October 2018
More photos here


Thursday 25th October
My first visit to Milan, in March 2017, had been an Art Pursuits guided trip exploring Medieval Milan. This time I'm travelling with new company Sapienza, but with old-friend tour-guide Clare-Ford-Wille and Sapienza's head honcho, Charles, acting as tour manager.* The focus is more on the Renaissance this time - the trip is called Milan: Treasures of the Visconti and Sforza, with a morning in the Brera on the itinerary, unlike last time, along with visits to the Sforza and Visconti castles, and another visit to see Leonardo's Last Supper  - so I get a second look at it, having never seen it in my life before last year.

As we were booked onto flight BA0576 from Heathrow to Milan Linate leaving at 9.20 I stayed overnight at the Hilton Garden Hotel as usual. My room had the blue-tinted monochrome photo-block prints of elderly aircraft, as usual, with the matching blue view across the bridge from Tate Modern, as always, over the toilet. The unlovely view of roads and tedious functional architecture out of the actual window I didn't get to see in daylight this time, arriving late at night and leaving early.

The check-in process involved some techno-fuss printing out my boarding pass but the arrival of Charles helped me to a successful outcome. Bag-dropping and security-scanning went swift, and the Pret queue for my Americano and almond croissant seemed to melt miraculously away as I joined it. I like them omens! The greeting of old chums and the flight and arrival where all without problems too, and the minibus from Linate to our hotel, the Rosa Grand again, took hardly any time. Our rooms were not ready, but as lunch had been cunningly booked in the hotel restaurant - called Sforzia by Eataly - this was less of a problem. So after, for me, some spaghetti in a three-tomato sauce, gelato with frutti di bosco and an espresso, our rooms where ready. The youngish exibitionist couple checking in with a bloke swigging from a bottle of Jack Daniels was a bit unnerving, but the room was fine, if a little lacking in suitcases so far, but the sun was shining as we made for the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, through the Piazza del Duomo full of football fans and carabinieri. The Pin Amb is full of good stuff, almost all  from the 16th and 17th centuries, which Clare did justice to, but I'll have to come back to do more. There seem to be more copies and 'school-of' works here than average, but the highlights were the famous Caravaggio still-life (of which there was sadly no fridge-magnet available), some gorgeous Jan Brueghel landscapes painted on copper and a truly strange Adoration by Bramantino, with all sorts of figures you don't normally see, and will have trouble identifying. Raphael's cartoon of The School of Athens was unfortunately in a room that was being restored, so was not to be seen this time. The rest of the tour group, coming from Manchester (and later to become known as the Manchester Four, unfortunately) joined us towards the end of the visit, and so the old gang went for a coffee (or hot chocolate) as Clare brought the four up to speed. Then a quickish visit to San Satiro to marvel at Bramante's illusionistic apse, just before the 6 o'clock service started, before returning to the hotel to find our cases delivered, unpack and have a bit of a rest. Our first evening meal was in the restaurant on the very top floor of the Rinascente department store, with terrace views of the side of the Duomo. The veggie options were, like the meaty menu, imaginative, but did include salmon in the aperitifs and 'sweet water eggs' in the primo, which turned out to be some sort of roe.

Friday 26th October

The Rosa Grand breakfast rooms are still a weird maze, with the juice, coffee, muesli, wholemeal croissants and pastries miles apart on separate tables, often in different rooms, but all of them superior. A visit to the Duomo began our morning. The body-scanning and bag searching before entry resulted in the confiscation of my teeny new Swiss Army knife, with no procedure for me ever getting it back. Nice. Anyway, inside the architecture, the stained glass, some tombs and the gruesome statue of Saint Bartholomew Flayed, by Marco d'Agrate, which depicts the saint with his flayed skin thrown over his shoulder, all got admired. We also learned that in the days either side of the date of Carlo Borromeo's birthday, large canvases, called the Quadroni, are hung between the columns of the nave (see above right). His relics are to be found in the crypt here (see right). We then found out that when Charles bought our tickets for the Duomo Museum yesterday, timed for 11 o'clock entry, they had neglected to inform him that it would actually be closed at that time. A few of us instead braved the lift up to the roof and were reward with some fine close up views of crockets, finials, spires and flying buttresses.

