Milan inspired the architect, inventor and engineer that was in Leonardo da Vinci. Though he painted masterpieces like The Last Supper and the Virgin of the Rocks during the 17 years he spent working for Ludovico Sforza, the city’s warlike duke, it was the interface between art and science, the creative and the technical, that drove the Renaissance genius during his long sojourn in the northern Italian city.
Da Vinci became Sforza’s go-to producer of theatrical pageants, working across the board on texts, backdrops, direction and stage machinery. His notebooks from his time in Milan are full of designs for instruments of war, flying machines, hydraulic engineering projects and possible solutions to artistic challenges – like how to cast a 75-tonne bronze equestrian monument in one piece.
In 2019, the year that marks the 500th anniversary of the Tuscan artist’s death, a series of exhibitions and other initiatives are rolling out citywide. But there’s no need to delve into the past to celebrate the way Milan fed Da Vinci’s roving creativity. In this stimulating city, innovation, a talent for design and an innate sense of taste and beauty have long gone hand in hand.
You only have to stand in the city’s civic heart, Piazza del Duomo, to feel the energy pulsing through its historical layers. Dominating the square, the Duomo’s thousands of marble statues, spires and pinnacles give the exterior and roof of Milan’s cathedral a fairytale aspect.
Getting those statues up there required serious engineering skill – as did the construction of another Piazza del Duomo architectural marvel, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, inaugurated in 1878. One of the world’s first shopping malls, this elegant space with its airy, iron and glass roof was soon dubbed il salotto di Milano (‘Milan’s living room’). In early years, locals would gather by the gallery’s central crossing at dusk to admire the lighting of the gas lanterns, performed by an ingenious tiny train that ran on a track beneath the central octagon.
The Galleria is still a lively social and commercial hub where you’ll find two Milanese icons: the original Prada shop, which opened in 1913, and the Camparino bar – a mirror, marble and mahogany jewel from 1915 that stands at the gallery entrance, where it waylays home-bound Milanese bankers and La Scala-bound operagoers with its Negroni and Americano cocktails. In February 2018, Milanese superstar chef Carlo Cracco moved his restaurant Cracco to an opulent, multilevel space inside the Galleria. Come for experiments in food that are positively Da Vinci-esque – like the tagliatelle ‘pasta’ made from marinated egg yolk.
Many of Milan’s 20th century landmarks dialogue with the language of the past: that’s a distinctive Milanese touch. The overhanging top section of the Torre Velasca residential and office tower, built by BBPR in the 1950s, nods to the buttressed upper floors of Lombardy’s medieval castles, while architect Gio Ponti’s slender Pirelli Tower with its innovative prism floorplan, inaugurated in 1960 as Italy’s tallest building, proved skyscrapers didn’t need to be anonymous four-sided blocks. The Pirelli Tower’s height record was eclipsed when César Pelli’s 231-metre-tall Unicredit Tower opened in 2011, its LED-coated, illuminated spire echoing the Duomo’s Madonnina pinnacle. Also in the Porta Nuova business district stands the Bosco Verticale, a pair of residential towers by architect Stefano Boeri that inventor and innovator Da Vinci would have loved: each one is, as the name suggests, a vertical forest, its exterior decked with a carbon dioxide-guzzling jungle of 20,000 plants, including no less than 900 trees.
Wander back towards the centre from Porta Nuova to appreciate some of the smaller but no less telling ways in which this restless city expresses its creativity. A courtyard and adjoining premises once occupied by a car repair shop were turned into Milan’s first concept store in the 1990s by Carla Sozzani, sister of the late Vogue Italia director Franca. And 10 Corso Como is a stellar example of the genre: a design boutique, gallery, restaurant, cafe, bookshop and three-room hotel in which each space and function riffs off the others in an utterly convincing and original mix. In nearby Via Solferino, Dry is a tenebrous speakeasy out front and industrial-chic pizzeria behind. A florist that’s also a Parisian-style bistro; Princi, a humble bakery in Piazza XXV Aprile that architect and designer Claudio Silvestrin turned into a remarkable minimalist work of art – Milan is full of these little acts of invention that twist and challenge the norm.
