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Destinations · Europe · italy · Milan · Routes ·

Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old Milan

Author: Anothertravelguide.com0 COMMENTS

Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old Milan

We are accustomed to Milan being the place to go to search for whatever is new, be it in fashion or design. But the longer one stays in Milan, the more one begins to see that the city's real charm may actually lie in the exact opposite of newness, in the traditions passed down from generation to generation and in the footprints of history that can only be seen when traversing by foot instead of dashing from one brand-name store to the next in a taxi. In addition, I wonder whether there is any other city in Europe where so much attention is paid to details and staging. Milan is a city where all the characteristics of a metropolis live side by side in an almost unbelievable intimacy.

Foto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old MilanFoto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old MilanFoto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old Milan

Just a 10-15 minute walk from the historic cathedral in central Milan and the luxury shopping on Via Montenapoleone is the so-called Silent Quadrilateral. This area is like a jewel box of Old Milan, a concentration of gems all contained within a small quadrant of streets. It's a residential neighbourhood with relatively empty streets and only a few tourists. Most of those who come to Milan on shopping pilgrimages, hysterically making the rounds of Prada, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana, do not bother to visit the Silent Quadrilateral. The highlight of the neighbourhood is Villa Necchi Campiglio, a Modernist-style villa built in the 1930s that once belonged to a wealthy manufacturing family from Lombardy. Nestled in a park, the villa is easy to miss. Only the former gatekeeper's house - now the ticket office - can be seen from the street. A narrow garden path leads past a vegetable garden to the villa itself. The home has been open to the public since 2008, and visits are by guided tour only. The tour is one hour long, and if you're lucky, you may even get a private tour and wander through the villa practically on your own.

Foto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old MilanFoto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old MilanFoto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old Milan

The sight of the laconic façade of the villa emerging from the surrounding trees and sculpture garden is at once breath-taking and surprising. Across from the villa is a swimming pool - the first heated swimming pool in Milan. At the time it was built, only a few such pools existed in Italy, most located on the estates of wealthy families and not in the middle of cities. The foundation of the Necchi and Campiglio families' wealth was the manufacture of sewing machines.

The former owner of the villa, Angelo Campiglio, his wife Gigina Necchi and her sister Nedda owned several manufacturing plants south of Milan and often came to the northern Italian metropolis to shop. On one such occasion they saw an advertisement for land for sale. Located in the very centre of the city - and in a green area at that - it was hard to find a better location. The couple had no children, and they envisioned a new villa as both a home and a stage (that is, a status symbol). They invited Piero Portaluppi, Milan's best architect at the time, to design the project.

Portaluppi was already known in local elite circles for his innovative and extravagant style, and for embracing all things new. The Necchi-Campiglio family gave him complete freedom to design the villa. The resulting four-storey Modernist-style edifice, which is defined by simple and clear geometric lines, become one of the best examples of Milanese Rationalist architecture and a highlight of the architect's career.

Today, Italian fashion icon Giorgio Armani often refers to the villa as a source of inspiration for his Armani Casa line. The villa has also served as the setting for Luca Guadagnino's 2010 film I Am Love, featuring British actress Tilda Swinton. In the film, Swinton plays the wife of the Milanese industrialist, and the story is about the well-known subjects of wealth, status, loyalty, love and betrayal.

A more fitting setting for the glitter of the bourgeoisie and the drama of destruction could not be imagined. The former inhabitants of the Villa Necchi Campiglio loved to live grandly, and their spacious Italian-marble-tiled entrance hall and walnut-wood walls served as backdrops to a veritable Who's Who of the Italian high society. Another example of the scope of the Necchi-Campiglios can be seen in the leather panels that are customarily used for desktops, used here to panel the dining room walls.

Foto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old MilanFoto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old Milan

The first to pass away was Angelo Campiglio, in 1984. Then his sister-in-law died, and in 2001 Gigina Necchi died at the age of 99. They had no descendants, so the villa was bequeathed to Italy's national trust for the restoration and preservation of historical buildings, which took over management of the villa almost immediately following Gigina's death, thereby preserving the home as it had been during the owners' lifetimes.

Foto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old Milan

The villa still feels like a "flesh-and-blood" home instead of a museum. Reflecting on the course of a lifetime, one can still see how the home evolved along with changing priorities in the couple's lives. At first, the interior of the Villa Necchi Campiglio reflected a strict Modernism style in which every detail, including the furniture design, was carefully planned by Portaluppi. The large sliding doors that divide the rooms of the house date back to that era. The entrance hall side of the doors is covered in walnut, while the other side is covered with rosewood and matches the library walls. Another 1930s innovation is the use of diffuse lighting in place of, for example, a classic ceiling lamp in the library. In other places, miniature kettlebell-shaped accessories keep doors from unnecessarily swinging open and closed. The ceiling in each room is decorated with a unique stucco plaster design, and an Art-Deco-style railing adorns the majestic staircase leading to the second floor.

