Guide To the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, Italy's Most Underrated Museum
Here's my guide to visiting the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan Italy. I also give you an overview of the Brera's must see masterpieces and tips for visiting. The Brera Art Gallery is Milan's premiere museum, one of Milan's must see attractions.
The Brera museum mesmerizes art lovers, art historians, and art critics. It boasts top shelf Renaissance and Baroque art by the likes of Caravaggio, Raphael, Bellini, Rubens, Piero della Francesca, Tintoretto, and Andrea Mantegna.
For most Italy tourists, the Brera Museum is an off the beaten path rarely visited hidden gem in Milan, with no crowds. Despite displaying scores of masterpieces, the Brera garners only 200,000 visitors per year. Is the the Brera Museum Europe's most underrated museum?
To my mind, the Brera is one of the very best museums in Italy, after the big three -- Rome's Borghese Gallery, the Vatican Museums and Florence's Uffizi Gallery. The Brera's exquisite collection is housed inside the beautiful late 18th century Palazzo Brera near Milan's Duomo.
The Pinacoteca di Brera has a magnificent collection of both ancient and modern Italian art. The collection is especially concentrated in religious-themed works from the 14th to the 16th centuries.
Highlights of the Brera Museum: 16 Top Masterpieces
Founded in 1808 by Napoleon, the Pinacoteca di Brera boasts works spanning the 14th to 20th centuries. The museum's 38 rooms are well-curated, organized by time period and style.
But the Brera is so much more than just Renaissance art works. When you tire of madonnas and saints, you can head to the museum's impressive collection of modern art.
Here's what you need to see at the Brera.
1. Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus, 1606
It's believed Caravaggio painted this work when he was a fugitive from justice in Rome, wanted for murder. The Colonna family took him in, hiding him away.
Caravaggio was the greatest painter of the Baroque. He was extremely photo realistic in his rendering of his subjects. Caravaggio took the dramatic light-dark contrast called tenebrism to the extreme. He also exalted the mundane and vulgar elements of real life.
In this painting, Caravaggio depicts a common theme -- Jesus' first supper after his resurrection and the discovery of his empty tomb. Two disciples recognize him and are shocked.
It's a simple painting, without much narrative. Though the gestures are theatrical. And the light and shadow create an intense atmosphere.
Two interesting facts. Some art historians say that Jesus is a self portrait of Caravaggio. In addition, not everyone accepts this painting as an authentic Caravaggio. There are plenty of Caravaggio forgeries. In this one, the faces may not be the quality of undisputed Caravaggio's.
2. Francesco Hayez, The Kiss, 1859
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.
This painting is Italy's answer to Gustav Klimt's The Kiss in Vienna Austria. In subject matter, it's also similar to the famous American photograph of a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square to celebrate the end of WWII.
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.
3. Raphael, Marriage of the Virgin, 1504
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.
Raphael's early works are reminiscent of his teacher, Pietro Perugino. Marraige of the Virgin was clearly influenced by Perugino's famous The Delivery of the Keys to Saint Peter in the Vatican Museums and by Perugino's altarpiece of the same name in Caen.
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.
4. Andrea Mantegna's Lamentation of the Dead Christ, 1480
Occupying its own wall, Mantegna's Lamentation is the most celebrated painting in the Brera collection. 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 northrn Italy. The subject of the painting could be a lamentation. Or, because of the rare presence of the stone that Jesus lies on, the painting could be a deposition.
The painting 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 can 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.
5. Guido Cagnacci, Death of Cleopatra, 1657-59
Cagnacci isn't that well known to the general public. But his art is powerful and unconventional for the time.
His contemporaries nicknamed him "il genie bizzaro." Cagnacci certainly had a colorful personal life -- eloping and then ditching an aristocratic woman, disguising female conquests as male apprentices, and adopting false names.
His work was influenced by great Baroque painters like Guercino and Reni. But Cagnacci's paintings had their own individual sensuousness.
The Dying Cleopatra is one of several of Cagnacci's erotic paintings. Cleopatra's death, of course, has long captivated artists. In Cagnacci's portrait, the Egyptian queen appears to have just been bitten by a small snake under her right arm.
