Milan has a reputation as a wealthy city, full of private gardens and a love for fashion. Sforza Castle is just one example of the Renaissance origins of this reputation, and the Sforza family made a wider mark than just their home.
Leonardo: The Last Supper and Santa Maria delle Grazie
The Sforzas were also responsible for bringing Leonardo da Vinci to Milan and commissioning his masterpieces.
The Last Supper is an artistic wonder, and seemingly, a miracle. The church and monastery complex it resides in was bombed during the Second World War. The painting narrowly escaped unscathed, and the Milanese will be quick to remind you of this!
I recommend visiting The Last Supper as part of a tour because the historical context and notes on technique that an art historian can provide is incredibly enriching. For example, we learned about the importance of placement in Renaissance art – “important” figures like male saints and men (are we shocked by this?) were placed to the right-hand side of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in paintings, while women and female saints were relegated to the less meaningful left. A tour is also one of the only reliable ways to secure those coveted tickets which will disappear a couple months before your trip date!
How to pick a Milan Art Tour
There are really two options for these tours: either splurge or go cheap. The problem with picking a cheap option is that it’s common in the fine print that the company has NOT secured tickets to the Last Supper, and it’s subject to availability even after you’ve already booked!
On our trip, we ended up going with the only mid-range option we found, which was good quality although their headsets (essential for visiting quiet churches) weren’t of the highest quality. Art Discoveries Milano was efficient, offered confirmed tickets as part of their tour, and sent us an extremely knowledgeable, passionate guide. Save yourself the hours we spent researching a tour because we waited so late to find tickets! Be early enough to take your pick. For example, a popular company you’ll find recommended in guide books is Dark Rome.
Luini (and Friends): San Maurizio
Our Art Discoveries Milano tour included a unique bonus compared to the others on offer. Our guide also considers it one of Milan’s best kept secrets: the magnificent church of San Maurizio. From the outside, this church is like many Milanese buildings; unassuming so that the people indoors could retain their privacy. However, when you step inside you are met with floor to ceiling, wall to wall frescoes in vibrant colours, many of which were painted by the famous artist Luini. Each fresco tells a story, with the stories of martyrs given a central role.
Nowadays, you can pass through the church to what lies behind the altar; a convent. While only the main meeting space remains, this was once a sprawling complex where women were cloistered, only allowed to see their families once a year. Even the priest holding mass on the side of the church could not see the nuns. Instead, he gave nuns the host (the small bread slices considered the body of Christ in Catholicism) through a slot in the wall.
The convent is where our guide was again indispensable. She explained how women considered “unmarriable” or who had an insufficient dowry were often forced into the cloisters. It was rarely by choice. More frescoes decorate the walls here, focusing on female martyrs who exemplified the virtues these women were meant to uphold.
San Maurizio is open today to visitors because of the generous work of volunteers. It really is one of Milan’s hidden stories, and contains rich artistic treasures. The Milanese today clearly have pride in their history of supporting art.
Want to eat panzerotti at a shop named after Luini, the main artist for San Maurizio? Check out my previous blog post on the topic!