Milan is worldwide known for its fashion square and its gleaming windows. But not everyone knows that in Milan there is also a silent square. So here’s a visit to the city in search of its deepest and truest identity, told through the sinuous lines of XIX century palaces and wrought iron-clad houses with colourful tiles. This is the infinite charm of the Liberty architecture in Milan: buildings, streets and monuments that deserve to be told and re-discovered. A different city, lived through the inspiration and creativity of architects and artists who first were able to outline a precise stylistic and architectural evolution, translating it into shapes, volumes and patterns. All to underline Milan’s social and economic changes in the early XX century.
That’s how our walk through Liberty architecture in Milan begins. With some ideas for anyone willing to go out and walk heads-up. In fact, it is almost always on the top floors that the architects’ imagination blooms.
We start from Ermenegildo Castiglioni, a young gentleman well equipped with finances, culture and ideas. He wanted to build a princely palace, up-to-date with the new European trends. He met Giuseppe Sommaruga, and the chemistry was immediate, for even Sommaruga had amazing aspirations. In mid-May of 1903 the house appeared free of the scaffolding, with two merry maidens of stone glancing inside. The statues of the two women, undressed and portrayed in daring poses, caused great scandal. In two weeks time they had been removed.
Corso Venezia 47
Palazzo Castiglioni is the first strictly Art Nouveau building in the city. Curiously, or perhaps for provocation, it lies right in the middle of Corso Venezia, characterised by Neoclassicism’s sober lines.
When the palace was finished, the effect was overwhelming for many reasons, and not just for the episode of the two female nudes by Ernesto Bazzaro (which now decorate Villa Romeo Faccaoni) representing Peace and Industry – and which earned the building the nickname of Ca’ de ciapp. The palace also astounded for its monumental size, the severe facade, and a nod to Michelangelo‘s use of rustication and the profusion of high relief cherubs.
Each material conveys a sense of movement and general impression of power, especially in the original portholes of the ground floor; there’re also some innovative compositional choices, criticised by contemporaries, such as the narrow windows, or the high traditional frame replaced by cherubs holding scrolls, or the asymmetry of the façade, which has just one balcony on the top right side. Inside, you can admire the magnificent staircase with wrought iron balustrade, along with the Peacock room, decorated with stucco.
Palazzo Castiglioni is the true symbol of the Milanese Liberty, a measure for every other building in style.
Via Malpighi 3
From Palazzo Castiglioni you can reach via Malpighi in a few minutes walk. This area of Porta Venezia neighborhood is the most intensely Art Nouveau in the city. It’s the reign of swarming twisted irons, floral and ribbon decorations, majolica. The most scenic part is definitely Casa Galimberti, the masterpiece of architect Giovan Battista Bossi.
Art Nouveau manifests itself here through braided wrought iron by craftsman Mazzucotelli, but especially through the majolica tiles. The result is a building with color and graphic signs as the most significant traits. The outer surface of the building is almost entirely clad in painted tiles that, like a mosaic, outline male and female figures in a tangle of vines and other plants. This tiles’ purpose, modern and practical, is to maintain the facade clean. The convenience was mandatory, since Casa Galimberti was born as productive house, a building of apartments for rent.
Before continuing our walk, we can stop for at snack at Panino Giusto. Here the coffee is always strictly served with a small chocolate-covered ice cream tile.
Via Malpighi angolo Via Melzo
Casa Guazzoni is another productive house designed by Giovanni Battista Bossi. Built on a corner lot, it has two sides of nearly equal size and design, both refined with naturalistic motifs. The rich decoration thickens in the crankcase, with cherubs and female faces in high relief, while it lightens at the top, where wrought iron balconies prevail.
Originally the plastered strip between the second and the third floor was decorated with frescoes by Paolo Sala, now disappeared. Other frescoes, perhaps by the same artist, decorate the top of the entrance of the hallway walls. Most notable is the sequence of the common areas inside: the square atrium opens onto the stairwell, with marble steps and wrought iron railings.
