Milan – city of fashion, music and art, even in the rain.

In December 2019, I spent a week in Milan. It was raining, no surprise there for this part of Italy during December. It was wet but achingly beautiful. As a fashion-shopping mecca internationally, not even the rain could dampen its elegance and style – especially as the rain appeared to be here just to highlight the city’s beautiful Christmas illuminations.

Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle II (built between 1865 – 1877), is Italy’s oldest surviving, and grandest, shopping gallery, dare I call it a mall (?), designed by the architect Giuseppe Mengoni (1829 – 1877). It is, without question, unlike any of your average inner city shopping centres. Here, as in Milan generally, high fashion and design reign supreme, giving window-shopping and window-dressing a whole new meaning.

I was walking round the city with my camera, getting wet, and trying to get a shot of the cathedral, right next-door to the Galleria. I was not alone at this camera position, but I didn’t expect a glamourous woman to oblige with an instant modelling pose. I took a photograph, of course, and only afterwards realized that she was magazine fashion and that a magazine photographer was standing right behind me. I shouldn’t have been surprized. standing here in Milan, the international capital of fashion.

All the major fashion houses had their wares on display in the shop windows inside the galleria – they turned the building into an art gallery.

I was in Milan just before Christmas in 2019, and, tempting though it was, this was definitely not the place to go bankrupt for my Christmas shopping.

Even the ice-cream looked like the set for a fashion show.

After the Galleria, I looked for a bar. This place looked quiet and just right for a relaxing drink before moving on for somewhere to eat.

I hadn’t noticed the venue’s name, Ristorante Vista Duomo, and it was what just it’s name promised, a restaurant with a spectacular view of Milan cathedral. It was almost by accident that I found myself here. I thought it was just a bar for a quick aperitif before finding a pizza somewhere in this well-heeled city. Then I discovered that there was a restaurant upstairs that was just being vacated by a fashion magazine shoot and I managed to persuade the staff to let me take drinks up there for the view before the restaurant opened for dinner. One thing, and one drink, led to another, and, yes, I ended up at the best table with the best view in Milan. The food was excellent and not as bank-breaking as you might think. It was only later that I was told this this establishment is currently the trendiest restaurant in town.

The view from the Ristorante Vista Duomo with Milan Cathedral and the piazza all lit up for Christmas.

I was staying in Milan’s Chinatown in a street-level apartment, luckily with very efficient double-glazing.

Next day I found here was also a space at the back, a residents’ car-park, where there was room enough for my daily martial arts routine, tai-chi and kung fu with an over-optimistic salute to the sun.

Just as essential, round the corner, was a welcoming café that served first class coffee and croissants every morning. I like Milan.

It was a short walk from Chinatown to two famous apartment and office buildings, known as Bosco Verticale,(vertical forest), the 2014 inspiration of architect Stefano Boeri, regarded as one of the ‘fifty most iconic skyscrapers in the world’ (Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat).

Bosco Verticale was impressive enough on a wet day in December, and I can imagine the thrill of living there in summertime.

Traveling round the city was easy on the remarkably efficient, clean and civilised metro system which always seemed to have a station exactly where I needed there to be one.

Chinatown to the Cathedral was a mere five to ten minutes by underground on trains that put the London system to shame.

Milan Cathedral is the largest church in Italy and the third largest in the world. It was built with Candogli marble. Work began in 1386, and, because of it’s uniquely complex exterior, this gigantic Gothic cathedral wasn’t officially completed for another 579 years, in 1965. When I visited in 2019, another bout of restoration work had just about been completed, that the building was looking just about picture perfect.

Another historically and architecturally important building in Milan is the Castello Sforzesco, Sforza’s Castle, a medieval fortification built between 1358 – c.1370 and rebuilt in 1450 by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, and his son Ludovico Sforza, patron of Leonardo da Vinci, (who lived and worked here, as an artist and as an engineer, between 1482 – 1513) The castle was damaged and restored many times during five hundred years of tumultuous history of the city when Milan was under either Spanish, Austrian or Napoleonic rule, before Italian Unification in 1871. In the 20th century it was severely damaged by Allied bombing during World War Two. It is now an extensive museum complex with much to see, even on a typically wet Milanese afternoon.

Inside Castello Sforza is the Biblioteca Trivulziana, an historic collection of manuscripts assembled in the 18th century, that includes an autographed notebook by Leonardo da Vinci and fifteenth century editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

A page from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Trivulzianus, kept at the Biblioteca Trivulzian

The refectory, or dining hall, at the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie is the site of one of the most famous paintings in the world – Leonardo da Vinci’s mural L’Ultima Cena, The Last Supper (1495 – 1498),

This much-damaged and restored icon of world culture, is kept in a strictly controlled environment where only a few visitors at a time are allowed in for a very restricted period when they can admire this great masterpiece by one of the greatest masters of all.

The Last Supper is familiar to everyone from photographic reproductions, but, my photographs included, none give a true impression of the power of this painting. Its profundity has an emotional punch that is more than the brilliance and drama of its depiction of Christ and his disciples and their last meal together. It was by only standing in the same room that I realised that Leonardo created a sense of true spiritual transcendence beyond any other work of art in my experience. If there was ever a must-see painting it is this.

Brera Art Gallery

There is too much see in Milan and I was only there for a week. I had to be highly selective about where I should go and what I should see – and what I should leave out. The Brera Art Gallery, however, was an essential visit, and even after seeing the Leonardo da Vinci, I felt I had to take the opportunity of seeing some of the other masterworks held here in Milan.

If I had to name two artists, I suppose it would have to be the Brera Gallery’s Caravaggio and Raphael but I can’t count, so the two would become four with Mantegna and Piero della Francesca. But, hey, I don’t need to say two or four or any other number. I just need to persuade you to go visit.

The Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c.1480) by Mantegna

The Virgin with Child, Angels and Saints (1472-4) by Piero della Francesca

The Marriage of the Virgin (1504) by Raphael

Supper at Emmaus (1606) by Caravaggio

Then there is the Museo del Novecento, sitting next-door to the cathedral and that too is filled with masterpieces, including Modigliani’s Portrait of Paul Guillaume (1915), but there are some other 20th century Italian painters new to me here too. Giacomo Balla, Giorgio Morandi and Umberto Boccioni. There’s a Picasso too.

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) by Umberto Boccioni
Femme nue (Nude Woman) (1907) by Picasso
There is a smart place to get a get pot of English tea here downstairs at the Novecento Gallery

Finally, of course, I can’t say Milan with immediately thinking La Scala – Italy’s most famous opera house. I would have been very disappointed if I had come here and not been able to go to an opera – especially an Italian opera, especially one by Verdi or Puccini.

Puccini it was….his opera Tosca with a terrific cast of singers and a big cinematographic production by Davide Livermore, conducted by La Scala’s dynamic music director, Riccardo Chailly.

Luca Salsi (baritone), evil and thunderous voiced as police chief Baron Scarpia

Francesco Meli, (tenor) mellifluous and passionate as romantic painter Mario Cavaradossi.

and Saioa Hernandez (soprano), big voiced and glorious toned as the prima donna Floria Tosca.

It was a wonderful way to mark my lifelong ambition to come to the opera here and to celebrate Italian opera in its international capital.

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