You may have the universe if I may have Italy
“Milan, again?” enquired a friend as I was packing before my last trip. “Haven’t you been there before?” I admit to previous shoe shopping, Duomo roof climbing, Last Supper queuing in Milan. But I emphasise that every time I went I discovered new Milanese treasures: the luxuriously ornate wrought iron balconies, plaster cherubs and colourful Art Nouveau decoration on the facades in via Malpighi; the best place for aperol spritzer; the frescoes in San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore; the place where women came to do their washing in the canals system designed by Leonardo da Vinci in the Navigli.
Walking through the wide streets of Milan, I could spend hours admiring the tastefully arranged shop windows: clothes, stationery, toilet brushes, handbags – displayed as if they are works of art. Not to mention the pasticcerie.
I escaped the Quadrilatero d’Oro (Golden Rectangle – Milan’s upmarket fashion district) by turning into a public garden and the quiet leafy neighbourhood of San Babila. Several villas nest behind iron gates in mature gardens along via Mozart. One imagines expensive furniture, lots of marble, china in glass cabinets; space full of artifice, homeowners keen to show off their wealth, if not their taste, in typical examples of salon culture. But villa Necchi Campiglio, with its clean lines and white, square façade, looking elegant yet solid, conveys an air of grandeur. This is exactly the effect that the architect Piero Portaluppi wanted to achieve for his clients, the Necchi Campiglio family. The mansion is set back from the street, behind an iron fence and tall trees, to allow privacy and reduce noise. There is a lodge inside the entrance gate, linked to the house by a subterranean corridor.
Neither Gigina, whose father built the Necchi sewing machines empire, not her husband Angelo Campiglio, who manufactured motors for refrigerators and held a patent for enamelling cast iron – were born in Milan. Villa Necchi Campiglio was their first home in the city, which may explain their ambition to fit in with the Milan haute-bourgeoisie. They selected the well-connected Portaluppi, of Pincaoteca fame, to design a modern and functional house.
We waited for our timed guided tour by the pool – the first private pool to be built in the city – under the shadow of the magnolia tree, in the well- manicured but friendly-looking garden. Upon completion in 1935, the villa featured in the Rivista d’Architettura: readers were no-doubt impressed by the unassuming, modernist exterior and the sumptuous interior, by the use of the highest quality materials and modern technology.
Like a secret treasure box, the clean lines, nearly austere façade, opens into elegant and luxurious interior. The relatively new rationalism gives way to Art Deco. The reception rooms – library, games room, fumoir – covered in boiserie and with the walnut and rosewood parquet would feel cold and airless, were it not for the high ceilings, adorned by Portaluppi’s stucco diamond pattern. The rooms are a testament to the Necchi-Campiglio social ambitions and pleasure in entertaining. There is also a gun room – and we learn that Prince Philip came as a guest of Vittorio Necchi to hunt at Portalupa, near Pavia, the Necchi’s country estate, in December 1966.
The villa’s piece de resistance is the veranda, or winter-garden, with its green and cream marble floor, lapis lazuli coffee table and a remarkable door: created by Portaluppi using Alpaca silver, the sliding door is designed to complement the conservatory’s décor, but also to ensure the safety of the family. The striking staircase with Greek motif (a favourite of Art Deco) and walnut panelling leads to the bedroom suites, which can also be reached by a lift.
The theme of elegance and modern comfort continues upstairs, where from the large landing, an arched stucco ceiling gallery leads to the residents’ bedroom suites: Gigina and her husband’s to the left, Gigina’s sister, Nedda’s, on the right. Each with its monumental marble bathroom with showers, low level heaters, ample wardrobes.
The lower ground floor houses the changing rooms and showers serving the swimming pool and tennis courts, as well as a billiard room. The servant’s quarters are in the attic. The running of the household, and all the entertaining the Necchi Campiglio carried out to achieve their social mobility ambition, required an army of full time service personnel.
It was interesting to detect a hint of admiration and pride when our guide mentioned the “borghesia Milanese”. We are used to referring to the bourgeoisie with a hint of disdain – for their conspicuous consumption, materialism and philistinism. But in Italy, where Mussolini’s fascist régime attempted to isolate the bourgeoisie from Italian society, by portraying them as parasites and enemy of “The People”, opposition to the fascist ideology include rehabilitation of the middle class (es). Indeed, there is admiration for their industry, for contributing to the economy, for creating wealth and enjoying it. It may be the Latin character that does not condemn hedonism, but rather try to emulate it; there is pride in the Made in Italy entrepreneurship.
In 1943 the villa was requisitioned by the Fascist Republican Party and it became its headquarters. When the family reclaimed it and returned from countryside exile, the villa was in need of an update. The Necchi Campiglio commissioned another favourite of the Milanese bourgeoisie of the time, the architect Tommaso Buzzi. Buzzi’s taste for antiques, warmth and soft surfaces, transformed the severe style of the interior with tapestries, carpets, curtains and antique furnishings. The fumoir, a small room with a large ornate green marble fireplace, is the work of Buzzi. To the purist, the petit-bourgeois decorative elements introduced by Buzzi diminish, rather than enhance the allure of the mansion. But such was the taste of the time. The Necchi appreciated and benefited from new developments in modern comfort: a wood panelled lift, but also dumbwaiter, telephone, intercom, heated swimming pool. They lived well, and long – Nedda was 93, Gigina 100 years old when they died without heirs; Villa Necchi was left to the nation.