In August 2017, my wife and I enjoyed ten days in Northern Italy. Our base was Milan, thanks to an apartment exchange with a family who lived in the Moscova neighborhood a little north and east of that city’s center. Our stay in Milan was even more comfortable and homelike than one would expect, given our arrangement, because the Milan apartment there was designed by a very interesting architect, Giovanni Drugman (gdmp-studio).
An equally interesting architect, Gabriel Yaari, designed our Bronx apartment in Mott Haven. I can imagine that the Italian family was similarly appreciative of this. See the two images below, each revealing a glimpse of the design sensitivity of the two architects.
In Milan, you can see that Drugman was able to provide a delightful, outside breakfast nook, with plantings, overlooking an interior courtyard. The Bronx offered no such direct outdoor access, but Yaari’s generous, open design makes up for that, and I might add that Boundaries, the large oil painting on the far wall by Brooklyn artist, Dorothy Robinson, provides its own, expansive vision of the natural world.
This post will be the first of several on Milan. It’s a city with too much history still visible in its built environment–and a city which continues to expand on that built environment to this day–to be covered in a single blog post (even long ones, as mine often are). In any city, my tendency is just to start walking, camera over my shoulder. The city guides me. Its street pattern leads me on. Only when I understand it as a pedestrian do I take public transportation and venture farther afield.
No matter where I go, no matter the city, I never lack in visual material to record and document. This is true, even for a city I know quite well. There is always something new to discover. My wish would be to greet every urban environment with fresh, even naive, eyes. In this post, I present several buildings that fall into the category of Art Nouveau (using the most familiar, French, term). Italians might also call this architecture Stile Liberty or Stile Floreale, but Art Nouveau will suffice.
Mine is no definitive presentation of Milan’s Art Nouveau architecture. Were it so, as I later discovered, I would at least have needed to search out the Ex Kursaal Diana, the Ex Cinema Dumont, and the Casa Berri Meregalli. For all I know, I may well have been quite close to these other buildings, but the city lured me elsewhere. Next time, perhaps.
This post ends with eight architectural details, only two of which clearly fall into the category of Art Nouveau. Arbitrary as this may be, I include these eight details because each caught my eye as worthy of recording. Yet, such a small number hardly merited a separate post on Architectural Details.
The Acquario Civico (Civic Aquarium) is the only pavilion building still extant from the 1906 Exposizione Internazionale del Sempione. The exposition celebrated the opening of the Simplon Tunnel (railroad) through the Lepontine Alps from Italy to Switzerland. During the seven months of the exposition, the pavilion housed displays related to fish farming. Only later was it transformed into Milan’s public aquarium, which also houses a marine biology research library and a hydrobiology station.
The building’s projecting arched entrance, the segmental pediment above Neptune, its corner pilasters and supporting brackets at the roof line, are classicizing devices carried forward from the Baroque. However, its sculptural decoration is quite un-classical. Its flowing, plant-like and aquatic-related forms reveal its more modern date.
The Boat Prow Sculpture and the Hippopotamus Head Fountain, I am guessing are also by Oreste Labò, the sculptor of Neptune. The Octopus Roundel and most of the other smaller sculptural relief decorations that grace the exterior are the work of Richard Ginori. All of this sculptural work is in decorative concrete, a material associated with modern industry, modernity, and Art Nouveau, particularly in Italy.
Alfredo Campanini designed this house for himself. Again, the major decorative motifs of its exterior are works in decorative concrete. The two caryatid-like figures flanking its doorway, allegories of Painting and Sculpture by Michele Vedani, greet the visitor with the contrapposto grace of a Botticelli combined with the powerful scale of a Michelangelo.
The wrought iron decoration, as seen directly above in the balcony–as well as in the entry gate–typifies Art Nouveau in its depiction of natural forms such as leaves, vines and flowers. Alessandro Mazzucotelli is the artist behind all the wrought iron decoration. His work can be found in many buildings of the period, both on the exterior and even more on the interior (staircases, chandeliers, lamps, etc.). According to Mazzucotelli, “iron should be treated like a woman,” since with the application of heat it “turns soft like wax…You have to treat it gently and caress it.” Ah, those Italians!
It is possible to get inside the Casa Campanini. I did not, alas. Here is a web site which provides several photographs of its interior as well as offers an email link to request an interior tour.
The Casa Galimberti and the Casa Guazzoni (below) are on the same street and are part of a neighborhood that developed in the north-east sector of Milan at the start of the twentieth-century. The spur for this development was the electrification of Milan’s system of tram railways between 1892 and 1901. This meant that newly-erected buildings, at least those showing an interest in modernity, would likely exhibit characteristics of Art Nouveau.
