A tour of the city that was da Vinci’s home for two decades, and where traces of his versatility are found at every turn.
Painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, inventor, scientist, mathematician, botanist, entertainer and philosopher, Leonardo da Vinci, the archetypal Renaissance man, died 500 years ago, but his universal and contemporary work has endured on the walls of the Lombardy capital, surviving time, foreign invasions and two world wars. From paintings such as The Last Supper to Portrait of a Musician, encompassing the magnificent Sala delle Asse, the National Museum of Science and Technology, the Navigli and even a vineyard, the indelible hand of the genius – or should we say hands, because Leonardo could write with them both and often from right to left – vies with shop windows, museums and restaurants and with the chic hubbub that epitomises Milan.
Our trip begins with an inspiring guided tour across the terraces of the roof of the Duomo, Italy’s most beautiful gothic cathedral. At the end of the day, the pink-white marble of the arches and ogives is ablaze as the sun disappears behind the Alps, reflected in the statues and gargoyles that adorn its pinnacles. On the outside of the monument alone there are 2600 statues that gaze stonily down at the hordes of people who fill the Praça do Duomo and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Milan’s “exhibition hall”.
Following da Vinci’s footsteps
The following morning we go back to the Duomo to visit the inside of the cathedral. With five naves and 40 pillars, what’s most impressive is its height, 45 metres, and the amount of tourists looking at the pictures of religious scenes, invariably stopping to take a picture of the unsettling statue of St Bartholomew, sculpted without skin, in remembrance of the apostle’s martyrdom.
And da Vinci? They say he also drew up plans for the cathedral – built over five centuries, starting in 1386 –, but his solutions weren’t as good as those of the court architects of Ludovico il Moro Sforza, duke of Milan, at whose service the talented Florentine came to the city. Another of the artist’s poor choices was the technique he used to paint what is one of his masterpieces, The Last Supper.
Oddly enough, at the entrance to the church of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, on whose refectory wall Da Vinci painted, between 1494 and 1497, the last meal shared by Christ and his apostles, there are no endless queues. The mystery is easier to unveil than the smile of his other masterpiece, the Mona Lisa. To visit the space, you have to buy tickets way in advance and the visits are controlled. Restricted groups of visitors go in and out every 15 minutes. Since restriction doesn’t mean contention, as soon as the doors of The Cenacle open, the groups rush to the painting, taking their photos in front of it even before they look at it. It’s masterful, but the colours seem to be fading away, making the scene even more dramatic. This all boils down to a mistake by the painter, who hadn’t mastered the fresco technique (painting on freshly laid plaster) and chose to apply the paint onto a dry surface. A daring and disastrous choice, since it requires constant restoration work.
On the other side of the piazza is the quirky Casa degli Atellani, where Leonardo lived while he was working in the convent. The patio of the house had a vine that Ludovico offered the painter when he finished the work. It’s worth visiting the unexpected luxuriant refuge, recreated by the current owners, grandchildren of the Milanese architect Piero Portaluppi, who restored the building in the 1920s. The Leonardo vine is one of Milan’s best-kept secrets, but the simple elegance of the gardens and the charm of the house take us back to the Renaissance.
With the spirit of that period in mind, we continue with map in hand – with the app we ended up on the opposite side – as far as the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, an extraordinary museum that houses works such as Da Vinci’s Portrait of a Musician, Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit, or Madonna del Padiglione by Boticelli, as well as paintings by Ticiano and Brueghel and Rafael’s huge preparatory drawing for the famous painting The School of Athens. It’s also where you can see the Codex Atlanticus, 12 volumes containing texts, drawings, illustrations and inventions by da Vinci in the most varied areas, from botany to astronomy, passing through engineering, ballistics and aviation.
On our way back to the hotel, we come across the tempting shop-window of the Peck grocery filled with cheeses and charcuterie, but it’s time for us to dress up for a memorable soirée. Going to La Scala is on people’s bucket lists around the world and, shortly before the show – the ballet Sleeping Beauty –, all you have to do is follow the best-dressed people through the streets to find the theatre. Inside, in the magnificent room that’s part of our fantasy world, the chattering only stops when the curtain goes up and ballerinas float across the stage, bringing Perrault’s story to life to the music of Tchaikovsky and Nureyev’s stage directions.
New day, new home. After staying at the Baglioni, a boutique hotel in the Carlton chain which backs onto the Via della Spiga, one of Milan’s most exclusive streets, we take the underground to the Leonardo da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology. Dedicated to the genius of the inventor, the museum is a didactic amusement park, recreating the fabulous Leonardeschi models from the master’s drawings. The collection has over 130 models related to da Vinci’s different fields of interest: aeronautics, military engineering, architectures, machinery. Other interesting features of the museum are the interactive workshops, the rooms dedicated to nutrition, to Space and to particle physics, as well as the opportunity to go aboard the Totti submarine.
We meet up mid-afternoon with Annamaria Fumagalli, the fun and experienced guide who takes us through the city streets, discovering the nooks and crannies of the sophisticated neighbourhood of Brera, the secrets of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore (Milan’s “Sistine Chapel”), or the relaxed atmosphere of the canal quarter, Il Navigli. The banks of the artificial canals, which for centuries connected the city to the outside world, and on which da Vinci presented studies for improving the hydraulic system and navigation, now boast a picturesque neighbourhood filled with bars, restaurants, handicraft shops, galleries and small markets. This is where we feel closer to the everyday life of the Milanese, cooling off our feet in the canals and sipping the local’s favourite tipple, the Aperol Spritz.
Our Sunday ends on a high in the restaurant Al Pont de Ferr, located on the banks of the Naviglio Grande. After an effusive welcome from the owner, the charismatic sommelier Maida, we embark upon a delirious sensorial journey in which traditional and experimental flavours blend perfectly with excellent Italian wines. As a keepsake, we have two hours of culinary delights. Totally unforgettable is the marrow with sea urchins, elevated in the palate with the unexpected tropical freshness of a Sicilian Catarratto wine.
We say goodbye to this da Vincian Milan the following day, but not before visiting the city’s most impressive monument, the Sforzesco Castle. As an eminently defensive structure, the castle’s history follows that of the city and it is now an important historical and cultural centre. Among the collections, which range from ancient art to decorative arts and from musical instruments to armoury, two rooms stand out: the one that is devoted exclusively to Michelangelo’s last masterpiece, the sculpture Pietà Rondanini, and the Sala delle Asse. Restored for the 500th anniversary commemorations of da Vinci’s death, the room where Leonardo designed and painted a kind of intricate pergola of intertwining fruit plants for Ludovico will be open to the public until January 2020. Outside the city is perspiring, but in here, even though the painting is unfinished, it gives us the feeling of walking through the woods on a cool summer’s morning. Man dreams, a masterpiece is born.
by Patrícia Brito /// photos Verónica da Costa
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