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Discover Leonardo da Vinci’s Milan

Milan is certainly a powerhouse of fashion, finance, and furniture – but art destination?

Really?

Apart from The Last Supper and the Duomo, Milan’s list of artistic blockbusters seems paltry when compared with those of Rome or Florence, but delve a little deeper and you will discover a city that played a significant role in the life of one of the greatest geniuses in world history: Leonardo da Vinci

You need to experience Leonardo da Vinci’s Milan

From 1482 until the French invasion of 1499, Leonardo worked for the tyrannical Regent Ludovico (later Duke of Milan). You can see how significant this phase of Leonardo’s life was with a tour of some gems associated with his time in Milan.

Here is an overview:

Leonardo da Vinci’s Milan

The Last Supper, Santa Maria delle Grazie

Don’t make the mistake of arriving in Milan expecting to drop in and see the painting of The Last Supper.

You will need to book weeks in advance for a 15-minute group visit. It’s worth it though.

Years of meticulous restoration have brought back to life the essential drama of Leonardo’s version of the disciples’ reaction to Christ’s announcement that one of them will betray him.

The Cenacolo Vinciano, also known as The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, is one of the most famous paintings in the world. Painted between 1494 and 1498 during the reign of Ludovico il Moro, this unique work of art depicts Jesus’ last meal with his disciples.

To create this masterpiece, Leonardo undertook extensive research and made numerous preparatory sketches. Instead of using traditional fresco painting, he decided to paint the scene “dry” directly on the wall of the refectory. Upon closer examination, traces of gold and silver foil were even found, indicating that the artist took great pains to render the figures more realistically and to include valuable details.

Painting of The Last Supper by Da Vinci

Sforza Castle

Take a break from the crowds at Santa Maria delle Grazie and take your time appreciating Leonardo’s magnificent ceiling of mulberry trees in the far corner of the main building at Sforza Castle.  

The Castle of Milan is an impressive and symbolic building that is one of the landmarks of the city. It was the residence of Duke Ludovico Sforza during the Renaissance.

There are several museums at the castle, but the most fascinating for fans of Leonardo are the picture galleries, which house many late 15th-century paintings from the city.  (And the mulberry trees, of course).  

Leonardo first worked at the castle as a military and civil engineer before beginning his career as an artist. In a room called the Sala delle Asse, he painted frescoes on the ceiling that combined realistic representation with profound symbolism.

A canopy of tangled branches stretches along the walls of the room, forming a lush vegetation around the central coat of arms of Ludovico Sforza and his wife, Beatrice d’Este.

Leonardo deliberately chose to depict a particular tree in his paintings: the mulberry. This tree was used to raise silkworms and was therefore of great economic importance to the Sforza duchy.

Ludovico Sforza was also known as “il Moro”, meaning “the Mulberry”, which may explain Leonardo’s choice. On the other hand, the mulberry tree is also a symbol of prudence, which could indicate that Ludovico Sforza’s policy was based on careful alliances to strengthen his state.

Castello Sforzesco in Milan, Italy.
Castello Sforzesco in Milan, Italy.

Biblioteca Ambrosiana

Established at the end of the 16th century, this library and picture gallery houses Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus notebooks, a collection of some 1,200-odd pages that offers the most extensive insights into his unique mind. It covers his working life from the age of 26 in 1478, until his death in 1519.   

The exhibit is shared with the Bramante Sacristry at Santa Maria delle Grazie, and covers everything from notes on how to view an eclipse to a list of India’s rivers.  

The library’s amazing art collection also includes Leonardo’s only known portrait painting of a man: The Musician.  

This work of art is the only painting by Leonardo that has survived in Milan.

It was traditionally believed that this portrait depicted Ludovico il Moro, the Duke of Milan. However, during restoration work in 1905, the overpainting was removed, revealing a hand holding a musical scroll in the lower part. This led to the assumption that it was a portrait of a musician.

It has sometimes been suggested that it is a portrait of Franchino Gaffurio, who was chapel master at Milan Cathedral during the time of Leonardo and Ludovico il Moro. On the other hand, it has also been suggested that it depicts Josquin des Prez – a Franco-Flemish singer and composer – who was active in Milan at the same time as Leonardo and Ludovico il Moro.

