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Milan: Beyond Fashion and Saints

“To grasp Milan’s beauty, it is necessary to know the bodies that make up the urban capillaries, every building and every street has a story.”


I smile every time I hear that “Milan is ugly”. I was born and raised here and I know how easy it is to love this city. The asphalt of the streets of the center, the intersection of the “Cinque Vie”, the tram lines on which old jarring relics or new eco-technological torpedoes curve, the secret courtyards, which peep out from the ancient doors inviting you to enter, the architecture mysterious …

Its charm is not perceptible to the naked eye. Of course, it’s not Rome. Yet, it too has something to say. We prefer to call it Milangeles (like the blog of the journalist Giuliana De Vivo), a mix between Milan and Los Angeles, a city where there is everything and anything can happen.Just think that Milan was once called “the city on the water” just like Venice …A city filled with surprises for those who are open to looking deeper. 

The world of today is obsessed with beauty, always visible and on display, to the point that perhaps we are no longer used to observing those apparently insignificant details that allow us to discover what lies beneath the surface. Milan does not show itself, it is opalescent. So the city’s fashion and walks on the spiers of the Duomo will not be enough to capture its turbulent spirit. To grasp Milan’s beauty, it is necessary to know the bodies that make up the urban capillaries, every building and every street has a story.

For example, everyone knows Brera and the cloisters of the University of Milan, but perhaps few know that it was thanks to the restoration and renovation of an architect that we can still admire them in their original form today. By interrogating the columns and capitals of the cloisters, we discover that the restoration was by Piero Portaluppi (19 March 1888 – 6 July 1967), better known as Piero, creator of many of the hidden beauties of Milan. Graduated in architecture in 1910, at the what would later become the Polytechnic, he began his academic career working simultaneously on several city restoration projects, many of which are secret because they are not exposed to the eye of the busy tourist, but show themselves only to curious individuals, who do not stop at first sight or at the beginning of understanding – those who look deeper.

The architect was lucky enough to work for the Milanese upper class from the 1910s to the 60s making his projects very ambitious and possibly even pretentious. The neat and precise lines make us think of a maniacal vision of geometric and rationalist forms (thus perhaps ostracized by the post-war culture which rejected any style that could recall Fascism) but at the same time capable of such an eclecticism that still divides modern criticism today. This is because his architecture has always escaped definitions and absorbs multiple suggestions, just like the city of Milan itself, which is a set of layered styles, cultures and eras. As Gabriele Basilico, a well-known city photographer, also said, we must try to make walls and inanimate objects speak, trying “to create a dialogue with the place: I explore it, and it returns in favor.” This is what we should do with Portaluppi’s works of which, despite his eclecticism, we can identify a minimum common denominator: the project design, always precise, clear and attentive to prospects.

Portaluppi tried to give Milan an iridescent, chameleon-like face that could hardly be pigeonholed into simple labels and therefore ambivalent and oxymoronic, diabolically ambiguous.

Casa Atellani, in Corso Magenta, is one of Milan’s secrets: a mixture of styles from the 15th to the 18th century held together harmoniously. Commissioned by the Conti family the facade of the house, its walls and its polychrome frescoes were expertly restored by Portaluppi in 1922; it seems that at the time of the Sforza family, when the building was built, everything revolved around the garden, the cloisters and Leonardo’s legendary “vineyard”. This same vineyard was given to Leonardo da Vinci by Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, in 1498 as a thank you for having painted the most famous Last Supper in the world, the Cenacle of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

However, Portaluppi’s masterpiece remains his secret restoration of Villa Necchi Campiglio, in the area between San Damiano, Corso Venezia and Corso Monforte, the heart of the beautiful Milanese gardens. Here, you can also see other architectural masterpieces, such as Palazzo Fidia by Aldo Andreani and a small sculpture of an Adolfo Wildt’s bronze ear, placed near the entrance bell of a building located on the corner of the two streets Maffei and Serbelloni.

Next crossing the threshold of the gates of Villa Necchi; let yourself be amazed by its history and the stillness of its forms. The first surprise is the wonderful veranda overlooking the garden from which you can catch a glimpse of the green velvet sofas shining like emeralds. And, not far from the entrance, the blue swimming pool. Built between 1932 and 1935 for the sisters Nedda, Gigina and her husband Angelo, the Villa has undergone a double architectural intervention: the first by Portaluppi, precisely modern and avant-garde, the other by Tomaso Buzzi, with a less rigorous taste. Here you can see Piero’s star shaped signature in the window of one of the bathrooms. The sumptuous interior rooms spread over two floors, accessed by an equally large hall and bright staircase, are characterized by the vastness of the spaces and high quality materials. On the walls lives a simply sublime collection of paintings by Claudia Gian Ferrari, a close friend of the family. Even at Villa Necchi, as for the Leonardo vineyard at Casa Atellani, it is possible to enjoy a Milanese-style aperitivo by the pool (accessible even without a visit to the villa). 

Now on to another neighborhood dear to Portaluppi, much appreciated by art lovers, a place where the architect created another historic residence: Casa Boschi Di Stefano. The apartment, which can be visited for free, belonged to two spouses, Antonio and Marieda. Opened to the public in 2003, here the most interesting elements of Portaluppi’s architecture are the facades with horizontal tripartition, but the real treasure is found inside, in the eleven exhibition spaces where about three hundred of the two thousand paintings that belonged to the couple are distributed. The apartment is a precious testimony to Italian art from the early twentieth century to the 1960s. It houses Funi, Marussig, Sironi, Fontana, De Chirico and many others. Having no heirs the spouses donated the entire collection to the lucky Municipality of Milan.

Unfortunately temporarily closed to the public and the renovation conflicts, the Albergo Diurno also deserves a mention. Diurno is an underground Art Deco structure in Piazza Oberdan that serves as a refreshment area for all travelers passing through the city of Milan. Inaugurated by Portaluppi, the magical place included a wellness area, spa, hairdresser, laundry, and a conversation area in a large marble hall. The hope is that it will soon be reopened in order to leave citizens and curious visitors still dreaming.

One of Portaluppi’s most curious projects remains Hellytown (1926). The project was never realized, only some sketches and drawings can be found: a geometric agglomeration of New York-style skyscrapers that he imagined precisely for the city of Milan. It is perhaps on this false note that the buildings of Porta Nuova were conceived, which rise on the horizon creating an enviable skyline, having in mind a utopian and infernal city as Portaluppi himself had conceived.

And now that Milan seems to revolve around the new districts of the Milanese nightlife, we have become so used to these massive structures, that we no longer explore the city, we no longer understand its history, we think they are just buildings. But beauty, as we have seen, always exists even if it is not visible at its surface.

Casa Atellani

Villa Necchi Campiglio

Casa Boschi Di Stefano

Albergo Diurno