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Exhibitions / Tino Sehgal / Read more

Via Palestro 16, Milan

Villa Reale is one of Milan’s best-kept secrets, a little gem of a building where art history unfurls all the way from the restrained gestures of Antonio Canova’s sculptures to Futurism’s maelstroms of energy. With its succession of rooms and marbles on the ground floor and its sumptuous halls on the piano nobile above, the story of Villa Reale is deeply rooted in Milan’s Napoleonic period, and it is now the prestigious home of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, with a collection of 19th- and 20th-century masterpieces.

Originally known as Villa Belgiojoso, Villa Reale is one of the most outstanding examples of Neoclassical architecture in Milan. Designed by architect Leopoldo Pollack—who studied under architect Giuseppe Piermarini—it was built between 1790 and 1796 over the remains of the San Dionigi and Carcanine monasteries as a residence for Count Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, with an overall decorative scheme conceived by Enlightenment poet and intellectual Giuseppe Parini.

Upon Count Lodovico’s death, the villa passed through a succession of owners, though it was always linked to distinguished names and pivotal figures in Italian history. The villa of delights—as it was then known—was home to the French general and than King of Naples Joachim Murat and his wife Caroline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister. Named President of the Italian Republic in 1802 and crowned king in 1805, Napoleon received the villa as a gift from the Republic in 1802. He and his wife Josephine de Beauharnais also spent considerable time at Villa Reale, and famous aristocrat Paolina Borghese was a guest there in the same period. In the second half of the 19th century, Villa Reale became the residence of Austrian general Joseph Franz Radetzky.


The villa also includes a lush English garden stretching out behind the building. Designed like a small grove, it houses a rich variety of rare plants and trees and is known as the Giardino dei Bambini, since adults are admitted only if accompanied by children.

Inside, Villa Reale houses a significant collection of 19th-century art, including the last fresco by Andrea Appiani, whom Napoleon called “the leading painter in Italy”: Parnassus, with the Muses gathered around the god Apollo. One of the most important works of Italian Neoclassicism, Appiani’s fresco is located on the piano nobile, while on the ground floor, visitors can admire cartoons for the cycle of frescoes that the artist painted in the ancient sanctuary of Santa Maria presso San Celso, depicting the four Doctors of the Church and the four Evangelists.

The history of the museum at Villa Reale is inextricably tied to that of the city. As early as 1877, the municipal council began discussing the need to find a suitable home for its art collection. Built up through bequests from some of the most prominent families in Milan—Guasconi, Marchesi, Taverna, De Cristoforis—the city’s collection was installed at the villa with the aim of offering an educational tool to the public, and remained there until 1903, when it was moved to Castello Sforzesco.

During the First World War, the collection was transferred to Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome to escape the barbarities of the conflict, and when it returned to Milan, it was allocated to Villa Reale, which finally became the permanent home of the Museo dell’Ottocento.

From Antonio Canova’s suspended gestures to Rudolf Schadow’s classical poses, the sculptures in the collection stand alongside mythological compositions by Andrea Appiani and Gaspare Landi. Aristocratic life in the 19th century is portrayed by Francesco Hayez and Giovanni Carnevali (“il Piccio”) while just further on, Medardo Rosso turns space into a new sculptural vision. From the lofty simplicity and serene grandeur of Neoclassicism, by way of arcadian visions, bourgeois portraits, Romantic landscapes, sentimental atmospheres and complex theatrical devices, a visit to Villa Reale is a stroll through art history, but it is also a journey through Italian mannerisms, poses, and expressions: this is the land of melodrama.

The section of the villa dedicated to the collection of industrial magnate Carlo Grassi, on the second floor, preserves some of the best-known work by Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla, alongside masterpieces by Giorgio Morandi and a series of rare gems by Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Edouard Manet.

Like many historic buildings in the city, Villa Reale was seriously damaged in the Second World War, losing, for example, the 18th-century stables over whose foundations the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea (PAC) was built. Only recently, through a complete restoration, did Villa Reale return to its original splendour, and the spaces of this ancient residence can now be visited in all their extraordinary charm.