Ex Cinema Dumont
Via Frisi 2
In front of Casa Guazzoni we find the former Dumont Cinema, which closes and completes the prospect of via Malpighi, offering yet another exemplar architecture and decoration. Little survives of the enormous structure created in 1905 to house a movie theatre with 500 seats; still, we can enjoy the refined facade. Here there aren’t the colours of Casa Galimberti, or the high reliefs of Casa Guazzoni, but the elegant decorations are just as successful.
Dumont was one of the first movie theatre in Milan and in Italy to be designed and constructed specifically for its purpose. The theatre was used until 1932, and now it houses the local library (Biblioteca Venezia). Threatened several times to be demolished, in 1977 it managed to be bound, at least in the facade, by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage.
Ex Kursaal Diana
Viale Piave 42
The walk goes on to the former Kursaal Diana, now Diana Majestic Hotel, right on the corner of via Malpighi and viale Piave. While designing this luxury hotel during la Belle Époque, Achille Manfredini was inspired by the Parisian nightlife.
Opened on October 1, 1908 the Kursaal was a place of entertainment and leisure. Its 125k square meters contained a restaurant, a ballroom, one room for pelota game and a large theatre for plays and operetta performances.
The Baths of Diana
Kursaal’s history story, however, begins much earlier, and maintains over time a milestone: the name Diana. The statue of the goddess, in fact, adorned the entrance of what was the first public pool in Italy, inaugurated in 1842: the Baths of Diana. The pool’s fortune was huge, but with the advent of potable water in the houses it was sacrificed for the Kursaal project. Now in its place there’s a 700 square meters garden, one of the jewels of the hotel, with flowers, plants, fountains and a skating rink.
At its origins, the Kursaal was presented as the top of innovation. And even today, after passing into the hands of the Starwood chain, staying at the Diana means sleeping in luxurious rooms, taking an aperitif in the deco garden, using the rooms for exclusive events and fashion shows. The Diana is always the Diana.
From Viale Piave we arrive in Piazza Eleonora Duse, so entering in the so-called silent square. At this intersection of roads tranquility surrounds you, even being in full downtown Milan. In via Cappuccini appears, in all its eccentricities, Casa Berri Meregalli, a shot of red bricks that is surprising in its discontinuity with the rest of the architectural landscape.
Casa Berri Meregalli
Via Cappuccini 8
Considered the latest example of Milanese Liberty architecture, it was commissioned in 1911 and completed in 1915. Subject of heavy controversy, Casa Berri Meregalli didn’t receive positive critiques, mostly because of the figurative language of Giulio Ulisse Arata.
The best artists had been called to realise the architect’s ideas: Prendoni and Calegari for outdoor sculptures, Rimoldi for painted figures, D’Andrea for the mosaics, Mazzucotelli for wrought iron. Decorative animal themes prevail over the floral ones. In the upper part of the building, huge cherubs stand out in the round clinging to downspouts, emblematic of Milan Art Nouveau. In a dark and mysterious atmosphere you’ll notice the massive walls and low arches that recall Roman architecture, together with the Gothic verticality and mosaics whose gold reminds of Ravenna. All so dear to the historicist taste. And the return of historicism marks the end of the very short Milanese Liberty season.
It’s worth taking a look into the hall, where in 1919 the statue Victory by Adolfo Wildt was added by the new landlord, engineer Giovanni Chierichetti,
While here, peek inside the nearby Villa Invernizzi garden, famous for its pink flamingos that give a smile of astonishment to passers-by in disbelief. Take some pics and then turn in via Serbelloni, where Palazzo Sola Busca stands, dubbed “Ca ‘de l’ureggia“.
Palazzo Sola Busca
Via Serbelloni 10
Palazzo Sola Busca was designed by artist Aldo Andreani. It is a stately building, made of concrete and bricks. It was renamed Ca ‘dell’ureggia (House of the ear) because on the wall at the right of the main entrance is placed a bronze, ear-shaped intercom. The intercom was the first one in Milan – and one of the first in the history of Italy. It was designed by Milanese sculptor Adolfo Wildt in 1930, upon the request of a particularly-shaped intercom. Wildt thought it well to reveal the function of this mean of communication by giving him an evocative shape. The allusive meaning of that shape was to “hear the city“.