This must be the only city in the world where a furniture fair is an excuse for a week-long party that attracts the same global glitterati and cultural mavens who descend on Basel, Miami Beach and Hong Kong for Art Basel. But the Salone del Mobile in April is no ordinary furniture fair. Hardly any of those movers and shakers bother to trek out to the trade show in Rho, northeast of the city. They stay in town for the fringe Fuorisalone events that take over shops, garages, deconsecrated churches and former industrial spaces like the Tadao Ando-designed Teatro Armani and Armani/Silos in Zona Tortona – once a warehouse and factory belt, today a thriving district of start-ups and creative studios.
The repurposing of Milan’s industrial heritage also lies behind two of the city’s most exciting contemporary art spaces. At the Fondazione Prada in the city’s southern suburbs, Rem Koolhaas’ OMA architecture studio has transformed an abandoned distillery into an art campus that hosts exhibitions, film screenings and events. Part of the foundation’s permanent collection is displayed in the Haunted House, a former brewing silo clad entirely in gold leaf, while the deliciously retro Bar Luce, designed by film director Wes Anderson, harks whimsically back to Italian seaside design of the 1960s. At the other end of the city, a decommissioned locomotive factory is now Hangar Bicocca, whose vast, echoing sheds play host to a series of exhibitions alongside a stunning permanent work, The Seven Heavenly Palaces by German artist Anselm Kiefer.
The recently restored and relaunched Triennale Museum celebrates the city’s design history, but the most essential Milanese experience for fans of classic 20th century design lies inside a modest private apartment on Piazza Castello. Achille Castiglioni was the Da Vinci of the modern Milanese design world, and his former studio and residence is now a house-museum, open for guided visits from Tuesday to Friday, often conducted in person by Castiglioni’s daughter Giovanna. Here you can see the prototypes of playful designs like the Mezzadro and Sella stools for Zanotta – based on a tractor seat and a bicycle saddle respectively – or the original drawings Castiglioni made for the iconic Arco lamp. Most delightful of all is the collection of found objects the designer used for inspiration – like a rural milking stool, which he would show to his design students to teach them about the beauty of simplicity. Da Vinci would have fitted in just fine here – you can imagine him and Castiglioni swapping ideas, telescoping 500 years into a lively chat on a sunny Milanese afternoon.
Da Vinci event highlights in Milan
Kicking off in May 2019, a number of exhibitions, shows and concerts celebrate the life of Milan’s most famous resident
Show: Being Leonardo da Vinci. An impossible interview
Massimiliano Finazzer Flory plays Da Vinci and traces the main events of the artist’s life, art and poetics
2-5 May 2019, Piccolo Teatro Studio Melato
Multimedia experience: Virtual Museum of Leonardo’s Milan
Take a tour of Da Vinci’s Milan through a virtual map cross-referencing the great artist’s legacy that still exists today
16 May 2019-12 January 2020, Castello Sforzesco, Museo d’Arte Antica, Sala delle Armi
Art installation: Leonardo’s Horse
Enjoy modern reinterpretations of this iconic sculpture, with a customised app providing additional insights
May-November 2019, Ippodromo di San Siro SNAI
Concert: Gaffurio and the Maestros of the Chapel in the Duomo di Milano at Leonardo’s time
A recreation of the sounds that would have inspired Da Vinci
17 June 2019, Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie
Exhibition: Leonardo’s Last Supper for Francis I: A Masterpiece of Silk and Silver
One of the first copies of the artist’s Last Supper is exhibited for the first time after its restoration
7 October-17 November 2019, Palazzo Reale, Milan
Cathay Pacific flies to Milan from Hong Kong seven times a week