Milan is full of surprises, but only an experienced eye is able to reveal them. Between the busy streets of the city centre and the tall modern buildings that transpire economy and industrialisation, it is difficult to imagine a distant past, perhaps too distant for newly visitors. This is why with a few suggestions, we rediscover a history that is still strong and alive, able to fascinate its explorers. Let’s explore the grandeur of Milano through its ancient past.

Along our time travel, we suggest the best places and values that Milan still has to offer. The beginning of this journey back to those times of the city's foundation, where bustling streets amidst industrialisation and frenetic shopping will be just a distant memory. Let's rediscover ancient hidden values that are still solid and blended with modernity.

What to see in Milan?

The origins and the Roman influence

  • The Amphitheatre
  • The Imperial Palace
  • The Roman Theatre

Between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

  • The Duomo of Milan
  • The Sforzesco Castle
  • Santa Maria delle Grazie & The Last Supper

Innovation, art and contemporary times

  • La Scala theatre
  • Science and Technology Museum
  • Pinacoteca of Brera
  • Pinacoteca Ambrosiana

The origins and the Roman influence

The first concrete sources on the foundation of Milan date back to the Insubri Gauls. This population of Celtic origin migrated southwards from the cold Germanic territories. It arrived in Northern Italy, creating the first actual settlement around the 6th-4th century BCE, thus defining the origins of Milan. Some sources recall a curious legend about the foundation of Milan involving a young leader, an oracle and a wild animal.

However, the Insubrians soon attracted the attention of the rising power of Rome, which conquered the territory and Latinised the city. From then on, the humble settlement became a main provincial centre, known in history as "Mediolanum". The name is a Roman version of its Celtic origin, meaning 'village in the middle of the plain'. In fact, Milan is located in the centre of the Po Valley in northern Italy, and thanks to this strategic position, the colony achieved its grandeur in 286 BCE, becoming the capital of the Roman Empire.

To this day, the modern Mediolanum still bears important testimonies and examples of Roman buildings. Among the busy streets of the city centre, an ancient past reminds us of forgotten times, and Roman sites hide almost unnoticed even by the citizens. Although today’s relatively small number of findings compared to other famous Roman settlements, Mediolanum was a place of great importance that must be recounted and should not be forgotten.

1. The amphitheatre

Yes, even Milan had its own "Colosseum", located just outside the ancient city walls. The amphitheatre attracted thousands of Roman citizens intent on participating in prestigious games such as the "venationes", hunting representations with ferocious and often exotic animals, and the "naumachie", real naval battles that required the arena to be truly flooded. Visitors can discover a fascinating and ancient reality inside the museum, with anecdotes and personal stories, such as that of the gladiator Urbicus.

We can imagine the crowds’ roars and breathtaking performances that amazed the ancient Roman citizens of Mediolanum. It was a world incredibly different from today, where distances fuelled curiosity and excitement for other cultures, habits and traditions. The historical representations of battles, exotic animals, and fights between gladiators from different borders and distant lands were perhaps the only opportunities for citizens to learn about their empire's greatness and imagine far almost unreachable worlds. Near the complex, it is possible to observe the Basilica of San Lorenzo, with its famous 16 ancient Roman columns.

(Tickets to the museum are only available on site. It is recommended to check "Notices and news" page for any possible unexpected and temporary closures).

2. The Imperial Palace

Tucked away in the centre near Via Brisa stand the remains of what were once the imperial residences of Emperor Maximan when Mediolanum became the Empire's capital. It is possible to admire an open-air archaeological site with traces of private baths, places of worship and royal residences.

We can imagine a regal place where envoys of the empire, guards, politicians and the entire imperial family frequented this place in a luxurious and opulent atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the remains are only a part of a vast district that stood within walking distance of the adjacent Roman Circus, of which almost nothing is left to this day. Only one of the two original towers that marked the entrance to this ancient racing stadium is still well preserved and intact. This unmistakable red tower was part of the entrance gates from which chariots started racing during the competitions. Today it is incorporated as a bell tower at the church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore.