More recently, it has been suggested that the portrait may be of Atalante Migliorotti – a Tuscan musician who was a close friend of Leonardo and a singer and talented lyricist who worked with him at the court of the Duke of Milan.

Entry is €15 (or €20 if you want to visit the Codex Atlanticus exhibit in the Bramante Sacristry of Santa Maria delle Grazie as well). Here’s a guided tour of both Ambrosiana Gallery & Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus.

Art and their notes at Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, Italy.
Art and their notes at Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, Italy.

Museo Poldi Pezzoli

For a museum that contains such a superb collection of furniture and paintings, the Museo Poldi Pezzoli is remarkably free of visitors.  

Mainly from the high Renaissance, the collections include works by Botticelli, Pollaiolo, Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, and Piero della Francesca, as well as some paintings by Andrea Solario, who worked with Leonardo. You will also see the delightful Mystical Marriage of St Catherine by Bernadino Luini and a Virgin and Child by Giovanni Boltraffio, both of whom worked with and were probably trained by Leonardo.

This house-museum was inaugurated in 1881. It impresses not only for the enchanting charm of its rooms, which recall bygone eras (from the Middle Ages to the 18th century to the collection of arms with a work by the contemporary artist Arnaldo Pomodoro), but also for the variety and richness of its collections.

Here you can admire masterpieces by old masters, sculptures, carpets, lace and embroidery, weapons and armor, as well as jewels, glassware and furniture. Sundials and clocks are also part of this extraordinary collection, with over 5000 pieces from various periods, from antiquity to the 19th century.

Paintings at Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, Italy.
Paintings at Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, Italy.

Pinacoteca di Brera

The principal picture gallery in Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera is as good as the Accademia in Venice and the Uffizi in Florence, but the crowds are far smaller.  

It’s hard to pick a highlight, but among the standouts are some wonderful 15th-century Venetian paintings that Leonardo must have seen, including Madonnas by Bellini and Mantegna.  

The Pinacoteca is one of the most important state museums in Italy.

Here you can find, among other things, Leonardo da Vinci’s technical sketches and the design of a water meter for Bernardo Rucellai.

Leonardo’s “meter” was built by a villager from Domodossola for the nobleman Rucellai. It was supposed to consist of a large wheel, regulated by a gear, that would constantly deliver a certain amount of water.

The sheet with this drawing has been part of the Disegni collections at the Pinacoteca di Brera since 1994. The sheet is inscribed on both sides and belongs to the estate of Lamberto Vitali.

The Pinacoteca di Brera was inaugurated in 1809 in the building of the same name. The building also houses the Brera State Library, the Observatory, the Botanical Garden, the Lombardo Institute of Science and Letters, and the Academy of Fine Arts.

On the same site there was a 14th century convent, first inhabited by the Humiliates and later used as a school under the direction of the Jesuits. The current building was begun at the beginning of the 17th century by Francesco Maria Richini and completed in the 18th century by Giuseppe Piermarini.

A large part of the collection is made up of ancient paintings, which came to the Pinacoteca mainly after the dissolution of monasteries and churches, especially under Napoleon. This collection has been enriched over time through exchanges, gifts and purchases.

Hall with paintings at Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, Italy.
Hall with paintings at Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, Italy.

Leonardo’s Horse at San Siro

When is a Leonardo sculpture not quite a Leonardo sculpture? When it is made in the 20th century based extensive research into the sketches and notes made by the Renaissance giant.

The massive bronze horse at San Siro is a full-size cast based on the commission Leonardo received in 1482 from the Duke of Milan as a monument to the duke’s father.

The biggest equestrian monument in the world, it’s free to view in the peaceful surroundings of Milan’s racecourse. There are options for public transport to get here.

Leonardo’s horse in Milan, Italy.
Leonardo’s horse in Milan, Italy.

The Navigli

You don’t need to enter any church or museum to see one of Leonardo’s greatest contributions to Milan.

