Milan to enjoy: Fashion capital offers updated approaches to arts and entertainment

Milan is famed as Italy’s fashion and finance capital, so many tourists in search of culture or entertainment might not put it on their to-see list. But they’d be missing much, for Milan has stellar art, innovative cafes (and Italy’s first Starbucks in a spectacular layout!) bars, and restaurants, even pioneering ”green-space” apartment towers, Milanese work hard, but they play hard, too.

Milan is decidedly a European city, in the sense that many who live and work there identify closely with the continent, as much as with the rest of Italy. Its architecture presents a striking change from many cities and towns usually featured prominently on tourists’ Italian itineraries. There are skyscrapers, a rarity in Italy. And its main cathedral, the iconic Duomo, is a Gothic masterpiece, an uncommonly seen architectural style in Italy. If one must associate a color with Milan, it would be gray — reflecting the dominant shade of building stone, and, alas, frequent fog in the winter. But that’s no problem, as Milan has a multitude of indoor attractions, including several of Italy’s top-notch museums, cozy cafes, and eateries whose energy level of evoking that of New York or London instead of Naples or Rome.

For too long, ”seeing” Milan meant a stop at the Duomo, then a dash inside the refectory of a Dominican convent adjoining Santa Maria Delle Grazie church to gaze at Leonardo’s da Vinci “Last Supper,” and, for opera-lovers especially, perhaps some time to pose for photos at that Temple of Bel Canto, La Scala opera house.

Just like La Scala offers more than the first-class opera, with programs rich in dance productions and operas for children, the city’s art collections go far beyond that one Leonardo masterpiece.

To mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (Ambrosian Library) will be displaying 46 of his drawings in the Atlantic Codex, which has been in the institution since the early part of the 17th century. The exhibition runs through Sept. 15.

One of Milan’s brightest spots in the art world of late has been the impressive updating of the Pinacoteca di Brera, or the Brera painting gallery. In a break with the past, Italy allowed foreigners a few years ago to compete for directorships of its state museums. Among the prestigious appointments was that of James Bradburne, a British-Canadian and a trained architect, to head the Brera. He set swiftly to work to make the museum more welcoming and functional for visitors.

In an interview with Bell’Italia magazine, Bradburne explained that museums aren’t mere ”containers” of paintings, but a place where visitors can recognize their common identity. The gallery rooms were painted different colors, to reflect the emotions he felt the paintings they displayed were communicating to viewers.

Among the ”stars” in the Brera is Mantegna’s “Cristo Morto nel sepolcro e tre dolenti,” A bronze statue by Canova and depicting Napoleon makes for a striking centerpiece in Brera’s entrance courtyard. The extensive gallery includes sections on medieval art, Venetian Renaissance artists like Giovanni Bellini, a portrait gallery including works by Titian and Tintoretto, and another room dedicated to a masterpiece each by Raphael, Piero Della Francesca, and Bramante. Still, other rooms include paintings by Caravaggio and Rubens.
In the heart of the city, Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) often is hosting art or photography exhibitions worth a visit. The palace, with roots in the medieval, played key roles in centuries of Milan’s history, including when the city was under Spanish, and, then, Hapsburg rule.

Milanese seems always on the move — between fashion shows, to and from high-finance meetings and other professional appointments. They hop off and on bikes that belong to a popular bike-sharing service, pedaling with determination on the flat streets while always managing, it seems, to look, well, fashionable and elegant. Trams hum as pedestrians stroll past trendy cafes and shops, and the subway system is efficient and widely used.

After so much hustle and bustle, the natives, along with the many foreigners whose jobs in banking, fashion and furniture design, architecture and other creative fields, see them posted to Milan, need to wind down, of course. Some decades back, an advertising company coined the catchy slogan ”Milano da bere” — Milan for drinking — and the label’s significance has evolved since. Aperitivo (aperitif) hours are popular, and every month seems to bring new restaurants experimenting with creative uses of time-tested ingredients and imaginative displays in dining rooms whose look and decor make them seem like candidates for interior design magazine shoots.

Late evenings for nightcaps, and especially weekends, see Milanese flocking to their favorite haunts — cafes and bars — lining the lively banks of the Navigli, a series of canals dating back to the Middle Ages and, until relatively recently, navigable. There’s currently a push to make the canals navigable again. But for now, the neighborhoods flanking the Navigli make for pleasant daytime strolling, too, when one can browse antique shops before nightfall comes and the banks explode with nightlife. At whatever hour, these canals offer a countryside-like charm, a curious counterpoint to seriously urban Milan.