Castello Sforzesco

On the edge of Parco Sempione sits the massive Sforza Castle, originally built in the late 14th century, but transformed (and renamed) into a ducal residence in 1450 by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan. It is a massive, sprawling structure that is now used primarily as a museum and exhibit space. Image

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The day I visited there was an outdoor exhibit from Cracking Art Group, which specializes in innovative use of plastic materials to evoke a relationship between the natural and the artificial. This particular installation, "Nido di Rondini" (swallow's nest) consisted of huge plastic, multicolored birds throughout the courtyards. Image
On the street outside the castle, I browsed through a market with all sorts of food stalls (Italian cookies and candies, nuts and spices, cheeses, even a pig on a spit...) as well as jewelry, art, and crafts. Image
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As you can see, it is hard to go anywhere in Milan without getting exposed to some sort of art or design!


Porta Nuova

Porta Nuova ("New Gate") refers to one of the major wall gates in Milan, as well as the surrounding district. The actual gate, a triumphal arch made of sandstone, was built between 1810 and 1813.

The district has gone through a resurgence after a period of urban decay, and is now home to an eclectic mix of historic buildings and modern highrises, as well as contemporary retail shops and restaurants.

It is anchored by the enormous UniCredit Tower, a 758 foot skyscraper and the tallest building in Italy.
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Behind UniCredit is the Vertical Forest, or Bosco Verticale, a pair of residential towers that house over 900 trees on 96,000 square feet of terraces, in an effort to make city living greener. Image

Traveling down the pedestrian way Corso Como, past an array of shops and restaurants, you arrive at Porta Garibaldi, a Neoclassical arch that was built to commemorate the visit of Francis I of Austria in 1825, and later renamed for the ruling Garibaldi Family in 1860. In another mix of old and new (so common in Milan), you can see the shiny UniCredit Tower in the background:

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Nearby is Eataly, a 54,000-square-foot Italian food market established by businessman Oscar Farinetti and sponsored by the Slow Food movement. American chef Mario Batali is a part owner of Eataly's recently opened New York outpost.Image

Eataly Milan is located in the former Smeraldo Theater, which was built in 1942 and hosted artists from Ray Charles to Bob Dylan. To honor its history, Farinetti had a stage built on the second level overlooking the entrance where musicians perform. His goal was to "re-create the 18th-century popular theater, where people would eat, walk and talk as artists were on the stage." You can see it in the lower left part of this picture, as well as the three floors of gourmet food, wines, and restaurants/cafes:
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Between the architecture, shopping, and food in this area, I was in Heaven. It is also home to the fabulous retail/art/dining hybrid, 10 Corso Como, which I'll cover in a separate post.


L'Ultima Cena

Cenacolo Vinciano Santa Maria delle Grazie is a church and Dominican convent in central Milan, commissioned in the late 1400s by the dukes of the Sforza family.

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After visiting the Dolce & Gabbana concept store at Corso Venezia 7, I took the metro from San Babila to Cadorna in order to view Leonardo Da Vinci's famous mural, The Last Supper (or, L'Ultima Cena). Viewers are limited to 20 at a time, so it requires purchasing tickets in advance (which I had done from home, a few weeks ahead of my departure).
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The mural is 15' x 29' and covers the back wall of the convent’s dining hall. It depicts the last supper of Jesus and his disciples as told in the Gospel of John, 13:21. The work was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, and completed between 1494 and 1498.

Due to its age, the materials used, and the fact that the monastery was bombed during WWII, leaving Da Vinci's work exposed to the elements for several years before repairs took place, the painting has badly deteriorated over the years despite numerous attempts at restoration. Viewers have to go through a series of humidity-controlled antichambers before entering the refectory, in order to protect it from air and light.

But when you walk into the dimly-lit room, it is just breathtaking. Everyone falls silent, gazing open-mouthed up at the back wall. There are a few benches for those who want to sit and ponder the work, but most people rush up to its edge, eager to see the masterpiece up close and read the historical placards below. No photos are allowed (yet George Clooney apparently caused an uproar when he not only took a picture of it, but used his flash) so I've included one from Wikipedia here:

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I was surprised to learn that in 1652 a doorway was cut through the lower portion of the painting, removing Jesus' feet which were said to have been in a position symbolizing his forthcoming crucifixion.

The opposite wall has a larger mural called The Crucifixion by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, completed at the same time (here, also from Wikipedia): Montorfano,_crocifissione,_1497,_con_interventi_di_leonardo_nei_ritratti_dei_duchi

This is a must-see for visitors to Milan. Such an amazing piece of art and history.

