Featured Partners, Italy, Walks of Italy

Milan in a Day: Visiting Da Vinci’s Masterpiece

June 16, 2012

That Mona Lisa moment.

If you’ve been to the Louvre in Paris, maybe you know it?

Awe and a twinge of disillusionment in the same breath.

Entering the gallery to see a tiny little painted woman smirking back across the room honestly underwhelmed me after a teenager’s lifetime of seeing reproductions plastered across canvas, t-shirts, and tapestries.

Then there are moments when reality exceeds expectations.

Milan’s reputation is all fashion, business, and big-city bustle.

With limited planning resources, energy, and time, would it be realistically possible to add Milan to our Italian Adventure? Turns out, yes.

One famous saying refers to Rome and Milan as very different women: one displays everything she has and the other keeps her secrets for a true lover.

In Milan, there are beautiful hidden spots to be discovered, and Da Vinci’s famed Last Supper awaits determined visitors like the prize at the end of a maze.

When Walks of Italy invited us to experience the city through a personalized guided tour, it set our minds at ease, knowing we could trust someone who knew Milan as a friend to make introductions on our behalf.

We made the easy train trip from our home base in Bologna: an hour+ train ride through the countryside and arrival at the impressive Milano Centrale Railway Station.

By this tail-end time in our Italy travels, we were a bit slow on our feet. Navigating Milan on our own and sourcing tickets to see the Last Supper (bookings must be done ages in advance) posed enough of a hurdle that we likely would’ve skipped the city altogether in any other scenario.

Thankfully, Charles from Walks of Italy met us at the platform and immediately took the lead, setting the pace and guiding us through a two hour journey along the intricate spider web of Milan’s mass transit system, old neighborhoods, and ancient sites, treating us to hidden courtyard views, tucked away gardens, beautiful art, and stories of city life over the ages.

Historical city walls and waterways of Milan, marked by Roman architecture, surrounded by agricultural fields.

Hidden nooks, crannies, and bright spots of Milan.

With an efficient mass transit + two/leg transportation plan, Charles led us past the bubble blowing characters in the metro station, through the zipping underground tunnels, and off into the web of city streets, on a customized itinerary from the hidden secrets to the famed grand finale.

The Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, dubbed “the Sistine Chapel of Milan,” wowed us more than the true Sistine chapel! No clapping guards or bubblegum chewing rebels. Humanity in the artwork. Enough to relate with.

Less glossy depictions of Christ. Murals showing his fury at the rip-offs happening in the temple. Panels honestly picturing green and gruesome flesh carried from the cross to the grave.

Beautiful pieces, too, like John the Baptist and the Trinity, and the colorful story of Noah’s Ark:

As we walked the streets, we received history lessons, and Charles was happy to answer questions about the city’s development and construction over time. We chatted about the decision to cover almost all of their once-exposed waterways (a little Millrace action for any Oregonians familiar with the city of Eugene?), and about how the hidden liquid flowing beneath the city contributes to humidity damage of frescoes like the Last Supper.

We stood in the Basilica named for Saint Ambrose, learning about his influence on the city and fellow theologians. (Ambrose baptized Saint Augustine, for example. At this point, I’d really just like to have coffee with our friend Brian LePort and hear the full history of this fascinating character. Our guide’s stories whetted our appetites to learn more, and Wikipedia only goes so far…)

Milan’s influential families shaped not just the development of the city but stamped their marks on sacred buildings, too…

Humbling and infuriating all at once to see evidences of faithfulness and likewise pick up on the age-old themes of corruption, politics, and power co-mingling in the church.

Toward the end of our wanderings, we made our way toward Santa Maria delle Grazie, to pay a visit to Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

After my Mona Lisa moment in high school, I set my expectations low, not wanting to be underwhelmed if we walked in and saw a humble little piece mounted on the wall.

Though tickets were long ago sold out, Charles easily presented ours and we were ushered in to the waiting room for our assigned entry time.

Any lingering hesitation was laid to rest once we entered the double climate sealed dining hall and turned to the right to see an amazing, larger than life scene of Christ and his disciples set above the room where devoted followers broke bread together for centuries.

Unlike the Mona Lisa, this inspired awe and reflection.

The height, the span, the purposeful position above the room. This was Christ at the head of the table, effectively reminding resident monks with bread and wine and rich symbolism with each passing meal… The art itself: shadowed and lit just so, to blend with the patterns of natural light falling on the room day after day.

Ted and I sat and looked on. We whispered, because it seemed fitting. We stood close and then stood back. We looked at the faces of Jesus’ followers, wondering about the real men behind the impressions.

When looking at art in a text book, it’s impossible to experience the extra dimension of context. Setting is as much a part of the piece as strokes, figure, and color.

Standing there in the refectory, we could turn and face the back wall and see the other half of the room’s tone setting scene. The last judgement ?

