste of it by the Navigli. It may not be anywhere near Venice, but it definitely makes you see the city in a different light.
It’s quiet here in the mornings, everyone slow to rise from the previous night’s festivities. But as the day wears on, restaurants and bars all along the canal fill with drinks and laughter, their revelers spilling out onto the streets in fashionable attire. You, yourself, might fancy a bite not too far away, balancing the lively atmosphere with a more intimate dining experience.
If you’re more into art than food, you could try the Pinacoteca di Brera or the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. Photos aren’t allowed indoors, but I’ll plant this thought: many line up at the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence (including me), yet the same great artists –Caravaggio, Raphael, Leonardo– have works on display at the Ambrosiana and it’s largely devoid of museum-goers.
The pinacoteca, originally an art academy, is adjacent to a library, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. No photography is allowed here either, though I wish I could show you the interiors. The library is currently exhibiting pages from da Vinci’s Codice Atlantico, or Codex Atlanticus.
The Ambrosiana sits just above and around the corner from San Sepolcro, a church built on the ancient Roman forum of Milan – the city’s former center. Just recently, the archaeological site of Roman Milan’s main piazza has been opened to the public. So you see, though Milan might appear to be a “new” city, there is much history to be found indoors and underground.
In the nearby Piazza Affari, Milan’s non-touristy financial district, a very different kind of art sits boldly in front of the Italian stock exchange. Its symbolism is open to interpretation, but Artist Maurizio Cattelan is said to have offered the government free lease on the statue as long as it sits here…or for the city to pay money to display it elsewhere. You can guess which option city officials chose.
Although the sculpture seems to represent emotion far from affection, it’s ironically titled “L.O.V.E.” – Libertà (Freedom), Odio (Hate), Vendetta (Vengeance), Eternità (Eternity).
In another drastically different form of art, we find Leonardo da Vinci’s L’Ultima Cena, The Last Supper, within the confines of a former convent refectory. Few probably know the often-replicated masterpiece resides in a Milanese church.
As churches go, many of Europe’s metropolitan areas have famous cathedrals, and Milan is no exception. The Duomo di Milano stands in the main square, grand and watchful over its city. (I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but make your way up to the terraces!)
Steps from the duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a high-end mall worth visiting if only to admire its architecture. You don’t need to purchase anything from Prada to exit the beautiful building with a richer perspective on Italian design.
On a side of the galleria that leads out to Piazza della Scala, there’s currently an exhibit, una mostra, called Il Mondo di Leonardo. “The World of Leonardo” features reconstructions of the renowned inventor’s whimsical creations, as well as the world’s first digital restoration of his L’Ultima Cena. The exhibit is quite an impressive display of interactive screens, meticulous constructions, and educational models.
On the other side of the galleria, which separates Piazza del Duomo from Piazza della Scala, you can feed the pigeons in the company of Leonardo da Vinci (there really is no escaping him in this city), or you can watch the comings and goings at La Scala, one of the world’s most famous opera houses. If you can catch a performance, do let me know what you think of the acoustics.
It’s long been said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Likewise, you can’t judge a city by its facades. (I admit that when I first made my way into the heart of the city from Milano Centrale, I briefly wondered if I’d allotted myself too many days here…turns out, I could’ve allotted more!) There is a lot to see in Milan, if only you care to look – inside, up, underground, and past exteriors. We so often judge superficially that we sometimes miss the depth of beauty; and in Milan, there’s much of it to be found.