Cagnacci deftly combines art and sexuality. Cleopatra's face is flushed, seemingly in both pleasure and pain. She could be a woman in a state of ecstasy.
6. Piero della Francesca, Montefeltro Altarpiece, 1472-74
This Piero Della Francesca painting is utterly beautiful. It's almost surprising that it's not in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The painting is also called the Brera Altarpiece or the Madonna of the Egg. Piero is considered the precursor to Leonardo da Vinci.
Frederico Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, commissioned the painting. He's depicted as the figure in armor kneeling in the bottom right of the paintings.
You may remember (or recognize) Montefeltro as part of the famous double portrait in the Uffizi Gallery. A very distinctive nose. The armor is well-painted, with light is reflecting off it.
The subject is well known -- a grouping of the madonna, child, and saints. There's the usual beautiful face of a Piero madonna. Saint John the Baptist is on the far left, looking quite saint-ish. Saint John the Evangelist is in the front, identifiable because he's holding a book.
There's an egg in the painting, hanging from the dome. It represents fertility and doubles as a symbol of the Montefeltro family. The painting may have been painted to celebrate the birth of Montefeltro's fifth child and only son.
The egg is found in an inlaid clamshell in the arched dome. As in Botticelli's Birth of Venus, the clamshell is most likely a symbol of Venus.
7. Peter Paul Rubens, The Last Supper, 1632
Rubens was the most influential artist of the Flemish Baroque school. This highly charged Rubens painting was meant to be an altarpiece for a church in Belgium.
Like other Last Suppers, Jesus and his apostles are gathered around a table. It's the final meal before Jesus is crucified. Jesus is about to announce that one of them will betray him.
Jesus is bathed in light, dressed in red, with an identifying halo. Judas is dressed in yellow (indicating evil) and looks directly at the viewer. The figures are bathed in warm and intense colors.
With his hand near his mouth, Judas looks almost nervous. The dog at Judas' feet looks up at him, as if to signal Judas is the traitor.
As with most paintings created during Ruben's late career, this one was painted with the aid of assistants. The Brera received it in a swap with the Louvre in 1813.
8. Giovanni Bellini, Pieta, 1465-70
Bellini is the first important Venetian painter. The Venetian Renaissance began around 1500, a bit behind Florence, likely due to the Eastern influence in Venice.
The subject of this Bellini painting is a pieta, an Italian word that translates into pity. Pietas are usually a depiction of Mary holding her dead son for the last time.
Bellini's pieta is slightly different because Jesus is shown standing. Neither Mary or John the Baptist are doing much to support a lifeless Jesus, suggesting a supernatural element at play.
Bellini's figures look rather sculptural. There's an extraordinary realism. Jesus looks like he's in rigor mortis. Yet the painting still conveys the sorrowful humanity of its subjects.
This is a rare early work by Bellini. Bellini's line would became softer as his expertise grew.
9. Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria, 1504-07
This painting is truly enormous. It's a Venetian scuola, or confraternity painting, commissioned by the Scuola Grande di San Marco for its reception room. It was begun by Bellini's brother Gentile. On his death, Gentile designated Giovanni to complete the painting.
The complex painting is set in Alexandria. Not the real Alexandria, but an exotic city from Bellini's imagination. The city looks suspiciously like Venice, with an image of St. Mark's Basilica in the background.
The emphasis is on the setting, not the narrative. The architecture dominates the scene, dwarfing the people.
Saint Mark, patron saint of Venice, is shown preaching on a pedestal at the left. Before him are mysteriously veiled women. Turbaned men make up the rest of the scene. The paintings suggests hope for a reconciliation between Venice and its Muslim neighbors.
10. Tintoretto, Discovery of the Body of St. Mark, 1562
This dramatic painting is another work from the San Marco Scuola. It's painted by the great Tintoretto, who followed in the footsteps of (the even greater) Titian.
The story here is the discovery of the body of Saint Mark. Saint Mark was the subject of one of the greatest grave robberies in history. A group of Venetians stole his body from Alexandria and smuggled it into Venice by gondola.
Tintoretto shows the Venetians rummaging through the mortuary and crypt trying to find Saint Mark. The body of Jesus looks very similar to Mantegna's Lamentation.