After some reviving coffee we had a, literal, surprise visit to the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, to make up for our lack of a visit to the Duomo Museum. As this was the gallery I was most hotly looking forward to visiting on a future trip, I was most pleased. And even aside from the draws amongst the artworks, the palazzo itself is a lovely place. Comparisons to the Wallace collection in London are very appropriate, especially as there's a renowned armour collection here too, like in the Wallace.

After a non-group lunch we met up and made for the Castello Sforzesco. Admiring Romanesque sculpture, the equestrian tomb and some fresco frags first. Michelangelo's very unfinished Rondanini Pieta is now in it's own (attractive) space, so we trekked over there, sat and soaked and then trekked back to the main Pinacoteca, stopping off for a beverage break, and my second good, dark and thick hot chocolate. We then slipped into the back entrance to the Pinacoteca, so we wouldn't waste valuable (pre-closing-) time covering old ground, thereby causing much conflict between the senior staff member who'd said we could, and his inflexible colleagues. So, eventually, we got to look at Andrea Mantegna's wonderful Trivulzio Altarpiece, the surprise super and superior Giovanni Bellini Madonna & Child opposite (which had also been in the Trivulzio Collection, the basis of the Castello's collection), and a lovely little Madonna & Child by local lad Vincenzo Foppa. In amongst all this to-ing and fro-ing in the Castello were regular spottings of the goodly number of feral cats living in the internal moat, mostly lounging around a pile of stone cannon balls. The evening was free and, after a long and full day, I took the opportunity for some recharging alone-time. And a bath, which bordered on a luxuriate.

Saturday 27th October
After breakfast and in considerable rain, we were mini-bused to the Certosa of Pavia, built for Gian Galeazzo Visconti. (A Certosa, or Charterhouse, is the name given specifically to Carthusian monasteries.) Inside we admired the architecture, two tombs, one in each transept, and the unusual intarsia portraits on the stalls in the choir. The characteristic Carthusian cloisters featured the monks' individual two-storey quarters, which they rarely left, each with a vegetable garden. The resulting vista was part enormous cloister, part suburban terrace (see right).

After an excellent lunch in the town of Pavia we visited the Castello of Pavia, otherwise known as the Visconti Castle, in the still-pouring rain. Architecturally interesting in a castley kind of way, with some good terracotta detailing, this is mainly a gallery experience, with works of very varying quality, and a lot of copies. But there are real gems by Giovanni Bellini, Vicenzo Foppa, Paolo Veronese and Alvise Vivarini. Returning to Milan in our minibus in the continuing downpouring, we had the day's last damp visit, to see Leonardo’s Last Supper fresco, which you might have heard of, in the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie. I'd seen it last time, was not disappointed then, and neither was I today. Magic.

Sunday 28th October
Our last visit of the tour was to the Brera. Famous highlights included Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin, Mantegna’s Dead Christ, Piero’s Virgin with Child with Saints, Federico da Montefeltro and the Dangling Egg, and Venetian gems by Veronese, Tintoretto and Carpaccio, mostly the fruits of Napoleon's looting, because he was keen to make Milan the capital of his Kingdom of Italy to smack down Venice. Quieter joys where the many fine works by local boys, and emerging trip faves, Foppa and Luini. But we didn't see Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus as it was away in Paris at an exhibition in the Jacquemart-André. There were farewell hugs with the four heading to the airport to catch an earlier flight to Manchester, in the gallery in front of Francesco Hayez's famous Kiss (Il bacio - the blue of the woman's dress, and indeed the painting itself, being later adopted for the chocolate's box). A little later we returned - in no rain! - to the hotel to catch our minibus to the airport. All went well, with moderate queues, and  BA0563 due to leave at 3.35, was only about 20 minutes late. A bit of accidental and purposeful seat-swapping made for some minor mayhem before takeoff, sorted by the flight attendant. I ended up sitting next to Charles, and found him an open, witty and positive source of perceptions about the planning and running of tours*. Getting back and out onto my home soil was a little delayed, but I was met by Jane and whisked out onto the tube and into winter, having left (only four days ago) when it was still autumn. Ho-hum.

*Update But only a few days later I learned that Charles had decided to chuck it all in, so my first trip with Sapienza was also the last, ever. Very sad, and disappointing.