 


Boffi Cucine

Boffi Spa has designed high-end kitchens, bathrooms, and wardrobes since 1934, outfitting private residences and commercial spaces (like NYC's Soho House) alike.

We had the opportunity to visit Boffi headquarters outside of Manza, where they welcomed us with cookies and espresso (the latter a welcome treat after our wine-fueled lunch!) before taking us on a tour of the factory. It was a massive operation, with multiple assembly lines for the different products, staffed with workers manufacturing items both by hand and with machine assistence. It was amazing to see seemingly mass-produced items like this - such as a large slab of marble for a kitchen counter - being sanded by hand to ensure perfectly smooth edges.

The next day, we visited the Boffi showroom in the historic Brera quarter to see the finished products.  Image

It's a beautifully restored old building that now has large, loft-like rooms that have been exquisitely designed by minimalist architect and designer Piero Lissoni to show off Boffi's kitchens, baths and wardrobes.

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In keeping with the recurring theme of this trip, Boffi aims to transform living spaces into artistic expressions of function. And walking through their showroom does sort of feel like browsing a modern art gallery.
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Most of the pieces have clean, contemporary lines, but pair well with rustic/antique backdrops, like distressed wood and reclaimed objects, as Boffi had styled many of their vignettes.
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It's a beautiful space (the professional-grade kitchens with custom cabinets were to-die-for) and it's open to the public so check it out if you're ever in Milan.


Artemide

On Thursday we drove up to the town of Pregnana Milanese to visit a warehouse sale at Artemide, a world renowned lighting design company founded in the 1960s.

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We learned about their Human Light philosophy, a revolutionary concept that views illumination as a way to improve quality of life.
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Their process begins with understanding how to respond to individual needs in their different spaces and stages of life.
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According to Artemide, "The Human Light is a new way to conceive light to support people in their daily activities, complying with their moods, and promoting their wellbeing." Heady stuff!
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But in keeping with everything we've heard about Italian design: there is a desire here to create things that are both functional and beautiful.
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Over the years, Artemide (like Alessi) has collaborated with a bevy of famous designers, and their products are exhibited in most museums of modern art around the world.
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Too bad I'm not in the market for lighting (and the modern style doesn't match my decor), because everything was marked down 40%-80% at this warehouse sale.
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But even if you're not buying, strolling through their showrooms is like visiting an art gallery. Truly works of art.


Alessi

On Tuesday we drove up to Crusinallo di Omegna (Verbania) to visit the Alessi factory. Alessi is the market leader in innovative kitchen utensil, and they have a museum and archive here to document the history of the company, plus all of its domestic utensils and appliances. Image
With its location near the Italian Alps, and its colorful headquarters full of humorous designs, it felt like being at Santa's workshop. Image
These are demo bathrooms on their front lawn: Image
They also have a lovely mosaic in their lobby that is made up of thumbnail images of their employees and reads, "Buon Lavoro" which is loosely translated to "Enjoy Working Together." Image
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Their space is bright and quirky, like their products: Image
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They are in constant product development, and even items that don't go into commercial production (sometimes the prototype just doesn't please the designer and they scrap it) are "frozen" and archived here, because they feel that they can learn from every experience. Image
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So the archive is full of all sorts of colorful bowls, flatware, clocks, vases, juicers, toothbrushes, cookware, and on and on! In all, there are about 17,000 objects on floor-to-ceiling glass shelves, along with 14,000 drawings and 20,000 photos. Image
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Included in the collection are some of their most popular items, like the Bombe teapot designed by Carlo Alessi in 1945, the 9090 espresso coffee maker designed by Richard Sapper (the first company piece to be added to New York's Museum of Modern Art permanent collection), and items from Phillip Starck and Salvador Dali! Here is our guide holding up a scrapbook with a photo of Dali and one of his designs: Image
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In addition to highlighting certain pieces in the collection, our guide shared the history of this family business, which was founded by Giovanni Alessi in 1921; he wanted to produce hand-crafted items with the aid of machines. His son Carlo, a trained industrial designer, went on to become CEO in 1945. In 1955, Carlo's younger brother Ettore, a technician in the business, introduced collaborations with external designers. From the 1980s onward, Alessi has been known for its designer objects - ordinary tools executed as high design (particularly post-modern). This was a recurring theme at the various studios and workshops we visited this week. And of course we got to shop at the end of the tour, at the wonderful Alessi outlet. Image
Another theme of the week is bringing humor into design, and Alessi nailed it.

