In Europe, when it comes to the most fashionable cities, two stand out. In France, the clear winner is Paris. In Italy, it is Milan. This second largest city in Italy is the economic capital of the country, and fashion is its most famous industry.With a fashion center, the tourism industry is also huge, as the need to have fabulous places to feed and house the fabulous royals and international supermodels who frequent this city twice a year for its fashion reveals.
Historically, Milan was originally founded by Celts, and then conquered by Romans. From there, it became a capital of the Western Roman Empire, and has been a major banking center since the Middle Ages. As a part of the rising nation of Italy, it led the country in industrialization in the early twentieth century. After being a center of the resistance during WWII, it enjoyed a large post-war economic boom to take its place as a major metropolitan city.
For visitors, there are many different kinds of experiences to be had in Milan. For art lovers, there are several art museums, churches, cathedrals, and other historical and beautiful sites. For music lovers, the world famous La Scala opera house is a wonderful place to go. It is the home of Versace, Gucci, Prada, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, and many more iconic fashion houses. It is a center of language and literature, and high level cuisine.
The University of Milan is one of the largest in Europe, and draw students from around the world. Finally, it is the home of two European Cup winning football leagues and one of the nation’s major sports centers. For those who want the major architectural highlights of the city, here are three must-see locations:
The Milan cathedral is located in the center of what used to be the Roman city of Mediolanum. It was built on top of one of the oldest Christian establishments in Europe created around 300AD, though this building was mostly burned in 1075. Today, pieces of it can still be visited in tunnels below the baptistery.
The current cathedral was begun in the 1300’s as a reward to the Milanese for the time spent under the tyrannical rule of Barnabo. This immense new Duomo, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, took up the footprint of three separate demolished buildings. The building is Rayonnant Gothic, a style that is more characteristic for France than Italy.
The first round of construction took from 1389 to 1510, when the octagonal cupola, complete with sixty separate statues was completed. Additions continued to be made throughout the next few centuries to this enormous building, including a Renaissance style makeover, and a 17th century facade. The final completion orders of the cathedral were given by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, who was at the time king of Italy. By this time, close to 100 architects had worked on this multi-century work of art. The amount of time that this took has been brought into Italian slang- “Fabrica del Duomo” means to take on a task that is extremely long, complex, and may never be completed. This long history is one of the biggest drawing points to the cathedral, as it highlights many different aesthetics and architectural styles in a single building.
Art highlights inside include the Madonna atop the spire, the archbishop Alberto da Intimano’s sarcophagus an enormous pipe organ. A climb to the top provides a unique opportunity to walk high on the roofs of the huge Gothic cathedral. The views are magnificent and visitors can see the pinnacles and sculptures close up along the way.
Santa Maria delle Grazie
The Church of Mary of Holy Grace is home to one of the most famous pieces of renaissance art in the world, “The Last Supper” mural by Leonardo Da Vinci. The church and associated convent was built in the 1400’s, and commissioned by Francesco I Forsza. Much of the architectural credit for this church is uncertain. Though Solari was the main architect, there are pieces, like the dome attached to the facade, that are believed to belong to other architects.
Da Vinci painted The Last Supper in what was the order’s refectory, from 1495 to 1497. It depicts the consternation that occurred among the Twelve Disciples when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him. Leonardo did extensive research and created many studies and preparatory sketches before completing the painting. Several of these drawings have survived and are kept in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.
Because of the methods used by Da Vinci and because the painting was on a thin exterior wall, increasing the effects of humidity, the painting began to deteriorate soon after it was completed. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the fresco got a lot of well intentioned but poorly executed “touching up” which only caused further damage.
During WWII, the church was hit by bombs from British and American airplanes. Much of the refectory had been destroyed, though a strong sandbagging effort had saved the structure of the wall containing the famous Last Supper painting. Years of restorations followed, involving careful attention to one square centimeter after another, revealing the splendor of this masterpiece once again, It continues to be in good shape and visible to tourists today.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of Italy, is the namesake for this gigantic shopping mall housed within a four-story double arcade that was constructed in the 1800’s. It covers the street that connects Piazza del Duomo to Piazza della Scala.
The structure consists of two glass arcades that intersect in an octagon of breathtaking stained glass that is worth the visit all by itself. The roof is covered by a glass and cast-iron roofing structure. This structure is the archaeological predecessor of the modern enclosed shopping mall.
Though this building was once a place that sold market goods to commoners, today the building has become high-end. Many of Milan’s haute-couture vendors have shops here, as well as expensive jewelry shops, books, and restaurants. Some restaurants date back to almost the beginning of the mall itself, such as Biffi Caffè which was founded in 1867, while others, like the McDonalds, have been replaced by higher-end shops.
Like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, a visit to this galleria is a wonderful opportunity to search for famous faces, and to get a closer look at what the very wealthy will be wearing this season, and to imagine a very different lifestyle up close. Of course, there is always something to be found here that fits most budgets, as well as an opportunity to eat world-class Milanese cuisine.