Milan: The Economic Center and Fashion Capitol of Italy

Milan is a bustling metropolis, with a population of over 1,308,500 in the city and over 7,400,000 in the metropolitan area, it is one of Italy’s, and even the European Community’s, largest cities based upon population. It is a melting pot, with immigrants from around Italy and the world who have come to live and work there. It is the capitol of the northern region of Lombardy and of its province. Home to the Alfa Romeo, panettone, and the fashion industry, it is also the center of Italian economics with the Italian stock exchange. It is easily accessible by plane, train or coach, and once there it is easy to get around by bus, tram, metro or taxi. Nearby are Bergamo, Pavia, the Italian Alps and Lake Como, but it is easy to get to most northern Italian cities from Milan.

Founded as early as the 4th century BC by the Galls, Milan was taken over by the Romans in 222 BC. Later it was also invaded by the barbarian Lombards and Goths in the centuries following the fall of Rome, and even the infamous Frederick Barbarossa of Swabia attempted to take control of the city in 1162 although the Milanese were able to oust him at the Battle of Legnano. After this, first the Visconti family and then the Sforza family controlled Milan through the 15th centuries when once again the city found itself invaded by first the Spanish, then Napoleon and finally the Austrians. All this eventually led to Milan’s active participation in the Risorgimento, the movement towards Italian unification. Its central location in the Po River Valley has put Milan in the center of many major historical events. It was in Milan in 313 that Constantine made his famous edict declaring Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and it was here that St. Ambrose was made bishop, setting a new tone for Christianity, and later going on to convert St. Augustine.

Despite its rich history and treasures that have filled the city over time, Milan seems to give less regard to its past with so much happening now in its present. Milan is celebrated today as a world center of culture, finance, industry, communication, design and fashion. While you are here, be sure to visit the fashion districts, such as the Galleria di Vittorio Emanuele II and Quadrilatero d’Oro on via Monte Napoleone and via della Spiga. Even just window shopping is exciting as top designers from around the world have boutiques along these streets. La Scala opera house continues to be the center of international attention and well worth a visit for music lovers. While this city is full of art and history, be sure to walk the streets and appreciate what it has to offer now. This efficient and modern city burst with vitality and energy.

Main Attractions

Castello Sforzesco

Built in 1358 by Galeazzo Visconti II, then destroyed in 1447, this castle was rebuilt by Francesco Sforza in 1450, to be later repaired again after the air raids of World War II. One can go through and visit the different rooms where the dukes lived, such as the Ducal Court and the “Sala delle Asse,” which was frescoed by Leonardo da Vinci. While there, be sure to visit some of the many exhibits, the libraries, cloister and loggia. The Museum of Sculpture has pieces from the later Roman Empire up through the Byzantine period. There are also pieces from the Lombard, Romanesque and Renaissance periods, including the “Pietà Rondinini,” by Michelangelo. Within the castle are also the Picture Gallery, which has Lombard paintings and furniture from the 15th-18th centuries, the Rochetta Room, which is filled with bronzes, majolicas, ceramics, gold work and jewelry, the Balla Room which has tapestries, the Municipal Arms and Amour Collection with works by Milanese sword makers from the 16th-18th centuries, and the Applied Art Collection with costumes from the late 17th century to the present. The Ancient Arts Collection includes prehistoric, Egyptian, and pre-Columbian displays. There is also a fine exhibit of Dutch and Flemish paintings from the 17th century. Don’t miss the Museum of Musical Instruments which has a wonderful collection of both string and woodwind instruments not to mention a spinet which was played by Mozart.

Outside the castle is the Parco Sempione, Milan’s largest park which is made up of what remains of the Grand Ducal Park, once the hunting preserves of the Visconti and Sforza dukes. The park was made public in 1894, and within one can enjoy long walks and admire the Park Tower, the Arch of Peace, and the monument to Napoleon III. You may want to visit the Palazzo dell’Arte, where exhibits are held, the Arena or the Aquarium, all also within the park.

Piazza dei Mercanti

This is Milan’s oldest and best preserved square. It had been the financial center during the Middle Ages, where craftsmen, tradesmen, and shopkeepers came to meet. In fact, the streets enclosing the square are named for the different craftsmen who would have occupied them. There is the “via Amorari”, the amour makers, “via Spadari,” the sword makers, “via Cappellari,” the hat makers, and, “via Orefici,” the gold smiths. On the square is the Palazzo della Ragione, also called the Broletto Nuovo, which was built in 1233 and used as a town hall until 1770.

