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Milan - a week among treasure, history and high fashion

Tuesday July 19 2016

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The International Council of Museums (ICOM) recently held its 24th General Assembly in Milan, Italy.

ICOM is an international organisation that brings together professionals from various fields in the museums and heritage sector.

It consists of about 35,000 individuals representing 180 countries, of which 140, including Kenya, have national ICOM Committees.

Every three years, they meet for one week under a pre-agreed theme, to discuss issues of interest or challenge to the field of museums and heritage conservation. ICOM also has 30 technical committees that also exchange ideas during the assembly.

This year’s meeting was held at MICO Milano Congressi, a famous but ugly conference centre, perhaps the only ugly thing about Milan.  

The idea of the conference centre is incomprehensible, if practical. It is dark, with long gloomy corridors and an internal space built with what looks like chicken wire mesh to a non-architect’s eye. 

Milan, aside from being an international fashion capital and having earned a reputation as the business and financial centre of Italy, is also a treasure of heritage, with an influential history and many art and historical treasures of universal interest.

It is difficult to become famous in Milan, since many world giants in the arts and politics already are.

Milano catwalks host the who’s who of fashion every year. All the places at the high table are already taken and the only fashion icon worthy of mention is Giorgio Armani.

World famous artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, and the racist Benito Mussolini have already walked and left their mark on this city. Even museum professionals who work on a day-to-day basis in their respective countries were awed greatly by the heritage of Milan.

The architecture, art, music and religion are combined in a marsh of prestige that leaves one spoilt for choice and pressed for time to see as many of the city’s great places as possible. 

ICOM members were treated to an opening ceremony at Castello Sforzesco, a huge castle that belonged to the noble families that ruled Milan from the 13th to 16th century, but today houses a series of museums.

One of the museums features famous sculptures, among them, the Pieta Rondanini, Michelangelo’s last known masterpiece, which was brought to the museum in 1953.

The sculpture is cleverly placed in a halo of light to give the impression of being invincible, causing real doubts about its ordinary appearance outside that impressive museum setting. 

Still more impressive is da Vinci's Last Supper, one of the most famous murals in the world, in which a scene from the Gospel of John was painted between 1495 and 1497. The mural was painted in a monastery of the Dominican Friars.

Today the painting is attached to a refectory, or old dining room, inside the church of Santa Maria Della Gracie.

In addition to its religious importance and the clear expressions on the face of the disciples, it apparently marked an important new stage in the development of world art.

Tickets to see it are a coveted item and only a small number of people are allowed inside the refractory at a time, in intervals of fifteen minutes.

We museum professionals were lucky, as many heritage sites opened for extra hours in the evening, just to allow access to these Milano treasures. 

The duomo or cathedral, the seat of the Bishop of Milan, is one of the most majestic churches that architects, artists, the religious and any world traveller can behold, one of the largest gothic cathedrals.

Probably the only larger church in all of Italy is Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.  But this church is famous for its gloomy interior and bright, blinding marble exterior that shines in the summer sun.

The Milan Cathedral. PHOTO | By MARKUS MARK -

The Milan Cathedral. PHOTO | By MARKUS MARK - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The duomo has 135 spires on its roof and houses 3200 statues. The climb up the stairs gives you an opportunity to look at the golden madonna hoisted on the highest spike.

Heritage mangers from around the world were treated to an opera concert inside the church on one of the evenings, which was heart-warming for even those who do understand classical music.

For football fans, one cannot leave Milan without a visit to Estadio Giuseppe Meazza better known as San Siro, the home of both AC Milan and Inter Milan. The stadium is a master piece, first built in 1923 for AC Milan, but later sold to the city.

Football fans call it the Temple of Soccer. If one visits the AC Milan and FC Inter Museum, you get a behind-the-scenes tour of the stadium that includes the changing rooms, the mixed zone, the stands and a walk through the tunnel of champions.

The enthusiasm of the tour guide makes you feel like one of the champions.

The conference closing ceremony of was held at the Triennale di Milano centre for contemporary art, architecture and design. Housed in a building from the 1930s the museum hosts creative exhibitions in designs of every nature.

Many other places that make up the amazing living heritage of Milan were on offer but I have told you about a few of those I managed to visit.

Ms Thang'wa works in the heritage sector, specialising in culture and enterprise. Twitter: @muthonithangwa