Long before it became the world’s fashion centre, Milan was the capital of the art world

Visitors – and pigeons – flock to Milan Cathedral

In the 15th century the Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro, decided to surround himself by the most important artists of the period. Leonardo da Vinci was appointed ‘pictor ducalis’ (the duke’s painter) and created the greatest work of the period, The Last Supper, which can still be seen today, albeit in a sadly deteriorated condition, in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Art of the 15th and 16th centuries came to be described as Renaissance, a term coined to describe the artistic changes which occurred after the Middle Ages with a revival of interest in the classical period of the ancient Romans and Greeks. Today, Milan has many fine museums which trace the city’s contribution to the art world from that time to the present day.

Inaugurated by Napoleon in 1809 with the aim of establishing the ‘Louvre of Italy’, the Pinacoteca Di Brera (Brera Picture Gallery) is the city’s biggest public gallery. Many of the works were confiscated from churches and convents during the French conquest of northern Italy, so there is a large number of religious paintings and altar pieces.

Pinacoteca Di Brera (Brera Picture Gallery)

Containing one of the world’s most important collections of Italian paintings, dozens of rooms are organised chronologically from the 13th to the 20th centuries and are stuffed with masterpieces by the likes of Raphael, Bellini, Caravaggio, Canaletto, Guardi, Tiepolo and Tintoretto. In the courtyard stands Antonio Canova’s monumental sculpture Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker. There is also a plaster version inside). The surrounding Brera district has a number of contemporary art galleries. 

The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana is most famous for holding the Codex Atlanticus, the world’s largest collection of original Leonardo Da Vinci drawings. There is also a fine collection of 15th to 17th century Italian, Flemish and German paintings, 2nd to 16th century sculptures and frescoes, bronzes, Roman mosaics and a sculpture courtyard. Highlights include Vermiglio’s Judith and Holofernes, Da Vinci’s Portrait of a Musician, Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit and works by Raphael, Botticelli and Titian. 

Pinacoteca Ambrosiana

Next to the magnificent ‘duomo’ (cathedral), the Museo del Novecento (Museum of the 20th Century) houses a remarkable collection with particular emphasis on Italian artists. Visitors follow a ramp coiling up through the building into a series of spaces where over 400 chronologically displayed works form a great introduction to modern Italian art.

Museo del Novecento (Museum of the 20th Century)

The collection begins in 1902 and travels through Futurism, Novecento (a movement which was officially launched at the 1924 Venice Biennale), Abstraction, Art Informel, leaders of the 1950s and 1960s and Arte Povera, finishing with Pop Art. The museum also pays tribute to other international avant-garde art movements with works by the likes of Picasso, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian. Bonus: A so-close-you-could-reach-out-and-touch-it view of the cathedral from the top floor. 

Across the square is the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace), for centuries the city’s seat of government and today a cultural centre and exhibition venue. It regularly shows modern and contemporary art in cooperation with museums around the world. The building suffered severe fire damage in a WWII bombing raid and in 1953 the rebuilt Hall of Caryatids was chosen by Picasso for an exhibition which included his anti-war painting, Guernica. Recent exhibitions have included The Wonderful World of Nature on the 500th anniversary of Da Vinci’s death and a selection of works by Ingres exploring Milan’s role as a cultural centre in Napoleonic Europe. 

The Palazzo Reale draws a crowd alongside Milan Cathedral

Opposite the world famous La Scale Opera House, the Galleria d’Italia is housed in two dozen rooms spread over three magnificently frescoed and stuccoed ‘palazzi’. The enormous collection, owned by the Intesa Sanpaolo bank, is dedicated to mainly 18th to 20th century art. Amassed from Venice Biennale exhibitions and the private collections of sovereigns and aristocrats, its many highlights include bas-reliefs by Antonio Canova, a Romantic masterpiece by Francisco Hayez depicting the Doge of Venice banishing his son and a series of 19th paintings of the cathedral, ‘navigli’ (canals) and Milanese streetscapes showing how much (and how little) the city has changed.

Galleria d’Italia

Just outside the old city limits next to a charming public park is the Galleria d’Arte Moderna (GAM) in an 18th century palace donated to the city by the tobacco trader Carlo Grassi along with his collection of 19th century Italian works, Asian art objects and a vast array by international artists such as Manet, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir and Cezanne – the only works by these masters in a Milan museum. There are also avant-garde and inter-war works. The collection was expanded by a further bequest of works by Modigliani, Vuillard, Dufy, Matisse, Picasso and others. There are also magnificent period rooms with ornate ceilings and opulent chandeliers.

Galleria d’Arte Moderna

Out in the southern Largo Isarco district, the Prada Foundation is spread over a former distillery complex augmented by three new structures by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas (Kunsthal in Rotterdan, Casa de Musica in Porto, etc.).It follows the trend in recent years for fashion conglomerates with large corporate art collections to develop cultural institutions, such as the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris or the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, owned by François-Henri Pinault of Gucci, YSL, Bottega Veneta, etc.

Jeff Koons, ‘Tulips’, painted stainless steel (Prada Foundation)

The Prada Collection includes mostly 20th and 21st century works, some of which are displayed in the so-called Haunted House, a four-story building clad in gleaming, 24-carat gold foil. These include works by Louise Bourgeois and the American sculptor Robert Gober. Another new structure, the seven-storey Tower, has spacious rooms with works such as Damien Hirst’s installation Waiting for Inspiration (1994), and Jeff Koons’ stainless steel sculpture Tulips

In the lively Navigli (canals) district, the Museo delle Culture (MUDEC) occupies the site of a former steelworks. Part of the city’s transformation of a disused industrial area into a centre for cultural activities, MUDEC was designed by the British architect David Chipperfield (Turner Contemporary in Margate, Neues Museum in Berlin, Hepworth Wakefield, etc.). The building’s centrepiece is an undulating core towering above visitors like a smoked glass Alvar Aalto wave, with four ‘lobes’ around which the first floor exhibition spaces are arranged. Exhibitions have included Paul Klee, Modigliani, Frida Kahlo, Gustav Klimt and Roy Lichtenstein. 

The extraordinary interior of the Museo delle Culture (MUDEC)

The picture gallery at the Castello Sforzesco, one of the many museums in the grounds of Sforza Castle, has over 1,500 paintings dating from the 13th to the 18th century, including masterpieces by the likes of Bronzino, Tintoretto and Titian. Just 230 works from the collection are on display at any one time, which makes for a very manageable tour. The Sala delle Asse (Room of Wooden Boards) has expansive murals of mulberry trees and vegetation by Leonardo da Vinci painted in 1498 for his patron Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. 

Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper‘ can still be seen in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, albeit in a sadly deteriorated condition
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