If Rome is the biggest city in Italy, then running in second place would have to be Milan. It has a place of prominence among the major communities of the peninsula for both its deep historical roots and its present-day status as an economic powerhouse. Situated up north in the storied region of Lombardy, Milan at one point was a capital of the Roman Empire. Now not only does the city serve as a museum of sorts for the exciting and terrible events that have transpired upon it during its history, it also proudly acclaims itself as the second wealthiest city in the European Union, behind only Paris in France.
Thanks to the cultural uplift given the city since the Renaissance, Milan has not ceased in pushing the envelope when it comes to business and finance, as well as arts and culture. As a “Global City” its local economy is intricately tied to that of the whole world; therefore it is not for nothing that Milan is home to the Italian Stock Exchange and some of the biggest names in clothing fashion and design. It is a city well-immersed in the 21st Century, but whose roots go as deep as the times of the Roman Empire itself. Few cities could ever come so close to perfection as Milan.
Settled as early as 400 BC by Celtic Tribes, what would become Milan was conquered by the Romans two centuries later. And when the Emperor Diocletian made the first division of the Empire into East (which he ruled) and West, Milan became the Western Capital rather than Rome. Unfortunately the decline of Roman civilization made the city a prime target of barbarian invaders like Attila and the Lombards, for whom the region would be name after. Milan’s territory would be contested by Italian, Austrian and even French rule, but the constant political upheavals over the centuries did not stop the Renaissance from turning the city into a center of culture, until it joined a united Italian nation.
Today the traces of Milan in Roman times can still be seen, either preserved as in the Colonne di San Lorenzo, a colonnade of Corinthian columns from the 2nd Century, or remembered as in the Porta Sempione which stands at the former site of its ancient walls.
Milan is not lacking in religious representation as well. The city has quite the number of basilicas, honoring many figures of the Catholic faith. There is the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio dedicated to the city’s patron (Saint Ambrose), the Roman-era Basilica of San Lorenzo, and the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie, a UNESCO World Heritage Site by virtue of being the home to a masterpiece mural by the original Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci himself. It is, of course, none other than “The Last Supper,” painted in the refectory of the basilica’s convent.
Just as magnificent as these three is the Gothic-style cathedral for the Archdiocese of Milan, called the Duomo. It is the third largest church in the world and the largest within Italy (as Saint Peter’s Basilica is inside the Vatican).
But Milan has more to offer than just Ancient Rome and the Church. It does indeed boast an impressive collection of fine art to be found anywhere. One of Italy’s twenty Accademi di Belle Arti (premium art schools) makes its home in the city, the Brera Academy. Upstairs from the school proper is the Pinacoteca or “picture gallery” where many works of masters, gathered together by Napoleon when Milan was part of his empire, await art fans. Italian legends such as Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and the Bellini brothers are exhibited alongside peers from elsewhere like Goya (Spanish), Rubens and Van Dyck (Dutch).
Even the old dead of Milan are enshrined in magnificent edifices. It can be seen when going to the Cimitero Monumentale where many famous Milanese like Alessandro Manzoni are interred, and a sober monument to the victims of the city’s concentration camp during World War II stands.
Coming closer to the turn of the 20th Century, tourists can window shop to their hearts’ content at the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuel II, the world’s oldest “modern-style” shopping mall (opened 1877) named after the first King of a unified Italy. Today it plays host to haute couture brands, luxury retailers and the world’s only seven-star luxury hotel (since 2015), the Town House Galleria. Are you seeing a pattern here? There can be no doubt to the world-class level of Milan with these attractions around.
The city also has its own major contribution to science and technology, courtesy of the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia, a name that needs no translation. It is also dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci, who was as much a scientist as he was an artist. The museum has themed sections showcasing various subjects like the manufacture of modern products, history of transportation, generation of energy, history of communications, and a section containing the many mechanical designs and inventions of da Vinci himself. This place connects the Milan of the past with the present and future, as fitting for a city with plans to build a tech hub for Google, Microsoft, Apple and more.
And I did not forget about Milan being a Fashion Capital of the World either. The words “Milan Fashion Week” should be enough to spell out how clothing fashion and design play a major role in defining the city. Tourists going to Milan in February or March may be just in time for the Autumn/Winter version of the semi-annual event, with the latest spring/summer collections being brought out at either September or October. It even has a trade fair counterpart in the Milan Furniture Fair held every April.
Milan is a city where history runs deep, where faith is strong, where great ideas were thought out and developed, where fine art is appreciated, where the fashion sense is at the vanguard of the world, and where technological progress is very much welcome. It is a Renaissance city with all its various strengths, and therefore rightfully takes the spot of one of the foremost metropolises in both Italy and the world.
Photocourtesy of atpworldtour.com