by Gina Mussio
Popular for its fast finances and fashion, Milan isn’t always considered for its culture or art history. Long overlooked for Italy’s more famed culture capitals like Florence and Rome, this cosmopolitan city might surprise even the most astute art fans.
Milan has some of the country’s most infamous works of art — the Last Supper, anyone? — but it also has the resources and reputation to host some of the world’s top-notch temporary art exhibits, attracting masterpieces from all over the world.
With hometown heroes, museums filled with Italian masterpieces and rotating international art exhibits, it’s time to add Milan to the list of art capitals of Italy.
Here’s where to find the best art in Milan:
Pinacoteca di Brera
A first stop in Milan has to be at one of its only permanent fine art museums, the Pinacoteca di Brera. A national gallery of ancient and modern art, it’s located in Palazzo Brera in Milan’s fashionable Brera art district. Here you can see Mantegna’s Lamentation of the Dead Christ, notable for its unique perspective from Christ’s feet; the Marriage of the Virgin by Raphael; Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio as well as The Kiss by Francesco Hayez.
The building is also home to the Brera Library, the Astronomic Observatory, the Botanical Garden, the Lombard Institute for Science and Art and the Academy of Fine Arts.
Museo Poldi Pezzoli
A native-born Milanese, Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli inherited his father’s wealth and his mother’s love of art and culture. Well-educated and well-traveled, Pezzoli began collecting art from a young age. It was his own idea to turn his house into a museum. Each room of his apartments is decorated in a different art period and filled with paintings, sculptures and applied arts. The Renaissance room is particularly worth visiting but you can find work by Bellini, Botticelli, Raphael and Mantegna, among others, throughout the house.
Santa Maria delle Grazie Basilica
Though Leonardo da Vinci is usually associated with Florence, the Renaissance man actually spent nearly 18 years in Milan serving under Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. It’s there that the artist completed the Last Supper, or Cenacolo in Italian. Located in the refractory of the beautiful Santa Maria delle Grazie Basilica, the church itself merits a visit as well.
Just be sure to book your tickets far in advance – it’s your only chance to actually see the Last Supper as they daily limit gets filled quickly.
A museum and library, the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana is a must-see for art history lovers. Founded in 1618, it’s the oldest museum in Milan and home to priceless works such as the sketch for Raphael’s The School of Athens, Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit as well as work by Titian, Botticelli and others. The adjacent Ambrosian library is home to Leonardo da Vinci’s Codice Atlantico, a collection of the Renaissance man’s drawings, notes and ideas.
Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco
Right in the city center sits Castello Sforzesco, the impressive fort originally built by the Visconti family, patrons of Milan, and then rebuilt by Duke Ludovico Sforza. Today visitors mainly pass through its gates to stroll through the Parco Sempione or eye the sculptures in the Triennale Museum’s garden, but the castle itself is an impressive museum. Beyond the Pinacoteca art museum there is an ancient art museum, a museum of musical instruments and an archaeological museum with prehistoric and Egyptian sections. The biggest draw, however, is without a doubt the Pietà Rondanini by Michelangelo, his last ever creation.
The former royal palace, the Palazzo Reale has prime real estate in the Piazza del Duomo and incredible art exhibitions from the world’s most notable artists. The Palazzo Reale draws huge crowds for shows ranging from Caravaggio to Escher, Hokusai to Rubens. Though not necessarily dedicated to Italian art, it’s well worth a stop to see which artist is exhibited and take advantage of Milan’s blockbuster status to see amazing art.
Gallerie di Piazza Scala
The newest of three national galleries owned by Intesa San Paola Bank, the Gallerie di Piazza Scala is located in Piazza della Scala, next to the infamous La Scala opera house. The gallery houses art from the 19th and 20th centuries. The museum starts with 13 beautiful bas-reliefs by Antonio Canova then passes on to the Renaissance and the romanticism of Francesco Hayez all the way to the pre-futurist Umberto Boccioni. The gallery is continuously rotating out its works but depending on when you’re there you can see Italian masterpieces by Giorgio de Chirico, Lucio Fontana and Giacomo Balla as well as work by non-Italian artists such as Picasso, Kandinsky, Warhol and Mirò.
Museo delle Culture di Milano (Mudec)
Just opened in 2015, Mudec is entitled the “Culture Museum of Milan”. The large permanent collection includes approximately 7,000 works of art, textiles and objects from Central and South America, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and Oceania from 1200 to the 1900s but it’s the temporary exhibitions that get the big crowds, each of which mirrors the museum’s overall worldwide theme. Past exhibits have featured work by Frida Kahlo, Paul Klee, the photographer Steve McCurry and the street artist Banksy. In May 2019 the museum is hosting work by Roy Lichtenstein. The museum also has excellent children’s workshops based on the temporary exhibitions.
Galleria d’Arte Moderna
Located in the Villa Reale – the one-time residence of Napoleon Bonaparte – Milan’s Modern Art Gallery (GAM) is filled with 19th-century Italian and Lombard masterpieces. It’s likely the most significant collection of Italian art of the era with works by Modigliani, Segantini, Canova, Previati and many others, in particular those associated with the Brera Arts Academy. There are also familiar works by non-Italian artists such as Gauguin, Cézanne, Picasso, Van Gogh and Manet.
Museo del Novecento
As its name implies, the Museo del Novecento is dedicated entirely to 20th century art. Previously Milan’s Arengario, a space used by Mussolini to speak to large crowds from, the beautiful building now is a hub for contemporary art. With more than 4,000 pieces as well as temporary exhibitions the entire permanent collection is organized chronologically. Walk up the spiral ramp to see work by Paul Klee, Giacomo Balla, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico and Amedeo Modigliani. From Avant-garde movements, Futurism, Italian Novecento, abstractionism, Arte Povera and then Pop Art and large-scale installations. Not to mention, one of the most well-known views of the Duomo in the entire city!