Milan: A Big Italian Surprise

12/03/2010 5:49 PM

12/03/2010 5:49 PM

Many travelers come to Italy because of its past. But Milan is today's Italy, and no trip here is complete without visiting this city. While overlooked by many, Milan is a hardworking, fashion-conscious, time-is-money city with plenty to see.

The importance of Milan is nothing new. Three hundred years before Christ, the Romans called this place Mediolanum, or "the central place." By the 4th century AD, it was the capital of the western half of the Roman Empire. After struggling through the early Middle Ages, Milan rose to prominence under the powerful Visconti and Sforza families. By the time the Renaissance hit, the city was called "the New Athens."

Milan's centerpiece is its magnificent cathedral, built from 1386 to 1810. Even though the Renaissance style — with domes and rounded arches — was in vogue elsewhere in Italy, conservative Milan stuck with Gothic, loading its cathedral with pointed spires and arches, and lots of marble. The church is a classic example of the flamboyant, or "flame like," overdone final stage of Gothic.

The church boasts a soaring ceiling supported by sequoia-sized pillars, brilliantly colored stained glass dating from about 1500, and more than 2,000 statues. Even more impressive is the roof. Walking through its forest of spires and statues, visitors enjoy great views of the church's statuary and the city. Crowning the cathedral is a golden Virgin Mary named La Madonnina, an icon of Milan.

The cathedral sits on Piazza del Duomo, Milan's main square. This classic European scene is a popular gathering point. Professionals scurry, stylish locals loiter, and teens hang out in the afternoons, waving at MTV cameras stationed in an upper-floor studio to catch the snippets of the same action you're seeing. Milan's people are works of art.

The grand glass-domed arcade on the square marks the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Built around 1870, during the heady days of Italian unification, it was the first building in town to have electric lighting. Its art celebrates the establishment of Italy as an independent country while high-end shops, restaurants, and cafes reflect Milan's status as Italy's financial and fashion capital.

Behind the Galleria is one of the world's most prestigious opera houses, La Scala. Though tickets are expensive and hard to get, a visit to the opera house's museum provides a peek into the theater. Since it opened in 1778, La Scala has been committed to hosting the grandest of operas, including those of Giuseppe Verdi, the greatest of romantic Italian opera composers. But back in the 19th century, his name meant far more than music. He was a symbol of the movement toward Italian unification. At a time when flying the Italian flag could get you in trouble, Verdi's arias served as virtual national anthems.

But perhaps Milan's most famous resident was Leonardo da Vinci, the great painter, sculptor, mathematician, musician, architect, scientist, and engineer. The brilliance of da Vinci is celebrated all over town. The Leonardo da Vinci National Science and Technology Museum features a hall full of wooden models illustrating his designs, as well as an entire collection of industrial cleverness, including planes, radios, old musical instruments, and even chunks of the first trans-Atlantic cable.

At the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, the oldest museum in Milan, a long-running special exhibit centers around da Vinci's notebook, the Codex Atlanticus. Every three months until 2015, the gallery will display a different themed set of pages from the 1,100-page notebook.

Located on the outskirts of town, Leonardo's Horse is the largest equestrian monument in the world. Designed for the Sforza family, the original was destroyed in 1499. Today's statue is from 1999 and was built by American artist Charles Dent, who used da Vinci's drawings to reconstruct the horse.

Milan is also home to one of da Vinci's greatest masterpieces. Commissioned by the Sforza family, The Last Supper depicts Jesus' final dinner with his disciples. Decorating the dining hall of the Dominican monastery that adjoins the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the fresco illustrates da Vinci's understanding of perspective, with the building's lines converging on Christ, making it clear that Jesus is the powerful center of it all.

Because of da Vinci's experimental fresco technique, the once-vivid work is now faded. To preserve it as much as possible, the humidity in the room is carefully regulated — only 25 people are allowed in every 15 minutes, and visitors must dehumidify in a waiting chamber before entering. Visits are by reservation only and must be booked months in advance.

Even with all of this history, most of the locals seem oblivious to it. They just enjoy being who they are, living modern-day life to the fullest in this most vibrant of Italian cities.

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