In a city renowned for its fashion scene above all else, Milan is often overlooked as a destination for art lovers and is systematically bypassed for the bright lights of Venice, Florence, and Rome.
Earlier this month, as a last-minute frivolous summer escapade to make the most of the final week of the summer break, I went to Milan with my university housemates. It was an incredible trip and the city’s art scene was unexpectedly fruitful, but I left feeling I had hardly scratched the surface of Milan’s smörgåsbord of creative offerings.
As the economic and industrial epicentre of Italy, Milan suffered extensive bombing during World War II and consequently many creative institutions were flattened, along with many of their contents being destroyed. However, today it is famous for a whole host of attractions; most notably the cathedral, simply known as the Duomo, Santa Maria delle Grazie, a church which houses Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, and the Pinacoteca di Brera, the city’s main public gallery.
The pinnacle of Milan’s art scene is undoubtedly da Vinci’s most famous work, The Last Supper, depicting the last meal taken by Jesus and his disciples before he is betrayed. Made famous by the Da Vinci Code movie franchise, the painting is shrouded in mystery and supposedly filled with hidden symbols, drawing in visitors to decipher them for themselves. Located just off the city’s main square, the Piazza del Duomo, The Last Supper is painted on a wall within the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie measuring 4.6 x 8.8 metres, though little remains of the original masterpiece
painted in 33AD, the year Jesus was crucified. Although Milan boasts one of the world’s most famous paintings, the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan’s main public gallery, was the highlight of the trip for me. The Pinacoteca di Brera contains a vast collection of ancient through to modern Italian art all displayed in a winding warren of palatial arcades. When I visited this gallery, it was late afternoon midweek so was very quiet which was an absolute treat; walking through the various expanses filled with works by Caravaggio, Raphael, and Canaletto amidst a multitude of others felt like something out of a movie.
The real selling point of the Pinacoteca di Brera for me was the restoration areas within the gallery where they incorporated their conservation team into a living permanent exhibition. Behind glass screens they had colossal paintings hung up visible from all around with robotic arms and apparatus surrounding them whilst gallery staff work on restoring the paintings in front of the general public. I loved the fact that this process was on full display because so often this kind of work is done behind closed doors shrouded in a cloud of prestige and secrecy and it is so engaging as a visitor to see this work being carried out.
The Kiss (1859) by Francesco Hayez, not to be confused with The Kiss (1909) by Gustav Klimt, was a real gem within the Brera collection. Emblematic of the birth of Italian Romanticism, Hayez’s best known work depicts the interaction of a woman dressed in a flowing blue satin dress embraced in a kiss with a strikingly poised man adorned with a feather in his cap. This painting is among the most passionate and intense representations of a kiss in the history of Western art; even more interestingly, both figures are anonymised, with the kiss being the central focus of the work rather than the individuals.
Another focal point of the city’s art scene that we stumbled across whilst meandering through the streets of Milan was the Poldi Pezzoli Museum. Located a few doors up from the world-famous Teatro alla Scala, this museum-stroke- gallery is notable for its broad collection of Northern Italian and Flemish art, including entire rooms filled with weaponry, glassworks, ceramics, jewellery, and various furnishings too. My favourite item from the collection was Botticelli’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1490- 95) which is filled with rich hues of blue, red, and orange yet such deep sorrow and anguish portrayed through the facial expressions of the painting’s figures.
All in all, I would recommend Milan to anyone seeking an adventure guaranteed to be filled with culture, art, and curiosity.
Illustration by Neena Taj