Casa Galimberti, named for the brothers who developed it, is an apartment building for Milan’s upper middle class. It had shops and other public spaces on the ground floor and four apartments per floor above. Decorative concrete plays only a minimal role here (in window moldings and balconies). Instead, the main decorative features are human figures partaking of various leisure activities in front of a background of vine-like floral motifs. They are brilliantly colored and don’t project, because they are glazed and fired majolica tiles fixed to the apartment’s exterior. As such, the decoration will remain clean (or can easily be cleaned with water)–a perfect solution for exterior decoration of buildings in what was then one of Italy’s most industrial cities.
The artists for the tiles were Pia Pinzauti (backgrounds) and Ferdinando Brambilla (figures). The wrought iron decoration was Mazzucotelli.
In the Casa Guazzoni, we return to decorative concrete and wrought iron as the main decorative materials. However, the ground floor windows offer another motif often found in Art Nouveau: a segmental arch divided by two pilaster-like elements that create a tri-partite division and also extend through and above the arch. This particular, inventive (not to mention, highly un-classical) window form typifies Art Nouveau and also can be found in France and Belgium, the other main centers of the style.
One of the, if not the earliest of the Art Nouveau palazzi, is the Palazzo Castiglioni on the Corso Venezia. The Corso Venezia was, and remains, one of Milan’s most elegant avenues, lined with expansive palaces mainly of Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-classical style. In other words, the upscale Corso Venezia presented itself as exclusive, conservative and a bit staid.
Inserting himself into this environment in 1900, Ermenegildo Castiglioni hired the architect Giuseppe Sommaruga to design this palace for him. This Castiglioni was not the better-known businessman, developer and close friend of the liberal philosopher and politician, Giuseppe Mazzini; that man had died four years earlier. It was his heir and adoptive nephew, the engineer Ermenegildo Castiglioni Marazzi.
We can see, in the top photograph of the entire façade, the line of undulating, gyrating putti in high-relief decorative concrete above the windows of the piano nobile. We also can see the un-classical asymmetry of the façade in its single balcony and loggia on the far right side. We can see, in the bottom photograph (directly above), those unusual porthole windows, seemingly invaded by rough, cyclopean stonework. All of these elements call out a challenge to the intended sober, quiet elegance of the avenue.
What we don’t see, however, is the ultimate ‘insult’ that too many of the more conservative of Milan’s elite felt upon seeing the large, nude female allegories of Peace and Industry–decorative concrete figures by sculptor Ernesto Bazzaro, which flanked the central entrance of the palazzo. The public outcry at being visually accosted by nude, female figures who greeted them with their ample backsides–forced the two sculptures to be relocated to a garden façade of another Sommaruga building, the Villa Romeo Faccanoni (1912-1914). To see these ‘offending’ sculptures of Peace and Industry by Bazzaro, open this link and scroll down to the second photograph.
Two Unidentified Buildings
The main feature which connects this building to Art Nouveau is the sensuality and even the simple presence of the two painted figures which flank the central window of the piano nobile. The other architectural details seem to be Baroque carryovers, such as the broken pediment, on which the two figures ‘rest’ an elbow, and the heavy rustication of bush-hammered stone of the ground floor. I wish I knew more about the provenance of those two figures, which have been painted on a separate support, then affixed to the façade.
Here is another moderate example of the style, of which I suspect one can find several more in this area of Milan.
Eight Architectural Details
The heavy rustication in a diamond pattern on the ground floor contrasts with the smooth ashlar masonry of the upper floors of this Renaissance Revival palace. Today it houses the Art and Science Museum of Milan. Take care not to stumble into this wall as you pass by!
A rather exuberant statement in decorative concrete for this portal and balcony. The building is also sometimes referred to as the Casa Tosi. It was built as a private residence.
The main feature of this flattened arch over the doorway are the two, deep, semicircular scallops, but I have no idea what to call it. Moorish architecture often has scalloped (or multifoil) arches, but there would be at least five scallops and they would continue all the way across the arch. For now, I’ll call this an interesting bit of creative vernacular design.
Here is an interesting window, whose lintel enframes a heavy keystone bracket. However, the segmental arch on either side of that bracket is of brick and much lighter. Because the red brick contrasts with the grey stone, we readily see that the vertical jambs not only frame the window, but also jut out at the top to create an abutment from which the brick arch springs.
The capping lintels of these windows shows a particularly elegant bit of Art Nouveau design: what is known as the whiplash. In French, the common term is coup de fouet. If the term is also used in Italian writing on Art Nouveau, it would be colpo di frusta.
Here, finally, is an utterly beautiful, simple, and elegant window frame: a perfect antidote to a blog post containing so much over-the-top design.