No one comes to Milan for the Roman ruins, early Christian churches or even its stunning, other worldly Duomo. Milan is for shopping, catching Daniel Barenboim at La Scala, doing deals at the Salone Mobile or Moda Donna fairs. Then for kicking back with a Negroni at one of its preposterously pretentious bars while gawping at the obscenely wealthy and preternaturally beautiful. It can be a hard city to love, forbiddingly grey, its air heavy with pollution, and with a pace seemingly as tyrannical New York or Beijing. The city’s position as Italy’s economic hub and indefatigable modern metropolis constantly conspire: hubris, dynastic ambition and frazzled exhaustion don’t exactly make for la dolce vita.
It is, of course, far more seductive if you’ve got a healthy expense account, but one has the sense that even the most cashed up of casual visitors are kept at arm’s length, doomed to always be in a parallel world of public spaces, while much of gilded Milanese life is conducted within apartments, rooftops and courtyards. I got the odd glimpse of via invitations to dinner or art openings, but I more often just caught the heady perfume and promise of a lush courtyard garden as imposing wooden doors clanged shut. But, since the spring of 2008, a small piece of its haute-bourgeois splendour is no longer entirely private. Nestled beneath rows of grand residential apartments, between the fashion heartland of the Golden Quad and the design showrooms of San Babila, is a rare architectural masterpiece, and for once there’s no eagle-eyed concierge to stop one peeking. Yes, you’re a paying guest, but it’s no less thrilling to wander in the gate, past herb-filled garden beds, and to spin around and breathe the scent of what was so recently a secret garden.
Eccentric Milanese architect Piero Portaluppi designed Villa Necchi Campiglio in 1932 for Nedda and Gigina Necchi, the daughters of a Pavian industrialist, and Gigina’s husband, doctor-turned-entrepreneur Angelo Campiglio. Heirless, Gigina Campiglio Necchi donated the house to the Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano, or FAI, Italy’s National Trust, upon her death in 2001. The FAI’s meticulous restoration took several years and quite a few million euro, reversing many of the ‘improvements’ which were made to the house in the 1950s. It’s the FAI’s first Milanese property and, appropriately for the city, also its first major 20th-century one.
Set in sprawling grounds with a Hollywood-style heated swimming pool, tennis court and cloistered by elegant towering magnolia trees, the house is unequaled as a symbol of the city’s 20th-century industrial wealth and Modernist imaginings. Rooms are lavishly decorated and finishes are breathtaking – Chinoiserie banisters line the staircase and airy light-filled bathrooms are clad in the best local marble. Unusual, ambitious details such as the terrarium-lined sun room, electronic shuttering and brass-clad central heating surprise; big ticket 20th-century Italian art works by Morandi, Di Chirico and Campigli (on loan from the collection of Claudia Gian Ferrari) mix with quotidian details. Closets are stuffed with bias-cut silk slips, cloche hats and fur collars, monogrammed brushes line dressing tables and luggage still sits at the ready for one of the wanderlusting sisters’ many journeys. The kitchens are decked out with shiny appliances, cupboards stacked with freshly pressed linen and staff uniforms.
While it’s very easy on the eye, Portaluppi’s Art Deco and Italian Rationalist co-mingling also evokes an uneasy sense of historical cusp; the house speaks of an outlook that was vertiginously forward looking while at the same time desperately anchored in a world fast slipping away. Interestingly, the sister’s subsequent renovations sought to tamp down its visionary design and make it a ‘normal’ bourgeois home.
The basement – originally servicing the pool and housing the staff – now contains large blown up photographs of the seemingly inseparable sisters. They lounge poolside, beam from the deck of an ocean liner or strike elegant poses in far-flung locales. The touching intimacy of the house and these photographs (along with the lack of any meaningful documentation of the sisters’ lives) is rich fodder for an active imagination. What did the sisters chat about in their chic bathing costumes as the century’s darkest clouds gathered on the horizon (and could they really have been as tone-deaf to the cataclysm as they appear in these photographs)? Who was it that these Hilton sisters of their day were entertaining and where were they when the Allied bombs began to fall?
In a city such as Milan, one where you are forever on the outside looking in, questions such as these don’t have easy, or one suspects, particularly palatable answers. The splendid, haunting Villa Necchi Campiglio is all the more intriguing for it.
Via Mozart 12
02 760 02 877
€6 (by guided tour only)
Opening hours:10-18h Wed-Sun (last entry 17:30); garden café until 21h
Nearest metro: MM1 (red line) San Babila