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The sprawling expanse of the Piazza del Duomo forms the heart of the city of Milan, both geographically and in terms of its cultural significance. While the site has always been an important reference point for town planners, the origins of this public square can be traced back to the 14th Century. It was Azzone Visconti who demanded the removal of the taverns that surrounded the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and the Basilica of Santa Tecla, thus creating one of Italy's most iconic squares. Although both churches were eventually demolished to make way for the ambitiously designed Duomo, their foundations are still visible to this day. Today, the vast open space is crowned by the Duomo on one side and the Royal Palace on the other. Alongside them are sweeping arcades designed by Giuseppe Mengoni. A space surrounded by some of Italy's most recognizable structures, the Piazza del Duomo has rightly been termed as the focal point of Milan.
Construction of the "Galleria", a typically 19th-century public building that is now one of the oldest shopping malls in the city, began in 1865 following a series of competitions for the design won by Giuseppe Mengoni. Large plaster eagles support its dome, 47-meter high and made of iron and glass. Note the designs on the interiors and the Neo-Renaissance-style stucco work and graffiti. The floor of the building was completely restored in 1966 in a rare mosaic showing the emblems of Italian cities.
Watched over by the Madonnina, the cathedral's high marble spires represent the city's most famous artistic and religious monument. The dimensions of Christendom's third-biggest church are still awe-inspiring, spanning 108 meters (354.3 feet) high and 158 meters (518.3 feet) long. A range of architectural styles feature the doorways of the 17th Century, the central balcony from the late 18th Century and the three main upper windows which are early 19th Century pieces by Carlo Amati. The Gothic cathedral's vast interior is grand with its impressive pillars, vaults, streamlined arches and wonderful statuary surrounding the nave. Light filters in through a crevice in the wall, positioning itself on the sundial that frames its main entrance. Gleaming statues carved out of Condoglian marble are perched atop its spires. Whether one is seeking religious fulfillment or is simply sightseeing, the Duomo leaves one spellbound.
The Basilica of St. Ambrose was originally built in 379 CE at the burial site of those lost in the Roman persecution. Restored, reconstructed and redesigned several times over the years, the basilica as it stands today features a Romanesque design of unusual proportions, and is revered as a stellar example of Medieval architecture. The interior is made up of a long body with three aisles that open on to secondary spaces and intriguing chapels that date back to the Sforza dynasty. Around every corner lie impressive architectural details and artistic embellishments like gilded statues, rich carvings, and other ecclesiastical art. Of special note are the ciborium, the gold altar, and paleo-Christian mosaics. Here lie the mortal remains of St. Ambrose himself, alongside those of St. Gervasius and St.Protasius, which can be viewed in the crypt.
Once the palatial symbol of Visconti nobility, the Sforzesco Castle was reconstructed by Francesco Sforza, the duke of Milan in the 15th Century. He rebuilt parts of the original fortification, including the Torre del Filarete that towered 70 meters (230 feet) above other small towers. Deemed to be one of the largest bastions in Europe, this monumental citadel underwent several expansions and changes in the years that followed. When under Spanish rule, it was largely used as a barrack, before parts of it were demolished by Napoleon's troops. In the 19th Century, it was salvaged by architect Luca Beltrami. He rebuilt several parts of the castle, including the towers, the moat and even restored the historic Torre del Filarete to its former glory. The castle's archways give way to the regal courtyards of Rocchetta and Ducal, which house several archaeological and art museums.
Dating back to 1778 as a fitting replacement for the Teatro Ducale, the stately Teatro Alla Scala has since come to be one of opera's most legendary venues. The historic theater has hosted most of Italy's operatic masters alongside renowned international artists. Designed by noted architect, Giuseppe Piermarini, the theater's neoclassical facade has a palatial theater with six tiers of private boxes, topped by an intricate ceiling. Home to the prestigious La Scala Theater Orchestra, La Scala Theater Ballet and La Scala Theater Chorus, it remains one of the city's liveliest cultural venues. Apart from operas, the theater also hosts plays, ballet shows and numerous other cultural events throughout the year.
Characterized by still ponds, emerald green grass and exhilarating views of the main landmarks of the city, the Sforza Castle, the Arch of Peace and the Palazzo dell'Arte, Sempione Park offers some of the best visual experiences in Milan. Designed by architect Emilio Alemagna, the park is nothing short of a landscaping marvel. The Arena Civica, the Neptune-guarding public aquarium and the Torre Branca tower are also part of this expansive park. To add to its charm, visitors can also see permanent sculptures by Arman, Francesco Barzaghi and Giorgio de Chirico.
Commissioned by Ludovico di Moro and designed by Guiniforte Solari, this building was intended as a mausoleum for the Sforzesco dynasty, in which the remains of the duke and his wife, Beatrice d'Este, as well as others connected with the family, were to be laid to rest. The adjoining Dominican convent's cloister and sacristy were later renovated by Bramante. This is of particular interest as is the gallery's terracotta ornamentation, which became one of the main motifs in northern Italian Renaissance architecture. One of the most famous paintings, The Last Supper is housed here.
Naviglio Grande was one of the first canals in Milan and was one of the most important engineering works to be carried out in Lombardy during the Middle Ages. For centuries it played a fundamental role in the city's economy by connecting it to the great canal network in Lombardy. Exiting the Darsena along the towpath of the Naviglio Grande, you will see the large residential buildings with fenced courtyards from the early 1900s, arts and crafts workshops, old barges (now turned into bars), the many areas that are undergoing urban renewal, and, further out, the country villas of the nobility (particularly between Abbiategrasso and Robecco sul Naviglio). Make a quick stop near Vicolo Lavandai, the ancient shelter with wooden beams that covers the old communal wash-house, a quaint location that is one of the relatively few remainders of Milan's distant past. Check website for more details.
Beautiful sculptures adorn the graves of those interred at the Monumental Cemetery. Originally laid out in the 19th Century, the cemetery encompasses a staggering collection of sculptural and architectural gems, each gracing the burial site of some of the country's most prominent families and individuals. The Famedio, or Temple of Fame, is one of its most distinctive features. Originally designed to serve as a church, the neo-Medieval structure now has the sarcophagus of the novelist, Alessandro Manzoni. The tomb of the Campari family is adorned by a large, bronze version of the Last Supper, while that of Arturo Toscanini is a masterpiece fashioned by the sculptor, Leonardo Bistolfi. Marvelous funerary art and ornamentation abound at the Monumental Cemetery, a favorite among art lovers.