Pictures are not allowed, so I can’t share the scene. But I’ve found a virtual peek that you may enjoy: a 360 degree view of the refectory, showing the Last Supper and the Crucifixion at either end of the room.

In fifteen minutes’ time, the vacuum sealed doors opened, our time was up, and we were ushered out.

During our two hours with Charles, we gathered an overview of history allowing us to wrap our minds around the city. We learned the geography of the landscape to understand why humidity is the great enemy of Da Vinci’s classic piece. We learned the path to a tasty serving of gelato. And we learned enough about the transit system to make a dash visit to the famous Duomo of Milan before our evening train home to Bologna…

On the train ride back, our minds still buzzing with classic inspirations and hidden tidbits of the city, I mused with a smile at the experience of being truly wowed by Da Vinci on an afternoon in Milan.

Move over, Mona Lisa.


What piece of art have you seen in real life that impressed your socks off?

For details on Milan itineraries with Walks of Italy:
Private Last Supper Tour – the Genius of Da Vinci
Milan City Stroll

We are grateful to Walks of Italy for inviting us to review current and soon-to-be-launched private tour itineraries during our time in Umbria, Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, and the Veneto. Walks of Italy provided the experiences; our words and images are our own. For more on how Walks of Italy fits into our Italian Adventure, check out our Definitionarium.

All photos by twoOregonians. (See link for Parent Trap poster source.)
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  • Reply Kirsten June 16, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    I have a confession: I’ve never been largely interested in visiting Milan. I do love Italy but Milan is simply lowest on my list in terms of Italian cities I long after.

    That’s changed. Now. Thank you for this post my loves.

    • Reply twoOregonians June 18, 2012 at 7:04 pm

      Thank you, dearie! I’ll admit, I felt the same way about Milan. All the talk of fashion and big city bustle seemed too far out of my realm, and I was much more interested in other Italian sights. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to have my stereotypes challenged: there were so many lovely spots to discover! I hope you get the chance to see the Last Supper someday…it really was a special experience.

  • Reply Heather Wiese June 17, 2012 at 12:30 am

    Monet’s Waterlilies at the MoMA in New York were breathtaking. I had no idea they would be so huge- over 20 feet long and absolutely gorgeous. Could have sat there all day :) Would love to see the Last Supper someday too!

    • Reply twoOregonians June 18, 2012 at 7:06 pm

      Oh!! I’m super jealous! I’d love to see that someday… Waterlilies are so peaceful. I remember a children’s library book about Monet that I used to check out when I was a little girl. There was a description of the enormous paintings at the end, and I’ve wished to see them ever since.

  • Reply Lindsay June 17, 2012 at 8:10 am

    I agree with the Water Lilies comment and also almost anything by Van Gogh.

    I saw the Last Supper on my first trip to Italy when I was in high school and you’re right, it is truly impressive. I don’t remember vacuum sealed doors, but that was 15 yeas ago!

    • Reply twoOregonians June 18, 2012 at 7:08 pm

      Hey Lindsay, so cool! I want to hear more about your high school trip and how it impacted you : ) I was a bit surprised by all the climate control technology at the Last Supper, but it makes sense when you think about all of the humidity in the air in that part of Italy. In some ways, it’s amazing that the art has lasted this long.

      Van Gogh makes me want to dive into a pool of color!

  • Reply Kieu June 19, 2012 at 10:39 am

    The birth of Venus at the Uffizi was a moment for me. We went to Milan partly because of the Last Supper and it was pretty cool. Though I think if we had a guide it be a bit more interesting.. so much mystery and history behind the painting. :)

    • Reply twoOregonians June 20, 2012 at 4:14 pm

      Yes! I can totally picture that. Such an enormous, beautiful painting…

      No doubt about it, the guide made all the difference in getting the most out of Milan in such a short visit. He was helpful at the Last Supper – he gave several minutes of explanation and then allowed us to enjoy it on our own for the rest of our allotted time.

      Thanks for stopping by! Happy travels to you and G. : )

  • Reply BrowsingRome June 20, 2012 at 9:15 am

    Thanks for sharing Milan with us and love the saying you mentioned about Rome and Milan that one displays everything she has and the other keeps her secrets for a true lover. It’s is absolutely right on and with that said, I am embarrassed to say I have yet to visit Milan. I guess Rome has spoiled me so much with her displays that Milan is low on the list. That has changed after reading your post and I hope to pay her a visit some time this year.

    • Reply twoOregonians June 20, 2012 at 4:16 pm

      Yes, that’s exactly how I felt. I’d visited Rome twice before and honestly thought that I could skip Milan for the rest of my life and never miss a thing. I’m so grateful to have been given the chance to discover some of her hidden beauties! : ) I hope you get the chance to visit sometime soon. Thanks for reading : )

    What say you?