Here’s my guide to the must see paintings and art masterpieces in Milan Italy. If you’re on the art trail in Milan, put these beauties on your itinerary for Milan.
You might not know it, but Milan is a great destination for art lovers. Rome and Florence get all the glory when people think of the best art in Italy. But Milan is a cultural powerhouse as well.
Milan has some of the greatest artistic treasures of the Renaissance. Milan’s defining artistic moment was the arrival of Leonardo da Vinci in 1481.
Hired by the Duke of Sforza as the resident court artist, Leonardo lived in Milan for almost 18 years. There, he produced some of his most important work, including the iconic Last Supper, Milan’s top attraction.
You can find works by the finest Renaissance masters like Michelangelo, Bellini, and Botticelli.
There are also Milanese museums with cutting edge modern works by the Italian Futurists and Spatialists. And Milan’s galleries are worthy competitors on the international contemporary art scene.
The finest museum in Milan is the Pinacoteca di Brera, so many of these must see Milanese masterpieces are housed there. Let’s take a journey through the stunning must see masterpieces of Milan’s permanent art collections.
15 Must See Masterpieces in Milan
Here’s the top art masterpieces to see in Milan. You may want to book this art walking tour with wine tasting in the Brera district.
5 1. Michelangelo, Rondanini Pieta, Sforza Castle
The most important masterpiece inside Sforza Castle is indisputably Michelangleo’s Rondanini Pieta. It even has its own museum, the Museo Pieta Rondanini Michelangelo.
The Rondanini Pieta is Michelangelo’s last and unfinished work. Michelangelo likely intended it for his tomb. The sculpture was discovered in his studio after his death at almost 89. He depicts the dead Christ as an emblem of suffering.
This late Michelangelo pieta, a consistent them in his long career, has been interpreted as a piece of modern art. Michelangelo intentionally made the figures more slender as he worked. The result is a rather abstract “infinite pieta,” in which Mary’s love is so infinite that a finished work of art couldn’t describe it.
2. Giorgio de Chirico, The Philosopher’s Troubles, Museo del Novecento
Right next door to the Royal Palace is Milan’s 20th century art museum, the Museo del Novecento. It’s housed in the Palazzo dell’Arengario on the Piazza del Duomo. The impressive collection is a veritable who’s who of the 20th century, with both Italian and International artists represented.
The Novecento focuses on the Futurist Movement, Spatialism, and Art Povera (art made from poor materials). One of its most famous masterpieces is Giorgio de Chirico’s Philosopher’s Troubles.
De Chirico was revered as a visionary by the Surrealists, and is known as the “godfather of Surrealism.” The Surrealists admired his metaphysical style compositions.
De Chirico’s images appear flat and painted with bright colors. They seem rife with meaning, and yet are puzzlingly enigmatic.
This painting is one of de Chirico’s signature mysterious cityscapes. In it, two faceless stationary figures hold stylized and miniaturized buildings. The city buildings are almost an architectural still life.
It’s a dreamlike sceanario that’s disorienting. The “street” is in his favorite melancholy yellow.
3. Botticelli, Madonna of the Book, Museo Poldi Pezzoli
Everyone knows Botticelli for his masterpiece The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery. But Botticelli was mainly an iconographer of religion. For a time, he even came under the thrall of the mad monk Savonarola who battled the governing Medici dynasty.
In particular, Botticelli is famed for his numerous paintings of the madonna and child theme. In Milan, you can find one of these tender renderings at the Museo Poldi Pezzolli, Madonna of the Book. The house museum is a hidden gem in Milan, so you won’t have to fight the crowds to see this captivating Botticelli work.
In Botticelli’s painting, Mary looks pensive. Mary holds Jesus as she reads from a religious text. Baby Jesus looks up at his mother with love.
Though there’s a window, light seems to emanate from the figures themselves. The fruit in the bowl is full of religious symbolism, characteristic of Botticelli’s penchant for allegory. The painting also has the delicate and elegant style of a mature Botticelli.
4. Andrea Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ, Pinacoteca di Brera
Occupying its own wall in the Brera museum, Mantegna’s Lamentation is the most celebrated painting at the Pinacoteca di Brera. And the most celebrated depiction of extreme foreshortening. Foreshortening is used to create a perspectival illusion of space and depth.
Mantegna was the official court artist of the Duke of Mantua, a beautiful and underrated town in northern Italy. Lamentation is a powerful, but almost eerie, painting.
The faded quality lends it a transcendent aura. Your eyes are drawn to Jesus’ face and the image of suffering. You almost feel like you’re a witness at Jesus’ side.
The painting is a full length male body, but it measures only inches. There is graphic detail in the pierced wounds. With the painting’s almost clinical accuracy, you can see the flesh that has been displaced.
The painting was discovered in Mantegna’s studio at his death. Some art historians theorize that he intended it to be part of his funerary monument.
Click here to book a ticket to the Brera Museum.
5. Raphael, Marriage of the Virgin, Pinacoteca di Brera
This is a real gem of a painting, signed and dated by Raphael. Raphael was only 21 when he painted it. It’s a sophisticated work for such young artist.
