10 Masterpieces You Can Only See in Milan

Francesco Hayez, 'The Kiss' (1859) at Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan
Francesco Hayez, 'The Kiss' (1859) at Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan
From Renaissance paintings and frescos to iconic symbols of modern Italian history, journey through the masterpieces of Milan’s permanent art collections. The city is home to famous works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Canaletto, Caravaggio, Francesco Hayez and Umberto Boccioni, among others.

Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1498) at Chiesa Santa Maria della Grazie

Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is one of the most famous artworks in the world. The wall painting is in the refectory of UNESCO world heritage site Chiesa Santa Maria della Grazie. It depicts a moment from the Gospel according to Saint John, when Jesus reveals to the disciples that one of them will betray him. The painting sensitively illustrates an atmosphere of speculation and intrigue. Each of the apostle’s expressions is distinct: Bartholomew, James the Less and Andrew all seem shocked by Christ’s announcement; Peter appears angry, John faint and Judas has his face in the shadow. In typical illustrations of the biblical scene Judas would be shown separated from the group, but da Vinci places him among the group, yet without Christ’s light upon him. On the other side are the distressed trio Thomas, James the Greater and Philip. Matthew, Thaddeus and Simon form the last three, who are seeking an explanation. Leonardo’s ability to portray such intense emotion is in part why the work is celebrated. Another reason is the meticulous employment of point perspective, which results in every element of the painting directing the viewer’s gaze to Christ. The level of naturalism achieved was also innovative for the time. Instead of using a typical fresco technique where tempera is added to wet plaster (forcing the artist to work very quickly before it dries) di Vinci applied tempura to dry plaster. This method afforded the artist more time and resulted in a wall painting with a remarkable level of detail, and light and shadow. Unfortunately this does mean the work is extremely fragile – the paint started to flake as early as the 1500s. For this reason visitors are only admitted every 15 minutes with a maximum capacity of 30 people at any given time.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper (1498) Source: WikiCommons

Raffaello Sanzo (Raphael), The Marriage of the Virgin (1504) at Pinacoteca di Brera

The Marriage of the Virgin exemplifies Raphael’s unparalleled compositional vision and exactness, and is known as one of the finest examples of Italian Renaissance perspective painting. The foreground of the canvas depicts the marriage scene, but Raphael’s use of perspective renders the temple in the background the true focus of the work. The architecture of the 16 arched temple shows influence of leading Renaissance architect Bramante as well as painter Piero della Francesca. Each element of The Marriage of the Virgin was executed in accordance with mathematical order, and recent infrared technology has revealed a dense mass of lines converging on the temple door. These lines follow the recommendations of della Francesca’s pre-1500 treatise De prospectiva pingendi (On the Perspective of Painting). Subsequently it is fitting that you can view Raphael’s painting next to della Francesca’s Montefeltro altar at the Pinacoteca di Brera. This pairing highlights the shared traditions of two artists who both started their practice under the perspective traditions of the city of Urbino.

Raffaello Sanzo (Raphael), ‘The Marriage of the Virgin’ (1504) at Pinacoteca di Brera

Fresco cycle (1500s) at Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore

In Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, a Benedictine monastery in Milan, there is a fresco cycle so impressive it is nicknamed ‘The Sistine Chapel of Milan’. The spectacular interior marks the evolution of painting in Lombardy throughout the 1500s, with contributions from Bernardino Luini and his sons Aurelio, Evangelista and Giovan Pietro, Boltraffio and Simone Peterzano.

Part of the fresco at Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, Milan © Andrew Smith/Flickr

Michelangelo (di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni), Pietà Rondanini (1564) at Museo Pietà Rondanini, Castello Sforzesco

Pieta Rondanini is the last ever creation of Renaissance master Michelangelo. The white marble sculpture revisits the subject of Mary mourning over the emaciated body of dead Christ, which the artist had first approached in his 1499 Pieta. Mary holds Christ in a loving embrace and the elongated figures almost seem to merge into one another. The carving was never finished but the simplicity of the work is hauntingly beautiful.

Michelangelo, ‘Pietà Rondanini(1564) at Museo Pietà Rondanini, Castello Sforzesco © Rodney/Flickr

(Michelangelo Merisi) Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus (1606) at Pinacoteca di Brera

Supper at Emmaus (1606) is an adaptation of a subject that Caravaggio first attempted five years earlier in a painting of the same name, which is on view at the National Gallery in London. The scene depicts the biblical moment when resurrected Christ reveals himself to two of his disciples. The work is testament to Caravaggio’s mastery of light, with dramatic chiaroscuro underscoring the intensity of this sacred moment. This later version is generally considered the true masterpiece because of its heightened atmosphere and greater sense of intimacy.

