City Guide

Milan: the Insider's Guide

Sotheby's Museum Network sits down with Marta Giani, a specialist in the Modern and Contemporary Art Department at Sotheby's Milan to discuss the region's best cultural destinations and local attractions.

Marta Giani

Modern and Contemporary Art Department, Sotheby's Milan

Sotheby's Museum Network (SMN): Thank you for taking the time to share your insights on Milan! How long have you lived in Milan?

Marta Giani (MG): I am actually from Varese, the so-called “Garden City” of Italy. It's about 40km from Milan, but I have lived in Milan for over 20 years so it is very much home.

(SMN): What are your top three favorite museums in the city?

(MG): Fondazione Prada, because it has one of the most important Italian private art collections and because the exhibition programme is very well organized and always interesting. Visitors should not miss the Haunted House, part of a former distillery complex dating back to the 1910s. Without transforming the original volumes, the architecture project has preserved and enhanced the building by reinforcing the structure and gilding its external surface. Big windows highlight a strong relation with the external urban landscape and the adjacent buildings, but at the same time the sequence of single rooms preserves an intimate spatial scale. Its secluded environments host a permanent installation conceived by Robert Gober as well as two works by Louise Bourgeois.

Fondazione Prada, Milan

Milan's Fondazione Prada

Then there is Gallerie d’Italia, a beautiful example of a bank collection. The Galleries are housed in a unique architectural complex of palaces, courtyards and gardens in the heart of Milan. The building - previously the historical headquarters of the Banca Commerciale Italiana, overlooking Piazza della Scala and designed by Luca Beltrami between 1906 and 1911 - holds a selection of twentieth century works from Intesa San Paolo collection, displayed with thematic installations that are renewed cyclically, as part of the exhibition project Cantiere del '900. The basement contains the deposit of works from the bank and is visible from the outside and open to the public. The total exhibition area of the Gallerie di Piazza Scala is 8,300 square meters. The fantastic Agrati Collection has just been donated to the museum and includes very important post war Italian works of art, Arte Povera, Pop Art and much more.

Anselm Kiefer, The Seven Heavenly Palaces

Anselm Kiefer's site-specific sculpture, The Seven Heavenly Palaces (2004-2015) commissioned for Pirelli HangarBicocca

Last but not least is Pirelli HangarBicocca. It is a non-profit foundation, established in 2004, housed in a former industrial area in Milan and committed to promoting contemporary art. This dynamic centre used to be a locomotive factory and covers 15,000 square meters, making it one of the largest contiguous exhibition spaces in Europe. It presents major solo shows every year by Italian and International artists with each project conceived to work in close relation to the architecture of the complex and explored in depth through a calendar of parallel events. The complex includes an area for public services and educational activities and three exhibition spaces whose original twentieth-century architectural features have been left visible: Shed, Navate, and Cubo. Pirelli Hangar Bicocca also permanently houses one of Anselm Kiefer’s most important site-specific works, The Seven Heavenly Palaces (2004-2015), commissioned for the opening of Pirelli HangarBicocca: don’t miss it!

(SMN): What are your top three favorite cultural destinations in Italy and what do you love about them?

(MG): The “Cretto” by Alberto Burri, also known as "The Great Cretto", is an enormous shroud of white cement which covers a hillside in the remote countryside of western Sicily: it is an earthwork undertaken by the artist in 1984 and left in an unfinished state in 1989 (due to lack of funds), based on the old city of Gibellina. The original city of Gibellina was completely destroyed in the 1968 Belice earthquake. Gibellina has since been rebuilt, about 20 km from the city's original location. In 2015 to mark what would have been Burri's one hundredth birthday, the work was finally completed. It is also the subject of a short documentary by the Dutch filmmaker Petra Noordkamp which was created as a commission by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to be screened at the Alberto Burri retrospective held at the institution in 2015.

Boboli Gardens, Florence

Giardini di Boboli

Second, Giardini di Boboli, the Boboli Gardens, are one of the greatest open-air museums in Florence that embrace another side of Florentine culture, the Pitti Palace. The park hosts centuries-old oak trees, sculptures, fountains and offers peaceful shelter. The gardens are a spectacular example of "green architecture" which inspired many European royal gardens of the time, in particular, Versailles. You should not miss at the end of the walk near Palazzo Pitti, the court dwarf Morgante who rides a tortoise! (Tip: If you are in Florence, try the brand new Gucci restaurant by Massimo Bottura, a very special place.)

Last but not least, the Giardino dei Tarocchi, which is Niki de Saint Phalle’s esoteric sculpture garden based on the tarot cards, in Capalbio, the heart of Tuscany. I love it for its fairylike, colorful character. It also testifies to the collaboration between very different artists.

(SMN): What are your top three favorite historic and cultural sites in the city of Milan or surrounding area, and what makes them special?

(MG): Villa Borsani, which opened its doors to the public during the Osvlado Borsani retrospective exhibition at the Triennale di Milano (and it is open upon appointment during the rest of the year). The residence, which was completed in 1945, is located in the town of Varedo just north of Milan. Set within 3,000 square meters of gardens and featuring unique works commissioned from artists including Adriano Spilimbergo and Lucio Fontana, it is a rare and immaculately preserved example of Borsani’s richly layered modernism.

