Milan – The First 24 Hours

Arco della Pace and Parco Sempione

I hadn’t realised that there was an Arc de Triomphe in Milan. I grew up only being aware of the one in Paris, before finding out that the Roman Emperors were very keen on building triumphal arches in their home city. This was where Napoleon got his idea from, and he was also responsible for the monument we were now gazing at in the capital of Lombardy. He authorised work to begin in 1807, but it was not completed before his downfall. Work was abandoned for many years before being restarted and concluded in 1838. The Milanese named it the Arco della Pace (Arch of Peace) to commemorate the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

This Arch is in a considerably less hectic location than its Parisian cousin. It is also in the middle of a circle, but in a pedestrianised area, except for the occasional vintage tram passing by. We sat with a drink at a table outside one of the cafes overlooking the Arch, admiring the scene in peaceful serenity. That was until F said she was getting cold and wanted to get moving. Well, it was February but we were having an exceptionally warm spell, although the sun and the temperature were both starting to go down.

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We headed past Arco della Pace and into Parco Sempione, once the back garden of the Sforza Castle. There was a funfair in the park, but F wasn’t tempted to have a go at anything, so we wandered through until we could see the rear of the castle. We returned, navigating our way around a small lake and arriving back at our hotel in time for “happy hour”. In Milan, this is the time of day when bars put out complementary snacks for customers to graze on, a bit like tapas in Spain. An agreeable meal at the local pizzeria rounded off the evening.

Castello Sforzesco and The Last Supper

The highlight of our first full morning was obvious. We had managed to score a timeslot to see Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece “The Last Supper”. Tickets had been sold out for our entire stay, but an unused educational slot had been released to the public on the first day of the month. We reserved it straight away.

First we had time to look at the front of the Castello Sforzesco. There were plenty of photo opportunities as it is offset by a pleasant square with fountains. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get F in my photos these days as she tends to run away when I get my camera out. At least S isn’t so quick!

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The castle takes its name from Francesco Sforza, who became Lord of Milan in 1450. He turned the castle into one of the great courts of Renaissance Italy and his son Ludovico was a patron of Leonardo da Vinci, who worked there.

Strolling down the Corso Magenta, we arrived at Santa Maria delle Grazie in plenty of time to pick up our tickets for “The Last Supper”. We had a browse inside the church while we were waiting. Built in the 15th century, the building has an unremarkable red brick facade but is more impressive on the inside. The arched ceilings are adorned with pretty decorative patterns and private chapels enlivened with frescos. Much restoration work has been done to reveal original carvings of angels in the walls. The church was an interesting distraction before the main event at the convento (monastery)next door.

We first entered a room which housed an exhibition, including close-ups of the various parts of the painting with information boards informing us of its history. It’s quite remarkable this artwork has managed to survive, considering all that has happened. Because of the materials Da Vinci used, the masterpiece began to deteriorate quickly and has required much restorative work over the years. That said, human interventions haven’t always been positive. In 1652, the Dominican Fathers knocked part of it away when they were extending a doorway while later in 1799, the room that houses it was turned into a stable and barn by Napoleon’s army. During this time, the painting suffered from vandalism. The convento was later used as a firestation and a military barracks. It was bombed during World War 2 leading to it being “open air” for 4 years until building repair work was completed in 1947. Passing the exhibition, we arrived at an electric door and waited.

A buzzer sounded, a green light came on and the door opened, allowing us to enter the room where the painting resides. Appropriately for a room with The Last Supper on the wall, it was originally a refectory for the monks. Walking into the middle of the space, the work seems to have a 3D effect, making the refectory look bigger than it is. It took Da Vinci 3 years to complete. He may have been distracted by other projects, but he was meticulous in his preparation. He made drawings of all the characters around the table before painting them. His drawing of St Bartholomew is part of the Royal Collection, and as we had seen it in Cardiff not long before our trip to Milan, we clearly recognised him on the far left of the picture. Apparently, the artist was struggling to identify a villainous face for Judas, so he modelled him on that of a monk at the convento, who kept nagging him as to when the painting would be finished!  Da Vinci captures the moment just after Jesus has announced that one of the men around the table will betray him. While the clarity of the painting has faded, the expressions, gestures and mannerisms reflecting the shock of the disciples can clearly be seen.

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Mention should be given to the less famous painting on the opposite wall of the refectory. Commissioned around the same time in 1495, Montarfano’s “The Crucifixion” is a less obvious one for the monks to look at while eating their dinner. However, it has lasted better than Da Vinci’s with the vivid colours standing the test of time. There is a lot going on in this painting, with Mary Magdalen hugging the base of the cross, Roman soldiers throwing dice on the right and a castle in the background with what appear to be 15th century soldiers in front. Portraits of Lodovico il Moro (Sforza’s son) and his family were added at the sides by Da Vinci, but these have since faded. While it was difficult to obtain tickets, the small group time slots resulted in a much better viewing experience, with plenty of time for all 3 of us to admire the art and take photographs without having to jostle with crowds.