The subject of the painting is a common Renaissance theme, from a medieval book called The Golden Legend. A priest marries Mary and Joseph in front of a temple in Jerusalem. The figures are gracefully rendered and clad in brightly colored clothes, typical of Raphael.
Carrying his magic rod, Joseph puts a wedding ring on Mary in a marriage ceremony. Joseph won Mary’s hand with this rod-branch, which miraculously blossomed during the competition of the suitors.
The people in Raphael’s painting seem somewhat secondary compared to the temple above. It’s an exercise in architectural realization. The temple is painted with such precision that it appears almost like a wood model. On the arched peristyle, you can read Raphael’s signature.
6. Francesco Hayez, The Kiss, Pinacoteca di Brera
This painting, Il Bacio, is one of the most famous paintings in Italy. It’s certainly the most famous Italian painting from the 19th century.
Hayez was the one of the leading artists of the Romantic Movement. He’s celebrated for his grand portraits and historical paintings.
In Hayez’ painting, two figures (a soldier and a maiden) in medieval attire passionately embrace, against a pale brick background. The woman’s blue silk dress is especially striking, and seems to shimmer.
The painting is a hymn to young love. The solider carries a dagger, prepared to go off to battle the Austrians.
But the painting is also politically charged. It’s an allegory meant to represent the union of Italy and France.
7. Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of a Musician, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana
The Ambrosiana Museum houses Leonardo’s Portrait of a Musician. It’s not a univerally accepted Leonardo. The unfinished painting was originally billed as a “school of Luini” painting.
But scholars now mostly seem inclined to accept the painting as an original autograph Leonardo. Still, controversy surrounds the painting. It would be Leonardo’s only known portrait of a man.
Many factors weigh against the painting’s authenticity: it’s mostly unfinished with some overpainting, it lacks any historical documentation, the subject is unidentified, the hand was added later, and everything below the face is somewhat stiff and clumsily rendered.
But other scholars claim the meditative face was painted by Leonardo. They suggest that the man is a Tuscan musician, who was a friend of Leonardo. He’s depicted in Leonardo’s typical 3/4 view and accompanying dark background. And, well, Leonardo had a lifelong habit it of leaving his works unfinished.
Historians believe that the sheet of music in the subject’s hand (uncovered during restoration) contains a cryptic inscription, which is a classic Leonardo hidden message. In any event, there isn’t usually much documentation of paintings of this vintage.
Click here to book a ticket to the Ambrosiana Museum.
8. Pellizza da Volpedo, Fourth Estate, Museo del Novecento
Created between 1889 and 1901, this great canvas was originally titled The Path of Workers. It’s an interesting example of the Socialist Idealism school. The Fourth Estate is the first painting you’ll see when you step into the Muse del Novecento, Milan’s 20th century art museum.
The painting is an icon of Italy’s labor movement. Without any architecture or real landscape, the painting becomes not an actual representation but a symbol of class struggle and collective action.
The painting depicts a moment during a labor strike. The workers’ representatives emerge from a crowd to negotiate terms.
The workers are calm and quietly dignified. Though Volpedo was a Divisionist, the eloquence of the figures’ gestures seems inspired by the Renaissance subjects of Raphael and Michelangelo.
The painting was just on view at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, but is now back in Milan.
9. Frescos in the Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore
The 8th century Church of San Maurizio may be Milan’s most beautiful church. It’s certainly one of the best preserved.
Commissioned by the Sforzas, the church is right next to Leonardo’s The Last Supper fresco. The sober and unadorned exterior hides a stunning frescoed interior. Almost every inch of wall space is colorfully decorated.
The frescos were created by Leonardo’s school in the 15th century by artists like Boltraffio, Luini, and Simone Peterzano. The frescos are nicknamed the “Sistine Chapel of Milan.”
The Hall of Nuns, behind a dividing wall in the church, is spectacular. It’s where the nuns used to listen to mass. You’ll find a Noah’s Ark fresco, complete with unicorns.
10. Leonardo Frescos in the Salle dell Asse, Castle Sforza
In the Sala delle Asse of Castle Sforza, you’ll find an important Leonardo fresco. Commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, it’s the only Leonardo fresco in existence besides The Last Supper. The fresco graced the Sforza’s illustrious ceremonial room.
It’s an unusual decorative ensemble, with a dense mass of vegetation. It depicts a garden pergola with 16 mulberry trees bound together by a golden rope. Mulberry trees were associated with wisdom and prudence. In the center is the Sforza and d’Este coats of arms.
Painted in seco fresco like The Last Supper, Leonardo’s fresco in a state of disrepair and conservation is ongoing. Historians initially dismissed the fresco as a fantastical caprice. But Leonardo was intensely interested in nature and produced many botanical studies.
For many centuries, the fresco was hidden under a thick layer of whitewash. It was only discovered in 1893-94. After restoration, the hall was reopened to public. But the restorers misinterpreted Leonardo’s initial design, adding excessive details.
In 1954, a second restoration took place and all the non-Leonardo additions were removed. Another still ongoing restoration began in 2013. There’s a 10 minute video about the fresco’s creation and life in the hall.