Il Duomo

This Cathedral is the third largest Catholic church in the world and made entirely of marble. It is built in the Lombard gothic style, with countless arches, pylons and spires that shoot up to the sky, each topped with a statue of a saint. On the tallest spire is the famous gilt statue of the Virgin Mary, referred to as La Madonnina, or tiny Madonna, even if it actually stands over ten feet tall. The façade is done in the Baroque style below and gothic above, with five large arched bronze doors. The church is built on the Latin cross plan and the interior covers an area of about 11,700 square meters. Within one can appreciate the numerous large stained glass windows and an endless supply of art and treasures. The cathedral was begun by Gian Galeazzo Visconti in 1386, but attached to it are remains of the baptistery of San Giovanni delle Fonti, where one finds the octagonal baptismal font where St. Ambrose baptized St. Augustine in 387 AD. Even today, the cathedral is considered one of the most important monuments in Milan.

Palazzo Reale and the Museo del Duomo

Near the Duomo one finds the Palazzo Reale, the royal palace that was built in 1138 and served to house the Torriani, Visconti, and the Sforza families while they were in power. Later it hosted Spanish dukes and the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. Now the palace is home to the Museo del Duomo which is a collection of relics from the Cathedral including Gargoyles, tapestries, statues and stained glass. The palace also hosts traveling exhibits.

La Scala

This world famous opera house was named for the church, Santa Maria della Scala, which was destroyed in order to make room to build the opera house. Seating over 3,000 people, it is the most prestigious opera house in Italy and possibly in the world. It was originally built in 1776 by Giuseppe Piermarini but had to be rebuilt after being bombed in World War II. Operas by Verdi, Bellini, Puccini, Donizetti and many others have all premiered here. If you love music, don’t miss the opportunity to see a show at La Scala while visiting Milan.

Galleria Nazionale di Brera

This national museum is housed in the Palazzo Brera which was built from 1651-1773 and designed by Richini. The collection is made up primarily of Italian works from the 14th -20th century and is truly amazing. One of the most famous pieces in the collection is the Marriage of the Virgin by Raphael. Within are also works by Andrea Mantagna, Piero della Francesca, Caravaggio and Bramente. There is also a non-Italian section with works by El Greco, Van Dyck and Rembrandt amongst others. Much of the collection came from churches around northern Italy that Napoleon seized for this museum which opened in 1809. Other pieces came from private collections and were added later. Of note is the huge bronze statue of Napoleon I by Canova which stands in the courtyard.

 Museo Poli-Pezzoli

This is another spectacular art museum. It is made up of the private collection of Gian Giacomo Poldi-Pezzoli and housed in his palace which dates from the 17th century. The collection includes paintings from the 15th-18th centuries and has pieces by Botticelli, Paollaiolo and Piero della Francesca. The museum is divided into different rooms categorizing the art into Lombard art, foreign art, gold work and bronzes. There are also nice examples of Persian carpets, enamels, porcelains, and old lace.
If you enjoy this, be sure to also visit the
Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan’s oldest picture gallery. It features paintings from the 15th and 116th centuries, with works by Caravaggio, Raphael, Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci.

Casa del Manzoni

Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) is one of Italy’s most celebrated modern writers and author of the Promessi Sposi. This museum celebrates the life and works of this Milanese native with a collection of his original manuscripts, books and paintings. Manzoni lived in the house from 1814 until his death in 1873. Lovers of literature will enjoy the exhibit.

Basilica di S. Ambrogio and Museo di S. Ambrogio

This Romanesque church was built in 379 Ad and consecrated by St. Ambrose himself, with additions dating from the 1080s. Within one finds the remains of the Saint, priceless works of art, and early Christian parchments. This church is considered the oldest and most holy in Milan. Attached to the church is the St. Ambrose Museum, founded in 1949, which has a collection of sacred finds including illuminated manuscripts, the saint’s bed, tapestries, and 4th century vestments.

Santa Maria della Grazie and the Last Supper

This beautiful Renaissance church was built by Guiniforte Solari from 1466-1490 and considered one of the best in Lombardy. Later renovations done by Bramante include the apse, pulpit, cloister and old sacristy and lean towards the ancient Roman style and geometry. Within is the famous Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, considered one of his most important works. Rather than using the typical al fresco method where the painting is applied to the wet plaster in the wall, da Vinci chose to try a different method, al secco, where the tempura paint is applied to glue and dry plaster allowing more subtle tones but, unfortunately, not lasting as well over time. The painting was falling to pieces which led to extensive restoration. This in turn has led to some controversy amongst art critics. It is, however, certainly worth seeing while in Milan.



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