(Tickets to the museum are only available on-site)

3. The theatre

Hidden within the walls of the seat of the Milan Stock Exchange lies the ancient Roman Theater. The ancient remains of the theatre were found right under the economical centre of Milan during its construction at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century CE. Today it is possible to visit an archaeological museum in the basement containing part of the theatre structure, a beautiful example of historical classicism right underneath modern buildings. The building had a diameter of about 95 metres and, similarly to any other classical roman theatre, had a curvilinear front that housed the 'auditorium', occupied by the spectators. On the opposite linear section stood the stage, known as the 'orchestra', where music was played, and actors performed scenes from mythology or famous plays by ancient writers. The Romans adopted and repurposed strong Greek influences through dramas and comedies. Unlike the amphitheatre, the theatre hosted theatrical performances, not physical games.

For the Roman Empire, the theatre, amphitheatre and circus were not only a source of pride to show off to its citizens but also an essential means of involvement and characteristic of Roman identity. In addition, the shows facilitated distraction from various problems and nurtured patriotism, an essential key to maintaining a firm grip on such a vast empire.

(The archaeological area can only be visited by appointment by contacting the office responsible at this link)

Between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Ancient map of Milan with its appearance in 1574 CE
Ancient map of Milan with its appearance in 1574 CE

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE and the various barbarian invasions, Milan was at the mercy of multiple peoples, who settled relatively briefly in the area of northern Italy. New cultures and traditions were established, and Roman sites lost their use. As a result, they were often demolished and reused to construct other buildings.

Milan first came under Lombard domination, a germanic tribe that descended from far northern European territories and conquered the weak and defenceless Roman territories in the north of Italy. The course of events led Milano under the kingdom of the famous Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, to become part of this new empire. Centuries later, the city of Milan sought independence, revolting with an alliance of other northern Italian cities. This will of freedom led to perhaps one of the most brutal events in the history of the town, namely the medieval siege and destruction in 1162 CE by Frederick Barbarossa, the renowned and feared emperor of the time. The invasion and the devastation spared only a few buildings and holy places throughout the city.

This despicable event gave rise to a deep hatred of the Milanese towards the German ruler, causing a curious folklore story.

Nevertheless, this period of destruction and war was later countered by great aesthetic movements and artistic styles, to which we owe works of immense splendour and uniqueness.

The following centuries were characterised by a period of true artistic and architectural splendour, the Renaissance. Prominent personalities such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Bramante, Raphael and many others lodged in the Seignories of the powerful Milanese families. Milan thus became a kingdom in its own right, famously known as the Duchy of Milan, with the noble and prestigious Visconti and Sforza families in power.

Here below are some of the most symbolic and representative buildings.

4. The Duomo of Milan

It is not a surprise that the Duomo is the emblematic symbol of Milan. With constructions probably beginning in 1346 CE, one of the members of the Visconti family, lords of Milan before the Sforzas, began the realisation of the project. Works started in a historical period characterised by Gothic art; thus, the Milan Cathedral was also conceived in this style. However, instead of the traditional Lombard brick, it was decided to use marble, a real artistic revolution for that time.

It is precisely the details that make Italy's largest cathedral unique. For example, inside the church, amidst the rich Gothic naves and stained-glass windows, it is possible to observe a beautiful example of fine art by Marco d'Agrate. The sculptor proposed a fantastic statue of immense precision, which, however, conceals a gruesome story.

Today this colossus fascinates with its white shades and Gothic style, capable of attracting attention through its unique combination of elegance and solemnity. Amidst the chaotic metropolitan background, we can pause, gazing at this majestic cathedral, aware of the immense work involved in its construction.

5. The Sforzesco Castle

With its imposing walls, the Medieval Sforzesco Castle rises as a reminder of the ancient power of the Duchy of Milan, encouraging imagination to fade back to ancient times. The fort has changed appearance and function over the centuries, alternating between court residence and military post.

Founded under the Visconti family, the castle was rebuilt and enlarged by Francesco Sforza in 1450 CE, who entrusted his military and civil architects to create an imposing building that would be both a military stronghold and simultaneously endowed with Renaissance beauty.

Today it houses a museum containing one of the most valuable collections of the city's history, giving us a heritage of wars, traditions and artistic values. Among the 'Sala Delle Assi' by Leonardo da Vinci and many other prestigious works, it is possible to immerse in a renaissance environment, with many examples of the elegance of the Sforza family, the ancient Dukes of Milan.

