The center of Milan, Via Mozart. I am passing monumental villas overgrown with grapevine. With each villa I find it harder to resist stopping for a while to take pictures of unusually decorative details of windows and doors. The place I am searching for can be easily overlooked since a high wall protects it from the noise of the city. A moment later, Villa Necchi Campiglio emerges from the trees.
Text: Karolina Merska*
Photo: Karolina Merska, Villa Necchi Archive
Coming from Lombardy, the upper-class Necchi family was highly recognized for producing cast iron and enameled goods including the immensely popular sewing machines. When Nedda Necchi and her sister Gigina with husband Angelo Campiglio decided to move to Milan, they wanted their new house to be a home where they could meet friends and notable clients, but they also wanted it to be a status symbol.
The villa was designed by Pierro Portaluppi who, at that times, was a renowned architect famous for his extravagant style. The Necchi family spared no money building their residence – the budget was unlimited. The house was built between 1932 and 1935 in the modernist style with art deco elements; its interior and furnishings were designed by Portaluppi as well.
Luca Guadagnino, a filmmaker, decided to set his production “I Am Love” in the villa because, as he states in one of the interviews:
“I wrote a script that called for a cube of marble with a big staircase and sharp surfaces. I was trying to find a home that suggested great wealth but also a restrained sensibility.”
“I Am Love” is a must-see for every aficionado of sensory cinema and architecture. At the same time, it’s a peculiar guide for our narrative about Villa Necchi Campiglio.
Rooms are arranged en suite, without hallways, so that one room spills into the next. I have got an impression that they transcend one another… A lush garden looks into the house through high windows while the light diffused by glass shelves almost filters in books. I feel the need to sit comfortably in a velvet armchair. Isn’t it where young Edoardo was having a conversation with his grandfather after a lost race?
Glass cabinets exhibiting the collections of porcelain figures create the atmosphere of transcendence. I imagine the way discrete spot lighting along furniture pleasantly illuminates the room after dark, evoking the inimitable ambience. My eyes are drawn to geometric ceilings, but also enjoy the paintings of the artists from the Novecento movement such as Giorgio Morandi, Mario Sironi and Giorgio de Chirico.
On my way from the library I cannot fight the feeling that I’ve been here before… I was exploring these interiors with Emma who, pining for her lover, wandered through limitless space in the villa incapable of finding her place. Ornate, high ceilings; large, open rooms and horizontal lines of wood paneling enforce discipline and create the feeling of seriousness and order. Monumental interior spaces, elegant and reserved, emphasize the heroine’s alienation. I can feel how alone she is and how desperately she wants to escape…
When the nights came, the pair of glass door was being covered up with the other pair (hidden during the day) made of strong steel to secure the home from unwanted guests. In one of the rooms Portaluppi ordered two external walls to be made of glass. Two layers of glass, to be precise, with plants in between created a heated winter garden. Here, the boundary between the interior and the exterior is blurred – trees and ferns are reflected in travertine floor tiles, stony tables and mother-of-pearl bowls. The original furniture of Portaluppi’s design has been preserved – a sofa, armchairs and a table made of lapis lazuli.
Sitting rooms bear the traces of design changes introduced in the post-II World War era when the family decided to have their house’s interiors redesigned by Tomaso Buzzi. Unfortunately, he followed 19th-century theatrical décor that was in vogue at that times. Antiques replaced part of Portaluppi’s furnishings that were moved to servants’ rooms. Buzzi brought in crystal chandeliers, baroque candlesticks, tapestries, weaved curtains and ornate fireplaces.
The dining room was featured in the movie several times during official dinners when the family made significant family and business decisions. This is where we meet the whole Recchi family during the birthday celebration of the senior of the family – Edoardo.
The scene commences when one of the servants slides the beautiful wooden door open (its glass parts were uncovered during renovation) and invites us to sit by the table with the family and guests. The room’s walls are adorned with goat leather lining and tapestries while the ceiling has mythical scenes engraved on it by Portaluppi himself. What attracts my attention is Alfredo Ravasco’s work of art lying on a table (Ravasco was one of the finest Milanese goldsmiths). Being made of lapis lazuli, agate and coral, it was part of the Necchi’s collection since the villa was built.
The last, dramatic dinner scene in the movie takes us to the kitchen where we clandestinely look at chef Antonio working but then go upstairs to the dining room. We pass diverse spaces and admire wonderful settings while the help serves the meal. I appreciate the architect’s penchant for straight lines and order. The kitchen’s wooden décor makes it look unusually austere. Portaluppi had drawers and shelves hidden in cabinets to avoid clutter and dissonance.
