When you get off the train in Milano Centrale train station and find yourself covered by the massive cast iron and glass canopy, you wonder if you are still in Italy. Your doubts are further inflated by the hectic pace of the people around. Unlike the languid strollers in most other Italian cities, these people actually seem in a hurry to get somewhere. Once you get to the taxi stands outside the train station, you are surprised to find people actually waiting their turn in a proper line; not to mention the efficiency of the taxis in loading passengers and quick departures. And you wonder again… am I still in Italy?
Milan, or Milano, is the capital city of the northern Italian region of Lombardy and the second largest city in Italy after Rome, with a greater metropolitan population of about 3 million people. It is also Italy’s capital of industry, finance, and fashion. The modern urbanism of the city (including skyscrapers), convenient metro system, and fast-paced lifestyle reflect its unique role as a thriving European metropolis. So it might be surprising to find some of the greatest artistic treasures of the Renaissance scattered within this “bright lights, big city” atmosphere.
Milan’s 14th-century cathedral is one of the few successful Italian expressions of Gothic architecture. Its dizzying array of spires, rose windows, decorative sculpture, and stone tracery is as impressive as any of the great gothic cathedrals of northern Europe. But Milan’s defining artistic moment was the arrival of the 29-year-old Florentine artist Leonardo da Vinci in 1481. Hired by the then Duke of Milan, Ludovico “the Moor” Sforza, as his court artist, Leonardo not only brought his own singular genius to the northern city, but also the artistic, scientific, and philosophical trends of his native Renaissance Florence. Over the 18 years that he lived in Milan, Leonardo produced some of his most important works such as the Virgin of the Rocks (now in the Louvre, Paris), the Lady with the Ermine (now in the National Gallery in Cracow, Poland), the drawing of the Vitruvian Man (now in the Accademia Gallery, Venice) and the Last Supper (still in sitù in the Dominican refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan).
And although Michelangelo never went to or worked in Milan, the city acquired one of his sculptures in 1952. Known as the Rondanini Pietà (after the name of the Roman palace where it was previously located), it was Michelangelo’s last sculpture and intended as his own funerary monument. The great artist worked on the piece up until 6 days before he died at nearly 89 years of age. Tragic and frail, the sculpture is often interpreted as reflecting the fragile state of mind of an extraordinary artist in the twilight of his life.
Milan is also home to my second favorite museum in Italy (after the Borghese Gallery in Rome) – the Brera Gallery. This 19th-century museum houses extraordinary works by Renaissance artists such as Mantegna, Bellini, Tintoretto, Raphael, Piero della Francesca and Caravaggio (although I have my doubts regarding the authenticity of the last). But the museum also houses an impressive collection of modern art by artists of the caliber of Picasso, Modigliani, Braque, De Chirico, Boccioni, and Morandi.
And if all this art makes you hungry, make sure to try the famous saffron-rich Risotto Milanese or the breaded veal cutlet known as the Cotoletta alla Milanese.