Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Milan’s cultural charms may not be immediate, but once discovered they’re greater than those found in Rome, Florence or Venice. Giovanna Bertazzoni shares her insider guide to the city’s hidden attractions.Milan is a city of secrets and surprises. Every time I go back for business or to see my friends and family, I am taken aback by its elegance, beauty and style. Milan is the city in Italy I feel closest to, because of its openness, its cosmopolitan outlook and its intense energy.
Milan requires more effort and dedication than other Italian cities but, once discovered, the rewards are much greater than those offered on ‘easier’ trails through Rome, Florence or Venice. Milan is an intelligent, challenging and supremely elegant Italian city; a foreigner can learn more about the best of Italy here than anywhere else in the country.
Inside Villa Necchi Campiglio. Image: Giorgio Majno
A place that epitomizes my passion for Milan and its sophisticated glamour is Villa Necchi Campiglio, a tour de force of 1930s design and architecture. The villa is situated at the very heart of the historical centre, surrounded by a wonderful secluded garden with centenary trees. In recent years the family donated it to the FAI (Fondo Ambientale Italiano), the equivalent of the National Trust. This gift was the catalyst for another very significant donation to the house, from the late Claudia Gianferrari, one of the grandes dames of the Milanese art market. She bequeathed her exquisite collection of paintings and sculpture, gathered by her father throughout his important career as an art dealer. One of the best ensembles of the Italian Novecento, with seminal and moving pictures by Sironi and Carrà, and rare sculpture by Arturo Martini, it can now be discovered in the most precious and purely designed contemporary setting. The FAI’s restoration of the house has also coincided with the opening of a wonderful small café in the garden, made famous by the dramatic final scene of the recent film Io Sono l’Amore (I Am Love), which was all set in the villa and its garden. During mild weather breakfast, a light lunch or an afternoon tea in this café are an absolute treat.
Another private house, which has been converted into a museum and has the atmosphere of a 19th-century treasure trove, is the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, the equivalent of the Parisian Jacquemart-André or Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Bostonian mansion. A selection of the most astonishing masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance are housed here; the collection’s Portrait of a Lady, by Piero del Pollaiolo may be the most exquisite profile in the history of Western art. The Poldi Pezzoli is housed in a secluded courtyard, opening up onto Corso Manzoni, just a few metres from the Teatro della Scala. Strolling from Corso Montenapoleone towards Piazza della Scala on Corso Manzoni, among the most elegant shopping streets in Milan, is still one of the most pleasurable moments I can have in Milan. I make time for it on even the busiest trip. I have recently been asked to join the Board of Trustees of this unique museum. I’m grateful for the honour not only because it allows me to give back to my city, but also because it truly is one of my favourite spots.
From the Poldi Pezzoli, one of the best walks is through Brera, the neighbourhood of antiquarians and art galleries, to Corso Garibaldi, where the anonymous latteria (milk shop) still sells the best cappuccino in town, and Mr. Spelta still makes his elegant handmade shoes for young Milanese fashionistas. At the end of Corso Garibaldi one can find another hard-worn gem: what looks from the outside like a flower shop is actually a sublime little coffee shop, perfect for drinks or dinner. It is called Fioraio Bianchi, and it serves one of the best carpaccios I’ve had in a long time.
One of Milan’s most beautiful courtyards is secreted within the Università Statale. Image: Alamy
Milan is also a city of secret gardens and courtyards. One of the most splendid moments in the city’s history was the Quattrocento, when two of the most beautiful cloisters were built: the most monumental one now houses the Università Statale. One can simply walk in and promenade alongside these superb terracotta courtyards, mixing with the students, and taking in the latest fashion and design trends. For a more melancholic experience, I recommend the cloisters of the Stelline, also open to the public and close to the noble church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, famous for Leonardo’s Ultima Cena.
Milan is all this and it is also a city of long nights which start with never-ending aperitivi outside stylish bars. There is nothing more Milanese than the aperitivo, the pre-dinner drink or cocktail that starts around 7.30pm and can end anywhere between 10pm or 4am. One of the undisputed kingdoms of aperitivo is the bohemian neighbourhood of the Navigli. This is the name the Milanese give to the canals once connecting Milan to Genoa, and now existing only between Milan and Pavia. The southern part of the city is built around two of the surviving canals. It is the Milanese equivalent of the bars around the Canal Saint Martin in Paris. All the best cafes, restaurants, pizzerias, jazz bars are aligned on the canals’ borders.
But the best of all, and the most rewarding way to end one’s vagaries of Milan is the Trattoria Al Pont de Ferr, possibly the only Michelin-starred ‘trattoria’ in the world, and one of the best-kept secrets of a city that, for all its cosmopolitan allure, displays its greatest charms only to the cognoscenti.
Christie’s international head of Impressionist and Modern Art, Italian-born Giovanna Bertazzoni travels the world from her London base to work with the auction house’s clients and to appraise the works of private collectors and major cultural institutions.
Portrait of a Lady by Piero del Pollaiuolo, on show at Museo Poldi Pezzoli. Image: David Keith Jones/Alamy
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