6. Santa Maria delle Grazie & The Last Supper

Perhaps the heart of the Milanese Renaissance. Originally a humble chapel with a fresco of the Virgin Mary, it later became a full-fledged church. Today, the Basilica of Santa Maria Delle Grazie shines with its Gothic-Renaissance style, sporting a mighty tribune commissioned by the Sforza. This noble family began a process of city embellishment to compete with other Italian Renaissance courts and their splendours, such as the Florence of the De Medici, Ferrara, Mantua and the pearl of the Serenissima Republic, Venice. This Basilica stands as a great example of their politic, offering us one of the world's artistic masterpieces: Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper.

The light effects and a gentle harmony between symmetry and depth make us admire this masterpiece with an emotionally involving experience. It is not only a must-see on the artist's journey of discovery but also a destination with independent value for one's personal artistic and cultural background.

Innovation, art and contemporary times

It followed centuries of foreign kingdoms' dominations, which enormously influenced Milanese culture, tradition and art. In contrast to battles and periods of famine, new values, artistic movements and new attentions arose, bringing an incredible cultural and artistic exchange and embellishing prominent buildings. Next, Milan went through a period of foreign rule, falling victim to the European imperial expansionist politics of the Modern and Contemporary eras. There followed Spanish, Austrian and French dominations, which left deep scars but also new works and influences, shaping the city's colourful past.

7. La Scala Theatre

This theatre, built during the Austrian domination, was commissioned by Empress Maria Theresa. She is remembered as a ruler of a period rich in economic reforms with cultural development throughout the empire. The theatre was inaugurated in 1778 CE with an opera by Antonio Salieri. Despite the building's exterior, its interior dazzles with refined decorations, creating a truly fascinating atmosphere. La Scala is stage for incredible performances that take place every week, capable of offering its visitors unique experiences.

8. Science and Technology Museum

Dedicated to the genius Leonardo da Vinci, the museum was founded as an effort to create a collection of the most innovative pieces of modern technology of the past and current centuries. Thanks to his close ties with the city of Milan, we inherit important works about him today. During the Renaissance period, Leonardo worked for several years under the duchy of the Sforza family, the lords of Milan, and thanks to his studies, the city boasts a museum that devotes recent efforts and research to the Renaissance genius. The collection of Leonardo’s machine models made from his drawings is the biggest in the world. A fascinating and interactive museum that enables visitors to discover an interesting combination of science from different eras.

9. Pinacoteca of Brera

Still, under Austrian rule, the picturesque Pinacoteca Gallery was created as a museum space desired by Empress Maria Theresa. She, for educational purposes, dedicated the building to the collection, exhibition and observation of artistic riches for the students of the adjacent Academy of Fine Arts. The Picture Gallery was later established in 1809 CE to contain Napoleon's plundering during French control. Today it houses one of the most prestigious collections in the world.

10. Pinacoteca Ambrosiana

The building where the museum now stands coincides with the ancient Roman forum, the center of ancient Mediolanum. The complex consists of the Library, which sports unique volumes including Leonardo da Vinci's famous Codex Atlanticus, and the Pinacoteca, not to be confused with the Brera Gallery, mentioned above in the article. In a splendid palace, among many others, one can observe unique pieces such as Caravaggio's Basket Of Fruit, the cartoon for the School Of Athens of Raphael and the Musician of Leonardo Da Vinci. Moreover, because of its location, it is still possible to observe in a sided room next to the library a Roman mosaic, which suggests the very ancient location.

Why visit Milan

Today, this city is a famous industrial hub, attracting millions of citizens every year for its reputation as Italy's fashion capital, shopping centre and transit centre for international flights. However, Milan is also, and perhaps above all, worthy of recognition for its other historical, artistic and cultural 'face', which deserves more visibility and exploration by its visitors. The city offers a wide range of history, culture and art that probably owe their existence to the many kingdoms that have tried to subjugate it. Therefore, Milan is a place that, with Its colourful past, offers a unique opportunity to be discovered and experienced.

It is precisely this ambivalence between past and modernity that makes Milan both a shopping capital and a historical city.

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