The scope, asceticism and discipline of the villa's original interior exuded true elegance and supremely embodied the feel of modern, pre-war Italy, which was obsessed with perfectionism. There were rumours of the Campiglio family's connections with dictator Benito Mussolini. When the Second World War began, the family left the villa and moved to the country. For awhile, the villa served as a headquarters for the Republican Fascist Party, and, when the family returned after the war, it had the interior of the building completely changed.

The family invited another architect, Tomaso Buzzi, to replace the cool Modernist interior with a something more decorative, including elements of 19th-century luxury, 18th-century antiques and replicas of Louis XV and Louis XVI furniture. Although there are theories as to why the family suddenly embraced this petit bourgeois style, most likely its members believed that such a style best exuded wealth and the good life in the post-war period. However, it could also be that they just wanted to clear out the traces of their previous lives and begin anew.

Foto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old Milan

The laconic Portaluppi lamps were replaced with large crystal chandeliers or antique lamps. The clean window lines were covered in brightly coloured drapes with silk embroidery. The only room that still has the original Portaluppi furniture is the orangerie, which the architect had envisioned as a transitional space between the house and garden.

Foto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old MilanFoto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old MilanFoto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old Milan

The master bedrooms, guest apartments and servants' rooms were located on the second floor, or piano nobile. Only one maid was allowed to live in the villa permanently. Her bedroom, large enough to make even a luxury hotel-goer envious, was also located on this same floor. The rest of the staff was allowed to enter the villa only when summoned. In order for the staff to remain unnoticed, a separate staircase and elevator were installed.

Foto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old Milan

One of the closets is still full of the servants' clothing - one change for morning, another for afternoon and a third for evening, as befit the staff of a castle.

The long hallway leading to the master bedroom is another of the building's architectural gems. Doors on both sides open to rooms and built-in closets, in which the owners of the house kept their entire wardrobes. When all of the doors are closed, the hallway and large window at the end resembles the austerity of a monastery. At the time of our visit, one of the museum employees was carefully dusting the statuettes on a small dressing table. "Almost every day something must be retouched or fixed. For example, all that one of my colleagues does is adjust clocks. Old clocks must constantly run, otherwise they stop forever," says our guide.

The villa takes pride in its impressive collection of artworks, and one of the most valuable pieces of furniture is the 19th-century Empire-style mahogany work table. The table was made by a legendary Florentine master whose works were famous for the special mechanism that allowed them to be folded almost completely flat. Even the accompanying chair is located on a fixed panel that allows it to slide into the rest of the construction for easy transportation. This same master also made two similar tables for Napoleon, one of which is now located in the Palazzo Pitti in France.

In one sense, the Villa Necchi Campiglio is like a piece of an Italy and a Milan now lost, fragments of which are increasingly difficult to find today. The interior of the villa embodies an absolute beauty and refinement of detail for which we simply do not have the time in our stressful and hurried modern lives.

An ear on a wall and pink flamingos

Foto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old MilanFoto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old Milan

Right across from the Villa Necchi Campiglio, at Via Serbelloni 10, is a bizarre building that has become a tourist attraction thanks to its unusual ear-shaped doorbell/house-phone. Here, the walls really do have ears! The "Ear of Milan" was created by Italian sculptor Adolfo Wildt (1868-1931), but has since been disconnected - too many people were activating it out of pure curiosity, making the inhabitants of the building quite weary. The ear is made of bronze and is an anatomically correct copy of the human body part. In his day, Wildt was quite well-known in local art circles as a virtuoso of marble, but today he is mostly remembered as legendary Italian painter and sculptor Lucio Fontana's teacher and the creator of a brutal bust of Mussolini, which was commissioned by the dictator's mistress and is now in the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Foto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old Milan

On the corner of Via Melegari and Via Serbelloni is a colourful, ornate Art Nouveau apartment building constructed in the late 1920s. Its asymmetric façade resembles a whipped cream cake with accents of colour between the red Lombardy brick, and at first glance each window and balcony looks different from the next. Despite its eclectic style, the building exudes a strange happiness, eliciting a smile from nearly all passers-by.

Foto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old MilanFoto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old MilanFoto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old Milan

The building is also on the must-see list for cinemaphiles, having been where Michelangelo Antonioni's first full-length film, Story of a Love Affair (1950), was filmed. The well known Neorealistic Italian actress Lucia Bosè played the lead, which was one of her first roles.

Continuing a slightly surreal stroll through the neighbourhood, it is also worth visiting the building at Via dei Cappuccini 9, in whose courtyard, completely undisturbed by the surrounding urban environment, live not one or two, but a whole flock of pink flamingos.

Foto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old MilanFoto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old MilanFoto: Silent Quadrilateral or a trip to the old Milan

A few have coyly hidden their heads under their wings, while others have gracefully stepped into the pool and try to ignore the curious onlookers staring at them through the courtyard gate. This is a private building and the courtyard is not open to the public, but the owners have cleverly cut keyhole-shaped openings in the hedge so that passers-by may also take delight in the exotic birds. Actually, Milan is full of such surprises at "hidden" addresses that provide a needed and valuable contrast to the city's culture of consumerism.

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