view from Milan Cathedral

Museums and galleries in Italy: Milan

The streets of art in Italy's fashion capital

For you curious reader-spectators, Milan opens the doors of its two most famous art galleries, the Ambrosiana and the Brera.

Between the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana...

Entrance to the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan.

Entrance to the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan.

The birth of the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana is inextricably linked to the central figure of Cardinal Federico Borromeo, who was archbishop of the diocese of Milan from 1595 to 1631. He had a different temperament from the previous Borromeo, his cousin Carlo, as he was less inclined towards an extremist application of the Counter-Reformation, but he was nevertheless looked to for his commitment to training the clergy and educating the faithful in Tridentine principles. Like Charles, in fact, Frederick was also concerned with ensuring that the diocese flourished culturally, especially in the field of art, in the conception that the role of images should be ethical and catechetical, capable therefore of transmitting the Gospel message to the masses (and this is what he expounds in his De pictura sacra).

💡 Did you know? De pictura sacra was published by Borromeo in 1624 with the intention of providing a normative catalogue of the new art in the light of the decisions taken by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent. Divided into two books, the first deals with general principles such as decorum, verisimilitude, the nude, etc.; the second deals with more specific cases, such as the representation of the Trinity, the Holy Family and the Crucifixion.

On the strength of the intellectual and artistic experience he had gained in Rome, he in turn promoted the creation of modern cultural structures in Milan. In 1609 he founded the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (in honour of Saint Ambrose, the city's patron saint), and in 1618 he added - as a twin institution - the Pinacoteca, in which he placed his small but sought-after art collection, made available to the students of the Accademia (already active since 1613) so that they would have suitable examples to follow for a correct education in line with the new ecclesiastical dictates. But although the Academy ended its activity on Federico's death (1631), the Library and the Art Gallery continue to be the most significant places in the city today.

Divided into 24 rooms (of which 1, 4, 5, 6 and 7 house the paintings donated by Cardinal Federico), the Ambrosiana houses some interesting examples of the work of the most illustrious Italian artists, including Botticelli's Madonna del Padiglione (room 2), Leonardo's Portrait of a Musician (room 2), the preparatory cartoon for the School of Athens, which Raphael frescoed in the famous Stanza della Segnatura of Julius II in Rome (room 5), Titian's Adoration of the Magi (room 1) and Caravaggio's Basket of Fruit (room 6). These are flanked by other significant figures from 17th century Lombardy (Morazzone and Daniele Crespi, rooms 15-16), the 18th century (Tiepolo with The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, room 17), and the 19th and 20th centuries (Francesco Hayez with a large group of portraits, room 19).

Particularly noteworthy is room 7, where it is possible to admire a rich series of allegories by the Flemish painter Jan Brueghel dei Velluti, a friend of Borromeo.

Raphael, Cartoon of the School of Athens, c. 1509-1511, detail. Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana.

Raphael, Cartoon of the School of Athens, c. 1509-1511, detail. Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana.

...and the Pinacoteca of Brera

Inner courtyard of the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

Inner courtyard of the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

One of Italy's largest picture galleries, the Pinacoteca di Brera is housed in a former medieval convent belonging to the Umiliati order.

💡 Did you know? The name 'Brera', given to the palace, derives from the term braida or breda, which in late Latinity indicated an uncultivated field located in a suburban area.

This remained the case until 1501, when it was abolished and the building entrusted to the Jesuits, who turned it into an important college (University), making it necessary to enlarge the complex. When the Jesuits were suppressed in 1772, the entire building passed into the hands of Maria Theresa of Austria (the Duchy of Milan had in the meantime become a possession of the Habsburgs at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714), who took care of its completion and the setting up of a library and an Art Academy inside.

In 1796 Napoleon occupied Milan and, as King of Italy (crowned in the cathedral), made Brera the centre for the collection of all the paintings from the north of the peninsula that had been relocated following the suppression of religious orders, which he himself had ordered. This gave the palace the opportunity to take possession of important Renaissance altarpieces (e.g. Piero della Francesca's Montefeltro Altarpiece, Mantegna's Saint Luke's Polyptych, Ercole de' Roberti's Saint Mary's Altarpiece) and other famous Italian works of art from the same period (Mantegna's Dead Christ, the Pietà by Giovanni Bellini (known as the Brera Pietà), Bramante's Christ at the Column, Raphael's The Marriage of the Virgin).

Opened to the public in 1809, it has been continually enriched with purchases and bequests from other schools and periods, distributed throughout its 38 rooms. In addition to the works already mentioned, visitors have the privilege of encountering the best of Venetian art with the canvases of the St Mark's Cycle created by Gentile Bellini together with his brother Giovanni (and in particular the Preaching of St Mark in a square in Alexandria), and the series of the same name by Tintoretto (specifically the Finding of St Mark's body); Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus (a lesser-known version of the one on display at the National Gallery in London); Francesco Hayez's famous Bacio; Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo's Fiumana (a painting that precedes the more famous Il Quarto Stato); Umberto Boccioni's Rissa in galleria and La città che sale; and Amedeo Modigliani's Enfant Gras.

Unfortunately, five of his works made their way to the Louvre in 1812 at the behest of the French Emperor and were never returned: the notorious Napoleonic plundering, to which several Italian masterpieces fell victim. As an example, in the case of Brera, one can mention Carpaccio's Preaching of Saint Stephen in Jerusalem.

Piero della Francesca, Montefeltro Altarpiece, 1472-1474. Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera.

Piero della Francesca, Montefeltro Altarpiece, 1472-1474. Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera.
By Vincenzo Canto