Piazza del Duomo

We next hopped on a tram heading towards the Duomo. Much of Milan’s city centre appeared fairly ordinary, lacking the aesthetics of Paris or Barcelona. Somehow though, that just seemed to add to the wow factor as we walked up a mundane street, turned a corner and entered the Piazza del Duomo. The Duomo, which took more than 500 years to complete, is said to be the 3rd largest cathedral in the world. Its impressive statistics include 135 spires, 3400 statues and 700 figures. We had lunch at a cafe, sitting at a table under the colonnaded arches at the side of the piazza, giving us plenty of time to admire the stunning architecture. F was just as impressed with her cheese and ham toastie. Suitably refreshed, we looked inside the Duomo. It was an interesting tour, but I have to say it is most impressive from the outside. I’m told it is worth going up to the rooftop, but this was largely closed off for renovation work during our visit.

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Across the piazza from the Duomo is a cathedral of commerce. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is possibly the world’s most ornate shopping arcade. Built in the 19th century, it has an iron and glass roof housing grand buildings topped with frescos. With names such as Versace, Gucci and Armani taking pride of place, you would think this was Milan’s fashion quarter. This is not so, for we were on our way there.

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The Fashion Quarter

Visiting the fashion quarter was something F had been looking forward to ever since hearing we were going to visit the city. In reality, it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. All the main fashion labels were there for clothes, shoes, jewellery and watches. They displayed stylish and expensive items in their windows, but every doorway was defended by a security guard looking rather like a menacing night club bouncer, making for a rather unwelcoming presence. Inside, shop assistants were looking bored stiff in their empty retail units, for these were the shops with no customers. In the central core of the fashion district, we counted only 2 customers in one shop. No other had any. I got the impression that this maybe shopping by appointment only and I was reminded of the scene in the movie “Pretty Woman”, where Julia Roberts is frowned upon when she tries to shop in an upmarket boutique until Richard Gere arrives to assure the staff he is willing to pay for the most stylish clothes they have. I think we would have been treated like Julia had we dared to enter a shop! Our tour of this district was rescued by a visit to the museum of costume at Palazzo Morando. I wouldn’t go as far to say it was welcoming, as we were followed around its rooms by curators who didn’t speak. Amazingly for this area though, it was free. Housed in an 18th century aristocratic townhouse, the museum also houses art and period furnishings. There was a collection of dresses that belonged to an Italian actress where F spent some time gazing at a Valentino.

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Leaving the Palazzo Morando, we walked back towards the centre looking for a tram travelling in the direction of our hotel. After standing at the wrong stop for a while, I asked a tram driver where we could catch number 1. He was just finishing his shift, and after apologising for his poor English (which was better than our poor Italian), this kind gentleman insisted on escorting us through the streets of the city to the right stop. Number 1 was a vintage tram that looked like it should be in a museum. It was great fun to ride though with its polished wooden seats. We passed the fountains in front of Lord Sforza’s castle and arrived at the Arco della Pace more or less 24 hours after we had started our exploration of Milan there. I could hear happy hour calling me.

Factfile:

Location

Milan is the capital of Lombardy in northern Italy

Transport

Most long distance train services arrive at Milan Central station. The city’s main international airport is Malpensa, which has express train services to both Milan Central and Milan Cadorna, the latter being significantly quicker. Linate and Bergamo airports are also nearby

Information

Tickets for The Last Supper sell out quickly and need to be booked in advance. If  your dates are sold out, you should note that there can be a further release of tickets on the first of each month if slots reserved for educational institutions have not been taken up. Click the links for information on Duomo, Castello Sforzesco and Palazzo Morando. For information on Milan, click here

If you liked this  you may wish to read my post on DaVinci’s drawings

6 thoughts on “Milan – The First 24 Hours

  1. Did you happen to go to the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan? It makes your breath catch in your throat with the kind of sculptures you see guarding the dead. I could never convince Adi to come with me but I loved sauntering into it. And isn’t the Duomo just the most fantastic concoction? 🙂

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    1. That must be the one the hotel staff were telling me about in the bar. They were saying the founder of AC Milan (who used to play for Nottingham Forest ) was buried in this elaborate cemetery 15 minutes walk away. The location fits their directions Unfortunately S lost interest as soon as football was mentioned, so we didn’t go!

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