The innovative system of sluices designed by Leonardo for the city’s network of canals allowed Milan to develop into one of Italy’s largest inland ports, despite the absence of a main river. The canals became so integral to the city that some areas almost looked Venetian.

Milan used to have many canals, but since the late 19th century they have been considered smelly, dirty and old-fashioned. During Fascism, space had to be made for large, ostentatious boulevards, so the canals in the city center were filled in starting in the 1920s.

Only the Naviglio Martesana in the northeast escaped this frenzy of renewal – fortunately, so did the characteristic Navigli district southwest of the center, with its two canals and port basin.

Today in Milan’s Navigli district, the medieval canals, waterfront restaurants and studios in hidden courtyards are an irresistible draw. In the evening, the neighborhood becomes a hip nightlife area with bars and music.

Some courtyards smell of jasmine blossoms, while lush green vines climb up the walls of others.

A magical transformation takes place after sunset, when the warm light of street lamps is gently reflected on the surface of the water.

On almost every summer evening, this area hosts a kind of folk festival with many young, attractive visitors. It seems that half of Milan comes to the banks of the canals.

Bookshops and record stores are open despite the late hour, lovers kiss on the bridges, and all the seats and sidewalks are taken. Colorful cocktails slosh in glasses deep into the night.

Deep green waters flow endlessly through the neighborhood – the wide Naviglio Grande and the Naviglio Pavese. They are connected by a dock called the Darsena. Ornate iron bridges arch over the river.

Navigli by night, Milan, Italy.
Navigli by night, Milan, Italy.

Explore all of Leonardo da Vinci’s Milan with this three-hour art tour that walks in the footsteps of Da Vinci. See the famous portrayal of the Last Supper, check out the Atlantic Codex at Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, and admire the Il Musico painting.

Accompanied by a local art expert, you will spend 3 hours getting an unforgettable insight into the work of the famous artist.

During this tour you will have the opportunity to admire the world famous painting The Last Supper next to the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. This work was commissioned by Ludovico il Moro, the Duke of Milan, and is one of Leonardo’s most famous works.

You will also visit the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, where you will be impressed by the Codex Atlanticus, a collection of scientific drawings on various subjects that illustrate Leonardo’s technical skills.

In the Pinacoteca you can also admire Leonardo’s famous painting Il Musico. It is located in a special room dedicated to Leonardo and his works.

Along the way, you’ll learn interesting details about his life and the legacy he left behind – a true inspiration for generations to come.

Price: €79
Duration: 3 hours
Free cancelation up to 24 hours before
Small group (max 10 persons)


Duomo – Cathedral of Milan

No visit is complete without being inside and on the roof of the Duomo. You have to do it at least once. I first wasn’t too sure of doing it, but I really liked it, especially also being on the roof. You don’t get the chance too often to do this.

So explore the famous symbol of Milan with your Duomo ticket and see the 600-year-old cathedral. Learn about the history of St. Ambrose and the Cathedral’s important role in the spiritual and cultural development of the city.

Enjoy a breathtaking view of the city from the Cathedral’s terraces. The terraces are made of Candoglia marble and on a clear day you can see as far as the Alps and the Apennines. You can use the elevator (extra charge), but I actually like to climb the steps. Like that you get a good feel for the surrounding and its height. And you can say that you ‘climbed’ the Duomo.

You can also admire the Duomo with its impressive 27 naves and the 14th century Palazzo Reale with its stained glass windows, tapestries and sculptures.

Usually there is a long line to get the tickets, so I recommed to yours online in advance, so that you can skip the line.

Price: €20
Valid: 3 days
You can cancel up to 24 hours in advance and receive a 98% refund.
Once validated, the voucher is valid for 72 hours and each attraction can be visited once.
Last access to the terrace is at 18:10, as it closes at 18:30.

On the roof of the Duomo in Milan, Italy.
On the roof of the Duomo in Milan, Italy.

  • Travel Dudes

    I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences I had whilst traveling. You’re in a certain place and a fellow traveler, or a local, tip you off on a little-known beach, bar or accommodation. Great travel tips from other travelers or locals always add something special to our travels. That was the inspiration for Travel Dudes.

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