A haloed Saint Mark imperiously appears to the Venetians. He commands them to stop the desecration because his body is already lying at their feet.
Tintoretto's style is quintessentially dark. He loved night scenes. There's a similarity to Caravaggio. The bodies of the corpses are eerily lit to theatrical effect. The play of light off the arcades give the painting a spatial depth.
11. Bramante, Christ Tied To the Column, 1490-94
Bramante was a multi-talented artist, a true Renaissance man trained as an architect and painter. He was trained in Urbino, a center for mathematical studies, a field which rubbed off on Bramante.
But Bramante took his work up a notch in Milan. In his later career, he decamped to Rome. There, Bramante helped with the design of St. Peter's Basilica, built the lovely Tiempetto, and was responsible for the beautiful spiral staircase in the Vatican Museums.
READ: 5 Days in Rome Itinerary
In this piece, Bramante was inspired by Leonardo's The Last Supper. Jesus' body is in the immediate foreground. Ropes are tied around his neck and hands. In the background, the painting suggests a room in which he is likely being tortured. There's a fine use of perspective.
12. Canalletto, View of the Basin of San Marco from the Punta della Dogana, 1740-45
The Brera has two versions of a beautiful painting of Venice by Canaletto. Canaletto was a virtuoso painter of the Venetian School. He was a founder of the genre of Vedutismo, where artists painted views. And the lagoon of Venice was one of his favorite subjects.
Canaletto had an eye for compositional balance and feel for dramatic effects. He composed images of recognizable landmarks, sometimes with a blend of imaginary architectural and scenic elements.
In this painting, Canaletto captures in magnificent detail the bustling daily life of Venice. Quotidian details are juxtaposed with splendid views of St. Mark's Square and the Doge's Palace. The drawing is exquisite.
13. Umberto Boccioni, Riot at the Gallery, 1910
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 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."
Boccioni's Riot at the Gallery painting is a seminal Futurist work. It's an early piece, still clearly influenced by the Pointillists or Neo-Impressionists. The brushwork is precise and painstaking.
The painting depicts a fight between two women in front of a cafe in Milan. The spectators are frenzied. Boccioni also uses color to play with light. He shows sunburst flashes, refracted light, and artificial light.
14. Modigliani Portraits
The Brera owns several Modigliani paintings, including L'Enfant Gras (1915), Women's Head (1915), and Portrait of Moïse Kisling (1915).
In 1915, Modigliani launched what he called "le grand style." His potraits from this period are rendered in highly geometric style, with elongated faces and ovoid eyes.
Modiglinai used unreal tones laid on in broad and dense areas of paint. The results are portraits that are depersonalized and almost abstract.
15. Picasso, Head of a Bull, 1942
Picasso was a revolutionary. His art is unparalleled in terms of quality, quality, and vitality. With his countless innovations, most art historians consider Picasso the greatest artist of the 20th century.
Naturally, the Brera has a Picasso. They own Head of a Bull, a rather expressive and brutal Picasso rendering. Picasso depicts the bull's severed head. It's a Cubist throwback with no concern for 3D perspective.
Picasso was definitely obsessed with bulls. Bulls were constantly present in Picasso's art across all his periods. Picasso's bulls are similar to the serial paintings of Rouen Cathedral and the gardens of Giverny made by Claude Monet.
Picasso used bulls as a metaphor. His images seem to represent virility, male strength, and masculinity. The bull image even appears in Guernica, his seminal political work on display in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.
16. Antonio Canova, Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, 1803-09 (cast in 1812)
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 dedicated to 16th century Venetian painting.
Virtual Tour of the Pinacoteca di Brera
The gallery has created an online catalog of over 600 art works. You can admire the art online and read relevant historical details in Italian or English.
The collection can be searched by date and artist. Take a virtual tour of the Pinacoteca di Brera here.
Practical Information and Tips for Visting the Pinacoteca di Brera
Address: Via Brera 28 Milan
Opening Hours: Tuesday and Wednesday from 9:30 am to 1:30 pm & Thursday to Sunday, from 2:00 pm to 6:30 pm
Entry fee: € 12, audio guide € 5
Pro tip: Get the audio guide, unless you're an expert in Italian painting.
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