The richness of details and objects around me makes me lose touch with a tour. Though I get lost, I now have the pleasure of experiencing the majesty of the spaces on my own.
On entering the first floor where the rooms of family members are located, I stop in the middle of the staircase and look down. What I see is the view of the entrance doors, the spacious hall and Arturo Martini’s sculpture “L’amante morta”. The sculpture dates back to 1921 and presents a bereaved woman left by her lover. In “I Am Love”, however, Guadagnino replaced the sculpture with flowers.
I recollect one of the scenes that’s particularly etched on my memory: Emma, wearing a simple and elegant plum dress, descends the stairs with a magnificent, wooden handrail with art deco elements. Impressive burr walnut lining is shining all around making a beautiful background for the lush greenery of plants.
I reach the first floor and turn right. A far-reaching hallway unfolds in front of me. Surprisingly, I notice a barrel vault characteristic of basilicas rather than private mansions. Richly ornate tapestries decorate the vault and startlingly contrast with the straight line of doors leading to family members’ rooms.
When I visit the rooms I have the sense of peeking into the life of the Necchis. Cozy interiors – full of their owner’s favorite paintings and travel souvenirs bear no resemblance to the monumental and museum-like spaces in the rest of the house. A lamp illuminates books on a night table; Gigina Necchi’s elegant dresses and hats hang in the closet; an unfinished letter lies on Angelo’s desk.
Bathrooms’ design is all about splendor. Not only are floors lined with marble, but also walls, including showers and bathtubs. Enormous mirrors reflect furniture and pictures, enlarging the already ample space. Sunlight, stumbling over the garden’s greenery, enters through high windows and highlights all sorts of caskets, crystal perfume bottles and elegant shaving sets left on dressing tables.
Head housemaid’s room as well as guests’ apartments are located on the other side (the rest of the servants slept in attic bedrooms). One of the apartments is named “The Prince’s Apartment” in honor of Prince Henry of Hesse – set and costume designer of the La Scala Theater. I’m in awe when I enter the apartment’s bathroom that features the enormously huge semicircular door leading to the balcony. I can imagine that this was the place where, while sipping coffee and admiring the garden, the designer worked on his famous sets and costumes for Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Turandot”. A black marble wall divides the space in two parts – the bathroom and the office with a desk and cabinet of Portaluppi’s design.
What astounds in Villa Necchi are diverse but harmonious spaces created by Portaluppi. His attention to detail is clearly visible in brass geometric screens on radiators, decorations on ceilings, onyx door framings, decorative window cranks. The choice of materials used, sophisticated color combinations as well as contrasts between various forms and textures comprise luxury, richness and elegance of Portaluppi’s spaces.
Interiors, changing colors of Emma’s wardrobe (specially designed for Tilda Swinton by Jil Sander), sensual dishes prepared by her lover Antonio, ephemeral nature, music composed by John Adams and unique scents blend with one another in the movie to create a special atmosphere. Sometimes, no dialogues are necessary.
The history of the Recchi family presented in “I Am Love” has breathed new life into the Milanese mansion and brought us closer to the lives of its original owners. I think out loud: What was their life like? Were they happy in the villa? Rumor has it that Gigina didn’t share her sister Nedda’s love of contemporary art and had to keep her collection in a basement. Both sisters loved travelling and led a vibrant social life. Their villa went down in the history of Milan as the place of numerous parties and artistic meetings. People were gossiping about Milan’s first heated swimming pool and an allegedly hidden tunnel beneath the garden. Members of the Necchi family spent the rest of their lives living in the villa. Nedda never got married and none of the sisters became a mother. Gigina died at the age of 98 and, just before her death in 2001, she’d decided to bequeath her house to the city on condition that it was turned into a museum where its interiors would be exhibited with all the objects in them. The museum was open to the public in 2008.
Once admired by famous people and friends of the family, Villa Necchi experiences a revival thanks to its role in “I Am Love”. Interiors designed by Portaluppi have turned out to be timeless and replete with meanings. They will surely play the leading role for decades to come.
Alumni of History of Art at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Co-founder of an arts organization Deconstruction Project, active between 2010-2013, promoting polish culture in the UK. Makes jewellery under her own brand "bobbin & bow". For PURO she invites you to participate in her sensoric travels through inspiring cities and museums.
fot. Ola O Smit