11. Luini, Saint Jerome in Penitence, Museo Poldi Pezzoli
Bernardino Luini was the most famous painter in Milan in the early 16th century. Luini was heavily influenced by Leonardo, for whom Luini was a studio assistant.
Luini was once thought to be the creator of Salvator Mundi, a blockbuster painting that sold for nearly half a billion dollars and is now tentatively attributed to Leonardo.
In Luini’s painting of Saint Jerome in Penitence, the white-bearded saint kneels in front of a cave. With one hand, he strikes his breast with a stone. The other hand rests on a skull.
The saint’s eyes are fixed on a crucifix. Nearby is a lion, the symbol of Saint Jerome.
Luini depicts the background landscapewith great care and precision. The composition has a naturalistic style typical of the Renaissance.
12. Boccioni, Elasticity, Museo del Novocento
Boccioni was the most prominent member of the Italian Futurists. The Futurists were active around the same time as Picasso and the Cubists.
Their mission was to usher in a new era and drag Italy into the future. The Futurists loved the craziness and chaos of the big cities like Milan. Boccioni claimed “all things move, all things run, all things are rapidly changing.”
In Elasticity, Boccioni tries to capture the roiling muscular movement of a horse and its rider. The painting’s image is fractured and full of power. It exudes energy, consistent with the Futurist ethos that life was dynamic and full of a tireless restlessness.
Another iconic Boccioni painting is found in the Brera gallery, Riot in a Gallery.
12. Equestrian Statue of Vittorio Emmanuel II
The bronze Equestrian Statue of Vittorio Emmanuel II dominates the Duomo Square. It’s nicknamed Il Vittoriano. Vittorio became the first king of a united Italy in 1861.
The dramatic (and perhaps over-emphatic) monument was designed by Ercole Rosa in 1896. The statue depicts the king leading the army into the Battle of Solferino.
The monument is the largest in Milan. It’s monolithic and rather brazen. The king and his horse are 40 feet high. At the statue’s base are 14 allegorical figures representing the cities of Italy.
The monument also has two fountains. On its steps are two bronze sculptures, another four stone sculptures, and lions. The sculptures isn’t a favorite of art critics, who view it as almost kitsch even though no comic effect was intended.
13. Antonio Canova, Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, Pinacoteca di Brera
In the center of the beautiful arcaded Brera courtyard, you’ll find a monumental bronze statue of the French Emperor Napoleon … in the nude. It’s by the talented Neo-Classical sculptor Antonio Canova, whose works grace the Louvre and the Borghese Gallery.
The sculpture doesn’t look exactly like Napoleon. We all know he was short and a tad stout. But, in Canova’s statue, Napoleon is presented as a conquering hero with the stunning physique of a Greek god.
Napoleon commissioned the piece as a propaganda-style statue. The statue is dubbed Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker. It has Napoleon’s head on Mars’ body.
Another version of the same statue, in plaster, is located inside in the gallery, in a room dedicated to 16th century Venetian painting.
14. Antonio Canova, Hebe, Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Milano
This beautiful Canova sculpture is in GAM, Milan’s best museum for 19th century art. The scultpure depicts Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Hera and serving maid on Mount Olympus.
Hebe is one of Canova’s most famous works. Hebe is shown in the midst of serving nectar to the gods.
The statue reflects all the canonical ideals of Neo-Classicalism. Hebe has an ethereal face and the fluid drapery of her robes waves across her body. Her arm holds an amphora in a graceful gesture.
Hebe creates an impression of weightlessness. The goddess seems almost to float or flit across the clouds.
15. Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, Santa Maria Delle Grazie
I’ve saved the best for last. The Last Supper is one of the world’s most iconic paintings, found on the back wall of the refectory in Santa Maria delle Grazie. No painting is so familiar, save for the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. The church is one of 51 UNESCO sites in Italy.
Painted by Leonardo da Vinci, the billboard size painting is a Renaissance masterpiece. It shows the moment when Christ reveals that one of his apostles will betray him.
Not only is The Last Supper famous, it’s a fascinating and spellbinding artwork surrounded by mysteries and legends. The Last Supper is as renowned for its fragility as its power.
Because Leonardo painted in secco fresco (dry) instead of buon fresco (true), the painting began to deteriorate immediately. It’s a violent art history tale of great triumph and great tragedy.
You’ve got to be organized and reserve in advance to see this quasi-restored, yet still beautiful, masterpiece. Advance reservations are mandatory.
I’ve written a complete guide to everything you need to know about seeing The Last Supper — what to expect, how to get tickets, and an analysis of the painting itself.
You’ll need to book a timed entry ticket well in advance to see this masterpiece in Milan.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the best art work in Milan. You may enjoy these other guides to amazing art in Italy:
- Best museums in Rome
- Guide to Rome’s Borghese Gallery
- Masterpieces of the Vatican
- Rome’s secret palace museums
- Florence art bucket list
- Italy art bucket list
- Guide to the Medici Palaces
- Guide to the Uffizi Gallery
- All of Leonardo’s paintings
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