There is also Villa Panza in Varese, an eighteenth-century villa that opens the windows on a magnificent Italian garden and houses a collection of contemporary American art among the best known in the world, as well as international exhibitions. Donated by Giuseppe and Giovanna Panza di Biumo, in 1996, Villa Panza is known throughout the world as a center of contemporary art. Count Giuseppe Panza from the 1950s began to create a collection of art of twentieth century: over 150 works by American artists, inspired by the themes of light and color, coexist in harmony with ancient environments, Renaissance furnishings and precious collections of African and pre-Columbian art. Not-to-miss highlights include works by Dan Flavin, (in fact, the collection boasts the largest concentration of Flavin works perennially exhibited), Robert Wilson, Wim Wenders and James Turrell. Plus, their restaurant "Luce" is very good. If you are in Varese, I also suggest to go for a walk along Sacro Monte hill: one of the most important from a panoramic point of view.

Villa Necchi

The 1930s interior decor at Villa Necchi Campiglio

Finally, Villa Necchi Campiglio is a residence surrounded by a quiet garden in the centre of Milan. Here, you can still feel the atmosphere of the beautiful world of Milan between the two world wars. Villa Necchi Campiglio was designed in the early 1930s by architect Piero Portaluppi and donated by Gigina Necchi Campiglio and Nedda Necchi in 2001. It includes the collection Alighiero and Emilietta de 'Micheli (donated in 1995) and the collection Claudia Gian Ferrari (donated in 2009). The Villa is now open to all, respecting the will of the sisters Necchi who entrusted the home just to make it a place to live and attend, thanks to the cool garden, the numerous events on schedule and an elegant bistro hidden in the garden.

Don’t miss the Invernizzi garden view, just past the corner between Via Cappuccini and Via Serbelloni (behind Corso Venezia): you will feel like you are in another world populated by pink flamingos, a dozen of these rare birds, all born in captivity from ancestors imported from Chile and Africa.

(SMN): You've provided us with such fabulous suggestions already, but what are some other hidden gems of Milan often overlooked by visitors to the city?

(MG): Casa Boschi Di Stefano, Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Villa Bagatti Valsecchi, Villa Reale in Palestro and San Maurizio Church in Corso Magenta, with the full fresco decoration by Bernardino Luini.

Pasticceria Marchesi

Pasticceria Marchesi in Milan

(SMN): What is your recommended weekend activity for a first-time visitor to Milan?

(MG): Start with a sumptuous breakfast at Pasticceria Marchesi, the classic Milanese pastry shop, in Via Montenapoleone or in Corso Magenta (the more historical location). Continue with some shopping in the “5 vie”, Via Montenapoleone, Via della Spiga, Via Sant’Andrea... See some art at Poldi Pezzoli Museum and Gallerie d’Italia. If you don’t find the usual queue, taste the famous Panzerotto and Zeppola alla Nutella by Luini, in Via Santa Radegonda 6. While giggling around, be smart and curious: the Milanese hidden gardens are common and it’s usually possible to visit them just entering in the Historical Palaces.

Finally, The new Darsena area is very well renovated and gives visitors an idea of how the original function of Navigli in Milan looked, since Leonardo Da Vinci’s time.

For the typical “aperitivo” there are so many place for all tastes: Lubar (delicious and easy chic), Barbasso (radical chic), Bulgari (chic in a hidden garden), Mandarin (very chic), Marino Trussardi alla Scala and Green with the Patric Blanck vegetal architecture over your head.

(SMN): Where do you like to dine in Milan, and which restaurants would you recommend to a first-time visitor?

(MG): Filippo Lamantia for anyone who wants to eat very typical southern Italian specialties. D’o, Davide Oldani, for someone who wants to taste the innovative cuisine of the Milanese kitchen. Kampai is a great new Japanese restaurant and Cittamani is one of the best Indian restaurants in Milan.

(SMN): And, if you weren't from Milan, where would you stay?

(MG): Senato Hotel, Sheraton Diana Majestic or Château Monfort.

(SMN): We're ready to book! When is the best time to visit?

(MG): Certainly during one of our art or fashion festivals. A few of my favorites are Milan Fashion Week (mid-late September), Design Week (Salone del Mobile mid- April), and MiArt Fair (early April).

(SMN): Last but not least, who are some local trendsetters or Milanese insiders to follow for further insights?

(MG): For the best of Milanese fashion there are Giovanna Battaglia (@bat_gio); Umberta Zambeletti (@waitandseemilano); and Simone Marchetti (@marchettisimone).

For everything art-related, I listen to Tommaso Calabro (@tommasocalabro); Lorenzo Giusti (@lorenzogiusti); Flash Art (@flashartitalia); Nicola Maggi (@“collezionedatiffanyblog); Paola Clerico (@paolaclerico); Alessandro Rabottini (@alessandro.rabottini); and Arturo Galansino (@arturogalansino).

Finally, design fanatics will get inspired by Nilufar (@nilufargallery); Raw (@raw_milano); Cargo Hi-Tech (@cargo_hightech); and Dimore Gallery (@dimoregallery).

Marta Giani with Lucio Fontana's Concetto Spaziale, Attese, 1963–64.

About the Insider:
Marta Giani joined Sotheby’s as a Junior Specialist in the Modern and Contemporary Art Department in 2007. Her career in the art world started whilst she was still a student. Having worked with a contemporary art restorer, and after a stint in the merger and acquisition industry, she collaborated with the Palazzo Reale Museum in Milan. She then joined Finarte as a cataloguer in the Modern and Contemporary Art Department in 2004. Marta was promoted to the role of Deputy Director in 2012 and in 2016 she was nominated co-head of Sotheby’s sales for Modern and Contemporary Art in Milan. Her business-getting is instrumental to securing works of international appeal.

Similar Content