Piazza Della Scala

On the opposite side of the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle II from The Duomo is Piazza Della Scala. It is named after the famous Teatro alla Scala opera house, which sits on the northwest side of the square. On the southeast side sits Palazzo Marino, Milan's city hall, which was built in 1563 and is the oldest building on the square. Image
Teatro alla Scala was designed by neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini and opened in 1778. While the exterior is rather dull, the interior is more interesting (so I'm told) and rich with history. Or, as author and photographer Robyn Lea noted in her book Milan: Discovering Food Fashion and Family in a Private City, "Austere on the outside, vibrant and evocative on the inside, it is the perfect metaphor for Milan itself. Image
In the center of the plaza is a monument honoring Leonardo da Vinci, which was erected in 1872. Da Vinci is considered one of the most multi-talented people of all time. Reliefs depict some of the disciplines that da Vinci mastered (painting, sculpting, engineering and architecture), as well as his four favorite students who stand at his feet. One of his most famous works was created during his stay in Milan: The Last Supper in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church (which I also saw, and will appear in a subsequent post. Image
Lastly, this chain and locks was on the small fence around the statue, but I don't know what they symbolize. Do you? Image

Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II

The 157 foot, glass-domed, octagonal Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle II is an enormous, ornate shopping arcade linking Piazza della Scala and Piazza del Duomo, and is home to the likes of Prada, Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, and Versace (separate locations from the those located in the nearby Quadrilatero d'Oro). It opened in 1867 and is one of the oldest, chicest shopping malls in the world. Image
Known as il Salotto di Milano (Milan’s drawing room), the Galleria was designed and built by Italian architect and engineer Giuseppe Mengoni between 1865 and 1867. Tragically, he slipped and fell from the central dome the day before it opened. Image
The floor plan is in the shape of a Latin cross, with an octagonal centre adorned with mosaics representing four continents: Europe, America, Africa and Asia. There are also signs of the zodiac, one being Taurus the Bull – tourists spin on its genitals (!) which is said to bring good luck. Image
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The Duomo

The Duomo is the cathedral church of Milan and the seat of the Archbishop, Cardinal Angelo Scola. It is just breathtaking. Image
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One of the largest churches in Europe, it stands 354 feet tall and has 3,500 statues, 135 spires, 95 gargoyles, and a copper figure of the Madonna covered in 3,900 sheets of gold leaf. Image
Construction began on the Gothic structure in 1386 and took 500 years to complete. It was Napoleon who pressed for its completion; he crowned himself King of Italy there in 1805. Image
In addition to going inside the Cathedral, I was able to go up on the roof, where the architectural detail (as well as the view of the city and distant Italian Alps) is just mind boggling. Image
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Sadly, given the poor state of the Italian economy and resulting cuts to its culture budget, it's proving difficult to raise funds needed for ongoing repair and maintenance of a structure that old and large. So they've resorted to putting the gargoyles up for "adoption" (for a 6 figure donation you can get your name carved under it) and running a large video advertising screen on the repair scaffolding. Gross. Image
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Chateau Monfort

This is my home for the week: the Chateau Monfort on Corso Concordia. Image
It is a beautiful Relais & Chateaux property just a short walk from the city center (and all the best sights and shopping!). Housed in a pink Art Nouveau mansion from the 20th century, the hotel has distinctive fairy tale decor: pastel walls with light washed woods and silver accents; plaster reliefs of birds, flowers, and rabbits; beautiful mosaic floors, mirrors, and velvet-covered alcoves.

My room - #102 - is actually on the second floor, and looks out over a small courtyard and the neighboring Museo dei Cappuccini ("Museum of the Capuchins," meaning the religious order, not the monkeys!) It has lavender walls, a sea foam green satin headboard with whimsical carved wood mirror, and an aubergine, ultra suede settee. Image
It is beautifully appointed with custom lighting, flat panel TV, air conditioning, minibar, and Wifi. And it has a particularly luxurious bathroom; even the toilet paper is more stylish here! Image
But the wardrobe is my favorite: the doors have a giant cutout of a keyhole, through which you can see two glowing, yellow lights. Image
Opening them reveals a large mural of a tree, and the yellow lights are the eyes of an owl: Image
Downstairs is the Mezzanotte Bar Lounge with its magnificent glass dome... Image
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...and the Restaurant Rubacuori ("heart stealer") where we dined the first night (it was excellent). Image
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If you're ever in Milan, I highly recommend the Chateau Monfort - the service, amenities, and location are all fantastic.