Milan is a fast, frenetic city, at times sculpted in the future, but if you let yourself be enchanted by the testimonies of the Milanese architecture that was, you immediately realize how stratified it is over time. A walk through Milan is a journey through the history of architecture, in which the protagonists of each style parade here and there, recounting evolutions, twists and an avant-garde spirit. It’s a city that has always accepted the challenge to be architecturally innovative and has remained on the cutting edge of Gothic, Romanesque, Lombardian baroque, new Liberty and Rationalism styles.
Milan’s experimentive architects have always looked beyond the Alps to take inspiration from others, but without limiting themselves to copying. Instead, they adapt these styles to their own tastes, often leading to signature and excellence. As I pedal my bike through the streets of Milan, I can read the stories of houses, palaces and churches by investigating the doors, facades and elegant stairs that guard past lives.
Most significantly, Milan is the capital of Liberty. In Italy, the Liberty style of art and architecture was initially called the “nuova” (“new”) or “floreale” (“floral”) style, but soon became universally recognized as a variant of Art Nouveau. Thanks to the 1902 Turin Exposition, which brought the style to Italy, buildings started to be enriched with flowers, plants, and phytomorphic and curvilinear motifs–decorative emblems until the 1920s. There’s a large concentration of buildings in this style scattered in the residential districts that were born with Milan’s first master plan in the late 19th century. These Liberty buildings testify to how the lines and frills of Art Nouveau found the right breath in the city, albeit at the beginning, some more conservative Milanese criticized the designs harshly. (Sinuous female figures appeared among the decorations and were considered sinful and vulgar despite being the embodiment of industry, fortune or abundance.)
The symbolic architect of Milan’s Liberty is undoubtedly Alfredo Campanini. Originally from Emilia Romagna, Campanini moved to Milan to graduate from the Brera Academy in 1896 and was already recognized at the time as one of the leading exponents of the new style, inspired by architects from beyond the Alps such as Victor Horta and Jules Lavirotte. He obtained his first commissions immediately after marrying the eclectic styles of the neo-Romanesque and the neo-medieval (see the church of Santa Maria di Lourdes, built in 1903). He later experimented with new, French influences, of which he left important legacies–above all, the decorative details that, between Paris and Brussels, were emblematic of the historical period: flowers, fruits, female figures, sinuous lines and fine wrought iron.
Via Pisacane 12
Via Vincenzo Bellini 11
As it too often happens, architectural jewels like the Campanini House, built in 1904, are neither known by the Milanese nor by the tourists who flock to the city, and the art nouveau building’s secluded position makes it a wonderful surprise. Two splendid caryatids in decorative concrete, works by Michele Vedani, indicate the way to go through the wrought iron gate, made by the most famous master ironworker: Alessandro Mazzucotelli. Flowers and scrolls are not only on the facade, but also on the inside: they richly decorate the balustrade of the monumental staircase.
Currently, as in the early 20th century, it is a private building and not visitable except by asking the doorman to take a look inside (as I have done several times).
Via Carlo Pisacane 12, 16, 18, 20, 22
Named Liberty Block for the architectural style of this row of buildings, each next to the other, this corner of Milan takes us back to the time when new plots of land were built to host the rising bourgeoisie (which they still do today) between wide streets, shops and an elegance open to the future. Here, Alfredo Campanini amused himself between 1904 and 1907 by inserting volutes, peacocks and floral curlicues in the facades, complemented by Mazzucotelli’s wrought irons that lighten the visual effect of the decorative concrete. From a distance, the row appears to be a single large building punctuated by different colors and friezes. The closer you get, the more you see the creativity of an architect who knew how to amaze and refine.
Via Senato 28
Despite the fame of the architect, many buildings by Alfredo Campanini do not enjoy the deserved hype, sometimes because of their locations and sometimes because one more representative of the others is often enough. Casa Tosi, built in 1909, once overlooked the Cerchia dei Navigli, Milan’s ancient waterway that was formed by a network of canals that ran around the city’s historic center and that was silted up in the 1930s. Today, the house is now sadly suffocated by traffic and the hasty daily activities of the Milanese. Decorated in a floral style–particularly around the entrance and near the doorway and balcony of the second floor, called the piano nobile or noble floor–Casa Tosi is a bit reminiscent of the interiors of the Baroque palaces, decorated with stuccoes and frills that are rendered here on the façade. These flourishes represented a distinct break from the styles of the 17th and 18th centuries, when architecture emphasized sobriety, devoid of decoration other than classical elements: capitals, pediments, friezes, columns and pilasters.
Corso Monforte 32
Very similar to Casa Tosi, at the corner of Corso Manforte and Via Conservatorio and a stone’s throw from Casa Campanini, sits this low building that perfectly matches the oldest residences in the area, where severe facades reveal unexpected and wonderful internal gardens and courtyards. The Liberty decorations are dominant on the corner balcony, along the entrance and on the window frames, which wind lightly around the entire perimeter.
Alfredo Campanini received an important commission on Lake Como, already a destination at the beginning of the 20th century thanks to wealthy entrepreneurs and industrialists who spent their holidays on its placid shores. In 1906, he completed the splendid Villa of the Davide Bernasconi family, which had a textile factory in the area. The Villa is a riot of Liberty and floral decorations that flicker (in the truest sense of the word) along the facade and in the various lounges and sitting rooms inside, where the light illuminates stained glass windows and the splendid staircase. The Villa has been open to the public for some years now, and it is she who speaks to the public through visual and sound installations that tell the story of the family. It’s as if the house were a door to a golden age full of charm.
Monumental Cemetery of Milan
One of my favorite places in Milan is the Monumental Cemetery. I used to go there as a child with my grandmother, and when I grew up, I discovered the beauty of the sculptures and shrines that tell the history of art and architecture, from Liberty to the purest Rationalism. The Tomb of Alfredo Campanini is among the first to be noticed, because, as you enter the cemetery, you pass directly underneath the upper gallery of the Ponente where the tomb is located. Campanini’s tomb lies just before the Famedio. Unlike Campanini’s architecture, overloaded with decoration, the tomb itself is a sarcophagus with classical elements: a large urn on a travertine base, culminating in two festoons and the inscription in an elegant font: “Architect Alfredo Campanini”, accompanied by his year of birth and death in Roman numerals.
It was February, 1926 when the architect tragically died falling from the scaffolding of the building under construction in Viale Umbria 76. Following the floods of the previous days, a part of the building collapsed and damaged the unstable foundations. When a creative mind dies prematurely, one always wonders what he could have left in the years to come. Who knows, maybe he would have been inspired by the 1930s, becoming a signature of Milanese Rationalism together with Piero Portaluppi and Gio Ponti. Unfortunately we will never know.