by Louis Bignami

While most guidebooks to Milan start tours with the Duomo, Milan’s madcap Gothic Cathedral that Mark Twain called, "a poem in marble." We walk from the Piazza della Republica towards Via Manzoni, one of Milan’s most fashionable shopping streets, that leaves the Giardini Publici or public gardens, and then turn right towards the Pinacoteca di Bera, perhaps the most underrated museum in Europe. Killer Titians compete with a host of Raphaels and religious paintings from Northern Italy. Don’t miss the wonderful Modigliani. My wife Annette, it should be noted, leaves earlier than I to enjoy world-class shopping before she meets me at our favorite table at Jamaica, a dandy café. The area reminds us of North Beach during the early days of art galleries, short skirts and beards -- the later only rarely on the same person.

A short walk south down aptly named Via Verdi leads to La Scala, the musical the center of Milan and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele that connects La Scala’s square with Milan’s religious center, the Duomo.

La Scala

The beautiful Piazza della Scala with its statue of Milan’s favorite son, Leanardo di Vinchi fronts the battered exterior and threadbare interior of La Scala, the world’s most famous opera house, and the City Hall opposite. Stay out of City Hall, Italian governmental paperwork is infamous! Instead, sample Museo Teatrale alla Scala on the second level early or late in the day to avoid mobs. You can peek into the largest opera house in Europe and see Verdi’s hat, an assortment of photos of pudgy prima donnas. The Museo’s windows also offer a nice view of the square and Galleria.

Unfortunately, the condition La Scala is a scandal! Generations of band-aid repairs reduced the queen of opera houses to a tattered waif. The opera house that saw the international debut of Diva Maria Callas on the biggest stage in Europe and that saw first performances of Puccinni’s Madam Butterfly and Verdi’s Orthello deserves better.

Think today’s pop and rock fans extreme? The less expensive seats at La Scala –there are no "cheap seats" -- hold the most avid opera audience in the world. There is no approbation like that of a La Scala audience, and, on a day when the fat lady does not sing well, abuse runs from verbal to vegetable. Expect unforgettable evenings in either case. I fondly remember a Callas performance here back in the 1960’s that was as close to perfection as opera gets and you could feel the love pouring down onto the stage. I also treasure memories of a tenor who muddled his Verdi. So the gallery sang for him.

Unfortunately, efficient major repairs would close La Scala for a year or two, relocate the opera, and solve the problem for decades. This does not seem to be the way things work, if that’s the word, in Italy. I take this personally. My grandfather played the French horn here. However, if you’re visit during the December to July season, ignore the decay, and book a box if you visit during the season.

After the worn stairs of La Scala’s Museum rest your feet in a sidewalk café like Il Salooto in the Galleria, a four story stained glass covered gallery of shops, restaurants and cafes some call "the first shopping mall. " Ignore oddments such as McDonalds and Levi’s du San Francisco to focus on shops selling great silk ties, fashions and art. Believe the local folklore, and you improve your luck or sex life with a hop and, for maximum results, a spin, on the testicles of the mosaic Taurus sign under the Galleria’s central dome. Cynics might note this did not help the gallery architect who fell from the roof of his creation just before it was finished in 1878.

At the far end of the Galleria, depending on if you believe Milan or Seville tourism, the third largest church in the world waits. D. H. Lawrence called it "an imitation hedgehog of a cathedral." How big? The Duomo is as big as four football fields side by side. It can hold 40,000 worshippers; it sports 96 gorygoles, a couple of thousand statues and more candles than a turtle’s birthday cake. It should be big; it took over 500 years to finish! I like to enjoy the Duomo three ways. First, with a walk round the rather plain nave so feet feel history where centuries of worshippers wore down paths in the wonderful mosaic flour. Do not look down. Keep your eyes on the thousands of inset stained glass panels that make up the huge windows of the Duomo.


Check out the many Duomo doors

photo credit: Louis Bignami






Second, if you feel fit and frisky chug up the winding steps in the 300-foot tall tower for a peak through a thicket of spires past the Madonnina, the gilded statue on at the highest peak at Milan’s skyline and, on a clear day, the Alps. I suffer the usual line, and spend the extra 2,000 Lira to ride the elevator. I’d skip the museum inside the Duomo unless you enjoy medieval gold and silver and opt for action on the Piazza Duomo that runs to lovely ladies, fountains and, yes, a few pickpockets. The Piazza also a good place to enjoy the fountains and, my third choice, a careful examination of the bronze bas-reliefs on Duomo doors that cover everything from the Virgin Mary’s life to Milan history. I still try to figure out the message of some of the panels.

Milan streets fan out in a widening circles much like the target in a dart game from the Duomo and La Scala. Castello Sforzesco, a 18th Century replica of the 15th Century original, is just about ten minutes away from the southwest corner of the Piazza del Duomo via Via Orefici that, in the confusing way common in Italy, becomes Via Dante.

Do, if you arrive by train in Stazione Nord, check bags and visit the moated Castello early. However you arrive do not miss Michelangelo’s Rondinina Pieta, that I consider his best Pieta and second only to his David, even though he died before he finished his work. My wife and I pop in and out of the Castello. One visit covers the wonderful paintings in the living quarters. Another visit focuses on the sculptures in the Corte Ducale. It is, after all, free and one can only see so many sculptures in one day! The huge Parco Sempione behind the Castello offers acres of gardens and a super picnic site.

Unfortunately, the most famous piece of art in Milan, Leonardo da Vinci’s 15 by 30 foot Last Supper in the Refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie seems a case of the master’s urge to experiment overcoming his painting skills. Leonardo used oil pigments on fresco and the painting started to fall off the refectory wall almost at once. Restoration continues behind a jungle gym of scaffolding. Even worse, expect a wait to get in and limited visiting time. At best, this is a "see once" venue.

So head for the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnica "Leonardo da Vinci" directly south more than fills up this lack. Fleets of models of da Vinci inventions here repay at least an hour visit. If you lack Italian, it is amusing to try and figure out the directions and demonstrations of scientific principles and apparatus in the rest of the museum. Last visit we watched four German teenagers puzzle out the descriptions based on fundamental French and lousy Latin. It was better than the comedia della arte.

Do, if you have more time consider some of the smaller churches and museums in town. Keep in eye out for Roman ruins. Watch for the bits and pieces of Milan’s past that scatter out from the Duomo. Consider a specialist guide. Most of all, take your time. Milan, like New York, seems in a rush and the luxury of a café seat offer the best show in town.

Getting Around

In Milan, taxis seem reasonable, but a superb Metro takes you where you need to go. The Duomo is, for example, four stops south from Piazza della Republica on the Yellow line. Everything else is on the Green or Red lines and there are exactly four intersections to keep you on the right track.

Subways key quick and convenient access if, and only if, you either have exact change for their ticket machines or buy tickets at newstands. One ticket is good for 75 minutes and 24- and 48-hour tickets deserve consideration although subways offer only a periscope perspective of the city. Summer does add Musica in Metro’s summer concerts in metro stations, but like all Italian cities, Milan is not at its best in the summer

Note: We usually walk. Distances between Milan’s major attractions are short, shops and cafes walked up wonderful, and the exercise an anecdote to the joys of Milanese risotto.