(Michelangelo Merisi) Caravaggio, ‘Supper at Emmaus’ (1606) at Pinacoteca di Brera

Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, The Pier towards Riva degli Schiavoni with the Column of Saint Mark (before 1742) at Pinacoteca, Castello Sforzesco

Canaletto’s was a virtuoso of Italy’s Venetian school of painting, and this depiction of the lagoon by Saint Mark’s square in Venice is an atmospheric masterpiece. The immense detail and depth of the work perfectly capture the bustle of life in the city, while also playing tribute to the splendour of the square’s monument and palace. Canaletto attained this level of realism with assistance from a camera obscura. The lagoon and Saint Mark’s square were a favourite subject of the artist and he painted several other variations, including The Pier Towards the Mint with the Column of Saint Theodore, showing the square from the opposite side. In the Pinacoteca at Castello Sforzesco you have the rare opportunity of viewing the two paintings alongside one another. Both works are still in the gilded frames from the time of their commission in 1742. Also on view in Milan (at the Pinacoteca di Brera) is Canaletto’s View of the Grand Canal Looking toward the Punta della Dogana (1740–1745).

Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, ‘The Pier towards Riva degli Schiavoni with the Column of Saint Mark’ (before 1742) at Pinacoteca, Castello Sforzesco Wikicommons

Francesco Hayez, The Kiss (1859) at Pinacoteca di Brera

Arguably Francesco Hayez’s most famous painting, The Kiss is emblematic of a brief period of optimism and sense of freedom in the young Italy that emerged from the Second War of Independence; the work was unveiled in the Brera Exhibition of 1859 shortly after Victor Emanuel II and Napoleon III entered into Milan. The passionate embrace between a strong solider and his fair maiden is said to symbolise love of the motherland and zest for life. The medieval inspired scene is typical of 19th-century Romanticism, while the sumptuous colours reflect Hayez’s early training in Venice, where colour composition and handling of light were considered a priority. Indeed, the illuminated folds of the blue dress imbue the scene with a sense of serenity. In the following years Hayez painted several other versions of The Kiss (including one for himself), but the original that resides in Brera possesses historical significance.

Francesco Hayez, 'The Kiss' (1859) at Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Giuseppe Pellizza from Volpedo, The Fourth Estate (1898–1902) at Museo Novecento

This painting is a seminal example turn-of-the-century Social Realism and marks the socio-economic and political strife that affected Italy in those years: the aftermath of unification, industrialisation and the resulting struggles of both urban and rural working classes. The Fourth Estate is a term that refers to an unrecognised social or political force, and this is what you see in the painting – the subject is a worker’s public protest (presumably) in Volpedo, Piedmont where the artist originated. Pellizza pays tribute to a noble and strong proletariat, the mass of people advancing peacefully. The earthy colour palette of browns, greys and greens acknowledges the poverty of the people, yet they are bathed in light. The Fourth Estate is the climax of a long period of study by the artist on the theme of workers rights and social reform. The power and presence of this final masterpiece is enhanced by the scale of the canvas that is a monumental 283 x 500 centimetres (9.2 x 16.4 foot). Read more about the significance of this work here.

Giuseppe Pellizza from Volpedo, ‘The Fourth State’ (1898–1902) at Museo Novecento Museo Novecento, © Comune di Milano – all rights reserved

Umberto Boccioni, Elasticity (1912) at Museo Novecento

Futurism, in which Umberto Boccioni played a seminal role, was conceived as a force of both artistic and political innovation. It was not just a renewal of artistic form but a mission of cultural and social rejuvenation. Futurist ideology was born from discontent in the final decades of the 19th century, which saw Italy fall behind in Europe’s imperial scramble and ‘modern’ development. The group’s 1910 manifesto, co-written by Boccioni, declared: ‘In the eyes of other countries, Italy is still a land of the dead, a vast Pompeii, whit with sepulchres. But Italy is being reborn. Its political resurgence will be followed by a cultural resurgence.’ Boccioni’s Elasticity gives painterly form to this unwavering sentiment. The work is an homage to industrial modernisation – a muscular horse charges into the future, there are factories on the horizon and metal construction apparatus emerges from plumes of smoke. Boccioni borrowed the cubist planes of Cezanne and Braque to convey movement and a state of flux. In Elasticity the colourful geometric forms create a captivating dynamism. Along with the large-scale bronze sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity and Space (1913), also in the collection at Museo Novecento, Elasticity is among Boccioni’s most important works and not to be missed.

Umberto Boccioni's 'Elasticità' (1912) from the permanent collection of Museo Novecento, Milan © Museo Novecento

The Permanent Collection of Italian Design at the Triennale Design Museum

In a city so synonymous with design it would be wrong not to pay tribute to Italy’s many design masterpieces. The Design Museum at contemporary art space Milan Triennale houses a permanent collection of Italian design. This assemblage of iconic objects (as varied as a 1950 Galletto 160 CC motorbike to a 1967 Artemide lamp) is testament to the innovation and flair of the nation’’s creative minds, as well as mapping cultural and industrial changes in in the country.

Eclisse lamp by Vico Magistretti, Artemide (1967) Courtesy Collezione Permanente del Design Italiano, Triennale Design Museum