The intercom is carved in minute detail: the pavilion, the external ear canal and the locks of hair. If at its origins it served to communicate with the caretaker, it has now become a small source of mystery. It is said that anyone who comes near to the ear and whisper their dreams or desires to it, will one day see them come true. Well, it’s worth trying!
With a small walk from via Serbelloni we reach what could be Milan’s Art Nouveau heart: Casa Campanini.
Via Bellini 11
What better prelude to the delicate interior environments than two solemn and absorbed maidens guarding the entrance of Casa Campanini? Conceived shortly after the scandal aroused by their companions, Industry and Peace – driven from Palazzo Castiglioni for their exuberant sensuality – Painting and Sculpture faced the Milanese population aware of an inevitable confrontation.
“From chaos to order” was the not-so-implicit message. Alfredo Campanini set them among flowers, like two Primavere, composed, purified from every voluptuous carnality and aggressive vehemence.
Campanini so created his own charming masterpiece. Casa Campanini combines stained glass, painted strips, wrought iron and moulded cement; a soft and balanced package in which all the materials dear to modernism are combined without prevarication, and where applied arts play with structural architecture looking for that synthesis of roles that is the highest purpose of Art Nouveau.
Painting and Sculpture
Casa Campanini doesn’t compete with the monumentality of Palazzo Castiglioni, but the two female figures looming at the sides are a clear homage to Sommaruga. Realised by sculptor Michele Vedani, they stand as a real lesson on the use of decorative concrete, much loved by Italian Liberty. Its use is both a continuation with stucco tradition, one of the gems in this country, and the will to modernise.
The solids and voids of the walls on which floral inserts are applied give rhythm to the whole; the wrought iron of Mazzucotelli, that weave large flat leaves in a pattern of prevailing linearity, dampens the intense plasticity of balconies and lightens the composition. Campanini, who designed what would have been his home, didn’t leave out any detail. Time, however, damaged the palace. The iron gate that turned into via Livorno is missing and, in 1943, fire ruined the staircase compartment and original wooden furniture. However, stucco decorations remain, together with the wrought iron entrance and stairs. Try to ask for permission to enter the lobby and you will be enchanted.
After such a long walk, take a break for lunch before the last stop at the Civic Aquarium. Along the way you can stop at one of the many food joints between via Bellini and via Gadio; you can also have a snack in Porta Venezia or Corso Garibarli and via Solferino. The Aquarium is located in via Gadio, inside Sempione Park.
Via G. B. Gadio 2
One can not talk about Liberty without mentioning the role of the International Expositions that have been, from the mid-nineteenth century, an important moment of confrontation between countries. In 1906 it was Milan’s turn, with the city determined to prove its modernity. The exhibition had transport as main theme, celebrating the opening of the Simplon Tunnel.
Among the many pavilions erected in the city center, between Castello Sforzesco and Sempione Park, only one would have survived the dismantling: the pavilion dedicated to fish farming. At that time, the Expo’s artistic director, architect Sebastiano Locati, designed the most beautiful pavilion, which today hosts Milan’s Civic Aquarium.
The most beautiful pavilion
The reasons for the pavilion’s success were at least two: the interest in the underwater world and the call for innovative scientific attractions; in fact, Milan’s Aquarium is one of the first in the world. As for the architecture, the marine world, fluid and colourful, lends itself particularly well to Liberty interpretation. There’re beautiful ceramic running around the building, as well as concrete inserts in relief by Chini company depicting aquatic animals.
The decorations are the most interesting component of the structure, contributing to lighting up the otherwise rigid frame. There’s also no shortage of whimsical details, such as the exotic hippo head fountain dominated by the sea god, Neptune.
The Aquarium is open to the public from Tuesday to Sunday from 9am to 5pm.
Our walk through Milan’s Liberty architecture is over. You’ll leave with eyes full of sinuous lines, cherubs and twisted wrought iron, loving a city that has much to hide and reveal, and a bit of nostalgia for a magical period: that of la Belle Époque.