The early 19th-century writer Henri Stendhal, author of "The Red and the Black" and "The Charterhouse of Parma," was French. But he lived for four decades in Milan, and when he died in 1842 he left instructions for his tombstone to be inscribed in the following way: Arrigo Henry Beyle his real name , Milanese, lived, wrote, loved . . ."

Stendhal's enthusiasm for Milan, which, when he settled there in 1800, was one of the wealthiest and most luxurious of Europe's cities, was unchecked. ". . . Here I have found the greatest pleasures and the greatest sorrows," he once wrote, "here above all, and it is this which makes a place home, I tasted the first pleasures. Here I desire to spend my old age and to die . . . This city is for me the most beautiful place on earth."

Stendhal's passion for Milan is hardly startling to the Milanesi themselves, who are unshaken in their affection for their city, Italy's second largest in population but first in economic importance. They are understandably proud of a past that begins before ancient Rome, which saw attempts at conquest by European monarchs from Frederick the Great to Napoleon and which has enshrined in its collective mind more than a few episodes of glorious patriotic revolt as well as longstanding intellectual, artistic and commercial excellence.

But most tourists would probably be surprised. They have perhaps on one trip or another briefly alighted here. Many Italian itineraries allot a two-day detour here so that visitors can crane their necks at the 135 gothic spires of the magnificent Duomo, or cathedral, hustle through the refectory at the Renaissance Church of Saint Mary of Grace to goggle at Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" (restoration of which is now nearing completion) and, perhaps -- if advance planning has been made -- take in a performance at the beautiful 18th-century La Scala opera house.

The well-heeled and fashion-conscious may even have added the elegant shopping streets of Vias Monte Napoleone, Sant'andrea and Spiga, where top designer outlets are located, on to the usual rapid, three-stop Milanese tour. But few have had the interest or incentive to stay on longer to discover the fascination of this city's history, its monuments, its charm.

The fact is that Milan, described by many as the New York of Italy, has been put on the back burner by most travel agents and independent tourists.

With its fog-prone, gloomy northern climate, its banks and office buildings, its giant factories and sober Viennese-style boulevards and parks, the city, perhaps understandably, has appealed little to visitors looking above all for the Italy of sunny skies, outdoor cafe's and trattorie, ancient ruins and sleepy village charm.

But somebody has been selling Milan short. For this dynamic bustling metropolis with its excellent restaurants -- some say today it is Italy's gastronomic capital -- is well worth a visit from anyone interested both in the Italy of today and that belonging to the pages of history.

Since World War II, Milan, long an important commercial center, has developed into the unchallenged Italian capital of finance, big business, publishing, design and, more recently, fashion.

The Milan trade fairs have become an obligatory annual appointment for those in European, American and Japanese business. And the city's art galleries, antique dealers and theaters have outclassed many of their peers in Venice, Florence and Rome.

No doubt many of the city's thousands of business visitors have seen something of the "Vita Milanese" that so fascinated Stendhal and which the Milanese treasure so highly. Perhaps they, like Hemingway's characters in "A Farewell to Arms," have enjoyed sipping an aperitivo at Biffi or Campari, the well-known cafe's that nestle under the stately glass-tipped 19th-century galleria that links Piazza del Duomo to Piazza della Scala and which many refer to as the city's salotto, or living room.

Some will certainly have enjoyed the perfect acoustics of a La Scala performance in the theater's elegant red-velvet plush and stuccoed setting, and others will have dined, most elegantly, on risotto milanese (with saffron) and osso buco at a classic turn-of-the-century Milanese restaurant like Savini's, also under the galleria.

But how many have had the time, or the stimulus, to walk the narrow streets of the artsy Brera district with its boutiques, cafe's and excellent museum? How many have strolled through the disturbingly beautiful Monumental Cemetery with its magnificent and outsized 19th-century family tombs or have visited the massive square-cut Castello Sforzesco (castle of the Sforza family), which, with its towers, courtyards, moat and drawbridge, automatically brings to mind the troubadours and knights of yesteryear?

Milan was capital of the western Roman Empire for more than 100 years (286 to 402 A.D.), but the only Roman ruins of note are the 16 Corinthian columns that stand outside the ancient fourth-century San Lorenzo Basilica located on Corso di Porta Ticinese, less than a mile from Cathedral Square.

The ramparts built by the Spaniards in the 16th century have long been replaced by a ring road of broad boulevards that circle the city's ancient boundaries.

The network of navigli (canals) that had been painstakingly built in the Middle Ages and Renaissance to crisscross the city and link it to other regions of Italy (starting in 1386, marble from Candoglia for the Duomo was brought to Milan by barge or boat) was for the most part covered over between 1877 and 1934.

Today at restaurants on the banks of the remaining canals, the Naviglio Grande and the Naviglio Pavese, one can enjoy specialties like fried frogs' legs. But amid the trappings of modern life it is hard to conjure up the bucintoro, or luxury ship, that in 1489 brought the 19-year-old Princess Isabella of Aragon from Naples to Milan where she was to wed Gian Galeazzo, one of the nephews of the then-Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, grand patron of Leonardo da Vinci and known to all as Il Moro, the dark one.