Guidebook corner

Bonechi Art and History Series

This is not a series I was familiar with, looking like something you'd pick up in a bookshop when you get there. And true to that evaluation it looks good inside and is nicely illustrated, with a couple of exploded views and even a fold-out (of Leonardo's Last Supper). Also unsurprisingly the translation is prone to inelegance and occasional incomprehensibility - architecture is often referred to as suggestive, for example. But the original text seems to have been well-informed and useful. So useful it all remains, and gives a good first impression of what to expect, in the churches and museums. It's also very easily and cheaply available second-hand.
The Poldi Pezzoli Museum


A larger-than-an-average-paperback, smaller-than-A4 guide to the museum. The paintings take up just less than half the contents, with armour, sculpture, enamels, carpets &c getting a few pages each too. The photos of the paintings get from a full page down to a quarter-page, depending on fame and importance, but all get just a couple of paragraphs of text. So not much room for scholarly discussion, but what there is seems sensible and sound. A good test is whether the writers admit to Flemish influences on Italian renaissance art, which is something Italian scholars are prone to downplay, to say the least. But here it's admitted, even for the Piero del  Pollaiuolo Portrait of a Woman, the face on the cover and the museum's logo.

The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana


This one is the same height as the Poldi Pezzoli guide but narrower. It's almost all about paintings and having a much bigger collection to cover it's twice the thickness. The photos of the paintings are rarely more than a third of a page, though, and mostly smaller. The text entries are mostly a single paragraph, so no scholarly digressions here either, just the facts. It's divided up by room, with a map showing each room's position at the start of each room's pages - a bit wasteful. Texts and translations seem sound. And it gives a convincing explanation of the odd 
Adoration by Bramantino seen on Thursday afternoon. As the order of the rooms is (very roughly) chronological my interest waned a bit around the half-way mark, but there is somel interesting stuff in the later rooms.
The Charterhouse of Pavia

A hand-sized booklet, written by some anonymous Carthusian monks and translated so as to be sometimes confusing and often meaningless. The entire architectonical complex is extraordinary harmonious for the spread brightness... Entertaining, and cheap enough to buy as a souvenir, for the photos, and to remind yourself what's there and what's where, but
somewhat lacking in scholarly clarity.

Trip reading

Marjorie Bowen
The Viper of Milan

I found this after I'd returned from my last Milan trip, but only read it just before this one. It was published in 1906 and is one of those novels that was famous in its day - Graham Greene was a fan and wrote the introduction - but is now next to forgotten. The action begins after Gian Galeazzo Visconti, 1st Duke of Milan, brutally acquires Verona, in 1360, and Mastino della Scala, the Duke of Verona, is left missing, assumed dead. The action revolves mostly around the court and captives in Milan, who quake in constant fear of murderous Gian Galeazzo. A local artist, and his daughter and her intended, feature too, as do many sudden shock revelations and the use of period phrases like 'verily thou art a poltroon to treat me so basely' and such like. It's all melodramatic and florid in action and  description, like you don't get anymore, with hints of the supernatural and madness. It's all very lurid and entertaining, but if it were food it'd maybe be a dish too rich to be consumed very often, methinks. The story does not tell the true history of events, and is full of deceit, treachery and cruelty - surprisingly dark deeds for the imagination of a 16 year old, as Bowen was when she wrote this.

Post-trip viewing

I am Love 2009
A welcome, as it turned out, recommendation from Christine on the trip. This is a film that she loves so much she bunked off one afternoon to go see the house that features very centrally, the Villa Necchi Campiglio. It tells of a wealthy Milanese family and begins with the patriarch of the family business announcing his retirement and naming his successors. He does so at a lavish dinner in said house to celebrate his birthday, the preparations for which begin the film as the characters are encountered and introduced. The story soon veers from the family business to funny-business, as it were, as a passionate affair develops. Our heroine here is played by an impeccably dressed Tilda Swinton, playing more sweaty and sexy than usual and contributing to a warm stream of sensuality that runs through the film in many forms - nature, food, fabrics, flesh... The broad and operatic sweep which one expects from Italian films from the likes of Paolo Sorrentino is here sweetened with touches of a more quirky Wes Anderson sensibility. (Actor Waris Ahluwalia, who appears in this film, has been in three Wes Anderson films.) Amongst the semi-recognised Italian actors is a barely-recognisable Marisa Berenson. The director went on to make A Bigger Splash (the one with Ralph Fiennes as an aging rock star) Call Me By Your Name and the recent Suspiria remake. This film has some fine camerawork and photography too, with a gorgeous opening title sequence of Milan in the snow, and it gives good Milan generally.

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