The Duchy of Milan – approximately coterminous with modern Lombardy – was the wealthiest and most powerful territory in mediaeval and Renaissance Italy, and its eponymous metropolis was possibly the largest city in Europe. A telling detail is that the greatest genius of his time, Leonardo da Vinci, chose to spend much of his working life in Milan rather than in other Italian cities that are now more commonly associated with artistic and intellectual endeavour.
The ruling dynasties in mediaeval Lombardy were the Visconti and, after 1450, the Sforza. They produced a string of the most feared rulers in Italy – but also created around them the most glittering court in the peninsula, the rival of any in Europe. Artists, musicians and men of letters flocked here to participate in the unending spectacle of court life, and to compete for unparalleled opportunities to exercise their talents.
Milan was no Renaissance upstart: it had been capital of the western Roman Empire for over a hundred years, in succession to Rome itself, and in the Early Middle Ages remained a major centre of commerce, manufacture and the Church. At first, power coalesced around the archbishop but subsequently shifted towards civic institutions, the merchants and manufacturers, only to be seized in 1277 by a scion of the dominant family, Ottone Visconti – who, as it happens, was the archbishop.
Despite the vicissitudes of early modern history, when Lombardy was under occupation successively by France, Spain and Austria, Milan held its position as Italy’s most economically advanced city. And so it remains, with fashion and design to the fore. It has the feel of a busy and prosperous capital, with the surprising feature that the number of tourists is low.
Fly at c. 10.30am from London Heathrow to Milan Linate (British Airways). After settling into the hotel, walk to the Poldi Pezzoli Museum, which houses a wonderful collection of decorative and fine art in a 17th-century palace.
Milan. Start the day at Sant’Eustorgio, an important Early Christian church rebuilt several times during the Middle Ages and further embellished in the Renaissance. The Castello Sforzesco is a vast fortified palace, now with museums containing a variety of exhibits including room decorations by Leonardo and Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà. Finally, the Brera, one of Italy’s finest art galleries, where most of the great Italian artists are represented.
Certosa di Pavia, Milan. Drive out to the Certosa di Pavia, a Carthusian monastery which was generously endowed by both the Visconti and the Sforza families as their mausoleum. Gothic meets Renaissance in a church of exceptional decorative richness and a cloister of rare beauty. Back in Milan, see frescoes by leading Lombard painters of the 16th century at San Maurizio and the small but remarkable art collection in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana.
Vigevano. A very attractive little town, Vigevano has at its heart one of the largest castles in Italy, a major Sforza palace, a beautiful arcaded square and several churches of interest. The church of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan is one of northern Italy’s most important survivals from the Early Middle Ages, the fabric largely of the 4th–13th centuries. It contains precious metalwork and mosaics.
Day 5 (Christmas Day)
Milan. Free morning, with the option of attending a church service. Lunch is in the hotel restaurant. There is a walk in the afternoon, which includes the spectacular marble cathedral, the greatest Gothic building in Italy, and the nearby headquarters of the powers whose rivalry ensured a continuously lively (and sometimes deadly) political scene: bishop, duke and commune. Also see San Satiro, a jewel of the Early Renaissance.
Bergamo. The Upper Town of Bergamo is one of the most attractive old city centres in Italy. The Romanesque Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is part of the superb architectural complex of Piazza del Duomo. The adjacent Cappella Colleoni has frescoes by Tiepolo. See also the outstanding collection of paintings in the Accademia Carrara and an altarpiece by one-time resident Lorenzo Lotto in the Lower Town.
Milan. The graceful Renaissance church of Santa Maria delle Grazie alone justifies a visit, though it is the refectory that gives the monastery fame: it is adorned with the world’s most famous wall painting, Leonardo’s Last Supper. Fly in the afternoon from Milan Linate, arriving London Heathrow at c. 5.30pm.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £2,840 or £2,670 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,150 or £2,980 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 320); travel by private coach for transfers and excursions; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 1 lunch (Christmas Day) and 4 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
The Four Seasons: a 5-star hotel converted from a 15th-century convent in the heart of Milan’s fashion district, retaining many original features. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
There is quite a lot of walking on this tour and it is not suitable for anyone who has difficulties with everyday walking and stair climbing. Visits require a fair amount of standing around. Average distance by coach per day: 27 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.