Indeed the Sforza Castle, dominating the large Piazza Castello, is one of the most well preserved and complete monuments of its type in Italy and may well, in itself, best bring home to unaware outsiders the unsuspected richness of Milan's historic and artistic past.

Milan is believed to be of Celtic origin, but was conquered by the Romans in 222 A.D. Subsequently, ancient Mediolanum, as the city was originally called, endured several centuries of barbarian invasions and an 1162 sacking by Frederick the Great. But gradually the city created its own political identity.

After a brief period as a free city-state and several other wars, power was seized in 1277 by the powerful Visconti family, which built a first castle on the site.

When the last of the Viscontis died in 1447, there followed a short-lived republican period. In 1450 Francesco Sforza, a Visconti son-in-law and condottiero, or general, took over as the Duke of Milan, and rebuilding and refortifying the castle became a top priority for him and his family.

Under the Sforzas, who ruled for about 85 years, Milan lived a golden age of sorts, with the castle (whose four-meter-thick walls at the time housed 164 footmen and housemaids, 25 stable hands, eight coachmen, 18 butlers and a chamberlain, six cooks, 61 scullery boys, 22 falconers, two doctors, a priest, 20 ladies in waiting, 26 tutors and governesses) becoming the center of the city's social and intellectual life. For example, along with his role as court painter and sculptor, Leonardo da Vinci was also a master of ceremonies, organizing a gala evening of entertainment on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 1490 "by the wishes of Il Moro in honor and glory of her most illustrious and most excellent Duchess Isabella to give her amusement and pleasure."

Today the massive stone construction, which looks out over the city's lovely 116-acre Parco Sempione, houses several libraries and print collections, a permanent exhibit of old musical instruments, as well as the Municipal Museum of Art (open from 9:30 a.m. to noon and 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily except Mondays). Along with paintings by Lippi, Mantegna, Tintoretto and Tiepolo, the collection includes the stunning 14th-century tomb of Barnabo Visconti, a series of 12 tapestries designed by Bramantino and, perhaps its best kept secret, the unfinished Pieta Rondanini on which Michelangelo was still working at the time of his death in 1564.

But the castle, whatever its importance, is only one of Milan's treasures, and for the art lover there are many other discoveries to be made here. The painting collection in the 17th-century Brera Palace (open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 9 p.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays) includes "The Marriage of the Virgin" by the young Raphael, Caravaggio's "Last Supper at Emmaus" and "The Dead Christ" by Mantegna. At the charming Poldi Pezzoli Museum (open 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily except Mondays and holidays; closed Sunday afternoon April to September) there are works by Pollaiuolo, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna and Bellini as well as collections of antique fabrics, watches and clocks and arms and armor.

The early 17th-century Ambrosians Library includes a picture gallery (open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Mondays and holidays) that boasts two portraits attributed to Leonardo, Raphael's cartoons for the Athenean School frescoes and a highly valued mannerist nativity by Barocci as well as prized Arabic manuscripts and reproductions from Leonardo's Codex Atlanticus.

The 11th-century Basilica of Saint Ambrose, Milan's patron saint, is widely believed to be one of the major examples of surviving Romanesque architecture in Italy. One of the chapels on the right leads into the fifth-century Church of San Vittore and at the end of the north aisle there is an entrance to the Bramante Portico and the Oratory of Saint Sigismund with a priceless ninth-century gold Carolingian altar frontal.

Scattered through this bustling modern city are also many other examples of impressive medieval and Renaissance architecture. These include the 16th-century Palace of Juriconsults and the 12th-century Palace of Reason in Via Mercanti, just a block from the Duomo. Other hidden treasures are the "ca' grande" hospital built by Francesco Sforza that now houses part of Milan's state university, the "House of the Big Men" (Casa degli Omenoni) decorated with Michelangelo-style sculptures by artist Leone Leoni in 1564 -- which is only a minute's walk from La Scala -- and the marble portal of the Borromeo Palace in the small, downtown square of the same name. But the list is endless.

Perhaps the best-kept secret of this major Italian metropolis is its food. Although neither the city nor the surrounding Lombardy region can boast a particular culinary tradition, the city today may well be Italy's major gastronomic capital.

As befits a wealthy urban center of international business and finance, the Milanese dine out often and have the money to do so in style. This has stimulated an explosion of fine restaurants at which the best of Italian regional cooking has been refined to culinary excellence. Furthermore, alongside the bastions of traditional Milanese fine dining, many new, smaller eating places have emerged in recent years that successfully merge the givens of Italian cooking with the experimentation of nouvelle cuisine.

Paradoxically, given the excellence of restaurant dining, in Milan as in several other northern Italian cities the long Roman lunch hour is the exception rather than the rule. At lunch time, therefore, many downtown snack bars are jammed with office workers with only an hour-long American-style break. But they rarely appear unhappy. Milanese snack bars offer a variety of luscious lunch-time goodies and happily assemble bursting, made-to-order sandwiches from the available assortment.

Milan is not merely what it seems, but much more. Any visitor to this bustling, modern metropolis with a love of history, art, folklore and food will find the trip well worth the time and effort. The trick is to remember that unlike citizens of such cities as Rome and Venice, the Milanese have tended throughout the centuries to look forward rather than backward, and consequently a hefty dose of imagination and a bit of preparation are needed to successfully conjure up the magnificent and heady days of old.