More than that, Milan is the shopwindow of Italy. Everyone comes to Milan because of what it makes and what it sells. If you want to do serious business in Italy, you come to Milan.
The area of Milan everyone heads to first, if they are not already going to a trade fair or exhibition, is the “quadilatero della moda”, the high fashion district bounded by Via Monte Napoleone, Via della Spiga, Via Sant'Andrea and Via Manzoni. Here you will find all the luxury brands of the world, of today and tomorrow. If you are in the business, then it is here also you will visit the showrooms in the upper floors where the real trades are made.
These names are new, but the skills in textiles and tailoring stretch right back into the early Middle Ages. Milan’s speciality then was fine wool; in the Renaissance it went for silk. Metalwork skills added jewellry and accessories. Put it all together and you have a special skill in fine clothing that creates its own brand name. Long before Prada, Armani, Dolce and Gabbana there were the “Milaners” with their “Milanery”, which in Victorian England became transformed into “milliners” and “millinery”, eventually reserved for those who made hats, high fashion having decamped to Paris. Making hats is still a very high fashion item in Milan.
Once finished (if ever) with the delights of high fashion, the happy shopper can also wander up Corso Emanuele to see Milan’s fairy tale Duomo cathedral, its long slender spires reaching high to the sky. Its great mouth arching into the square, the Galleria invites you into its protecting shade to drop by some other fashion stores before carrying you on to the steps of La Scala, Milan’s most famous cultural icon.
The other cultural icon is Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, still fixed to the refectory wall in Sta. Maria delle Grazie. This is so fragile now that it’s very difficult to get tickets to see it. Leonardo is always thought of as a Florentine, yet for almost a third of his life he lived in Milan and much of his most famous work was done while he lived here. He even owned a vineyard by the old East Gate.
Milan used to be ringed by canals, as this was the easiest way to transport goods to and from the city. The canals give Milan its ring-and-spoke look on the map, the rings being the moats that once flowed in front of its walls. Walls and canals are long gone, their space given over to boulevards for people to traffic jam their way around. The remnants of a couple of canals still exist, in the region called the Navigli, where Milan’s port once stood. This is now where most of Milan’s nightlife hang out, jostling noisily between bars and restaurants.
Not many people stay in Milan for more than a day or two. It’s worth a little more time than that. There are a few Roman ruins still, the early medieval is still apparent in the many churches and the great Sforza Castle, and its art can be seen in the Ambrosiana and Brera galleries. There’s also a lovely area to walk through in the Brera district behind La Scala; here along a few streets that haven’t been completely conquered by concrete you can get the feel how genteel Milan once was.
Stay the extra day, and you could find that Milan isn’t always about living to work.
Weather-wise, there’s never a good time to visit Milan: it’s famous for its awful weather – freezing fog, rain and hail in the winter, stifling humid heat haze full of mosquitoes in the summer. Only after a storm does the air clear and you can see how close the Alps are.
There are events going on all the time, most related to the constant turning of trade fairs, fashion shows and exhibitions. Remember, Milan is all about business.
Traditional events are fewer, the principal ones being on religious festivals like Carnival, St. Ambrose, Mary of Nazareth etc. Children dress up for the the Carnival; most of the other days are simply long weekends and the Milanese head out of town.
Interesting places nearby: The Italian Lakes
A little bit of history
Milan began with trade and thrives to this day because of trade: it is the merchants’ and shoppers’ ultimate paradise. Trade got going seriously once a Celtic people settled in the flat place set between rivers, which for most of history in Europe have been the main arteries for commerce. Its name is a later Lombard corruption of “Mediolanum” a mixed Latin-Celt word that means “in the middle of the enclosure”, i.e. the space enclosed by the rivers. The Romans held it of course, once they conquered the Celts. It became a leading town in the Roman Empire and for a time was even the Western Roman Empire’s capital, it was here that Constantine promulgated his Edict of tolerance for all religions.
That didn’t last, and Milan was ravaged by invasions and religious schism as Lombards battled with Franks and Catholic Christians of Archbishop Ambrose battled with Aryan Christians of the Gothic King Theodoric. With Charlemagne, Milan eventually fell into the orbit of the new Empire, to spend the better part of three hundred years fighting it. The city was finally ruled by local warchiefs such as the Visconti and Sforza, then by the more powerful French, Spanish and Austrians; all of who kept things in line well enough that Milan’s international commerce and banking boomed and its annual trade fairs became the place to do serious business. All of which Milan does well right up to today.
Article, photograph and video © Carl Ottersen