The serpent has been the defining emblem of Milan since the 13th century. As a symbol of regeneration it’s fitting for a city that has had to constantly reinvent itself throughout history. Often put down for not having the allure of Florence or the charm of Venice, it has subsequently become Italy’s premier hub for creativity and innovation. Spend long enough in its enchanted courtyards, glitzy shopping streets and impeccably-furnished apartments and you’ll discover its many contrasting yet complementary personalities, and maybe even glimpse its future.
This spirit of construction and invention is beautifully captured by Carlo Stanga in the illustrated book, I Am Milan. His eye for Milan’s abundance of architectural styles was well trained during his studies at the city’s prestigious Politecnico di Milano followed by a collaboration with local legend Bruno Munari. Across 112 pages, he reproduces the various architectural sights that embody the city’s dynamism.
The Piazza del Duomo is where the city finds its essence. The vast nineteenth-century square buzzes with tourists and locals alike, sitting in the shadow of the enormous cathedral. Originally commissioned in 1385, the grand neo-Gothic structure wasn’t completed until 1965. Today it is best visited from the roof, which offers sweeping views of the city and close encounters with the thousands of gargoyles and statues dotted around its perimeter. It is the best vantage point for the many “elegant contrasts interlacing with each other, almost like a musical score.”
One such contrast, with the graceful Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II next door, hits the right note. The shopping arcade’s rounded arches soften the triangular figure of the Duomo. In 1865 it was the first time glass and steel had been used in such an audacious manner, and the lightness and elegance of the great vaulted roofs is remarkable. Its structure was state-of-the-art at the time, and is said to have inspired Gustav Eiffel.
A tram ride away but visible from the roof of the Duomo is the Torre Velasca. The 1950s interpretation of a typical Italian medieval castle is wider at the top, like a concrete mushroom. Soaring above the ancient centre, it symbolises the city’s drive to modernity while holding onto its historic roots. Despite its unusual shape, it doesn’t shout; it sings.
Hidden behind gates and courtyards are the private residences of the city’s creative population. Stanga takes us to Villa Necchi, an architectural masterpiece nestled in the heart of Milan. We are met by a tall, slender lady who looks strikingly like Tilda Swinton (it’s where the film I Am Love was shot). Built in the early 1930s by Piero Portaluppi, it is the perfect example of the city’s ability to marry severity and creativity. Stark lines soften around the luscious garden and swimming pool framed with fresh flowers. Inside, the former residence seamlessly blends art pieces from the Renaissance to the twentieth century with its modernist style.
The book was published in 2015, an important date in the history of Milan. It was the year of the Expo, which – despite the inevitable scandals – is credited with boosting investment and interest in the city. The city has reported record numbers of visitors ever since, but it’s the Milanese themselves who have changed their tune the most. Known for being a rather pessimistic bunch, even the loudest grumblings have been replaced with a new sense of local pride. As local tastemaker Alan Prada, deputy editor for Vogue Italia and L’Uomo Vogue, said: “The cultural offer has improved; the architectural past of the city has been rediscovered and there’s a new interest in Milan. For the first time, creatives from other countries are moving and installing their activities here.”
2015 was also the year that saw the opening of the long-awaited Prada Foundation, which has swiftly left its mark on the global art scene with its culturally resonant exhibitions programme, beautifully-designed spaces and exquisite Aperol Spritzes served out of the Wes Anderson-designed bar. While the venue didn’t make the print deadline for the book, it’s easy to imagine how snugly its varied buildings and mix of styles would fit amidst its pages.
Today, Milan’s new energy is best expressed in the new CityLife development. Having broken ground in 2007 and set for completion later this year, the ambitious project is already proving a hit with locals for its innovative approach to public and private spaces. Spanning 366,000 square meters, the project comprises a shopping centre and apartments by Zaha Hadid, a curved tower by Daniel Libeskind and a swanky restaurant by Fabio Novembre as well as a large amount of open space. We can imagine the ‘made in Milan’ pieces that will furnish the interiors: Gio Ponti, Bruno Munari, Aldo Rossi and Paola Navone are just some of the famous designers who have made their mark on the city.
With a rich history that continues to breathe life into the city and remind its inhabitants of its many identities throughout time, Milan’s future looks bright. New ideas bounce off the walls and into groundbreaking new projects, fresh energy streams in from near and far, and the city continues to shapeshift to welcome each wave as it rolls in. Perhaps the book should have been called We Are Milan, to recognise the many serpents that have been born of its past, present and future.
The book I Am Milan illustrated by Carlo Stanga’s is available here.