When I say that one of my favorite cities in Italy is Milan, I frequently get puzzled looks.
But I strongly believe what I say: Milan is a really beautiful city if you take the time to go beyond the obvious and discover what’s hidden behind the surface.
If you visit Milan, you probably go see the Duomo and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, maybe take a stroll down the Navigli and surely not miss the chance to spend some time shopping.
Casa degli Atellani seen from the garden
These are all great things, Piazza Duomo and the Galleria are undoubtedly amazing, shops are awesome in Milan and the Navigli are one of the most romantic places in the city, but Milan is much more – actually, some of the best things in the city are hidden or almost unknown to non-Milanese people.
I will soon write a blog post about all the things I like in Milan – and the reasons why you should visit it – but this time I want to focus on what is probably my most favorite thing: the houses. To be more precise, the old houses and gardens that are hidden behind grey, serious buildings.
a detail of the courtyard
When you are in Milan, it is quite common to walk past big, unimpressive buildings. In most cases, though, those big buildings hide elegant courtyards and luscious gardens. In fact, I have lived for years in a college dormitory in Milan with the most anonymous facade yet with a beautiful garden tucked away from the city hustle.
I love the fact that all these courtyards and gardens are secret and you really have to be willing to explore to discover them. I love the fact that in most cases it is a serendipitous chance that leads you to the discovery of a green hidden space in such a busy city.
a statue in the garden
Luckily, though, a few of those houses and gardens are accessible to the public and can be visited.
I visited one of them a couple of months ago and found it really interesting. The place is commonly known as La vigna di Leonardo (Leonardo’s Vineyard) and it is part of the inner garden of Casa degli Atellani (Atellani’s House). The house is in the very center of the city, just across the street from one of the most famous attractions in Milan, the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where you can see Leonardo’s Last Supper.
a detail of the ceiling in one of the rooms
Despite the big signs outside the house, I would say that it is quite easy to miss it because it doesn’t look like a museum or attraction at all. But missing it would be a real pity because what lies behind that anonymous door is really fascinating.
Casa degli Atellani is a wonderful house that dates back to the Renaissance. The house was gifted by Ludovico Il Moro, Duke of Milan, to one of his cavaliers, who belonged to the Atellani family, in 1490. Under the Atellani family, the house was the center of high society life at the time of the Sforzas, hosting elegant and luxurious parties.
the zodiac room
The house was the property of the Atellani family until the 17th century when it was sold to new owners. Different families owned the house over time, until 1919, when the house was acquired by the engineer and senator Ettore Conti.
Ettore Conti designated architect Pietro Portaluppi for the restoration of the house. Pietro Portaluppi is a very important figure in 1920s architecture: he restored many private and public buildings in Milan in those years, including Brera Pinacoteque and the iconic Albergo Diurno Metropolitano, another hidden treasure I visited a while ago.
When you enter the complex, you immediately see two adjoining courtyards that lead to the main house. The first room you see is the Sala dello Zodiaco, which takes its name from the 16th-century star-themed frescos on the ceiling. Then you see the Sala dei Ritratti, with some portraits of the Sforza family – unfortunately, they are only copies, originals have been brought to Sforzesco Castle.
a detail of the floor in the zodiac room
Then you’ll see the Sala dello Scalone, decorated with the coat of arms of all the families that have owned the house over time. The last room is Ettore Conti’s study, a magnificent room filled with beautiful objects and decorations, where it is not uncommon to see the house cat sleep on the sofa.
Then, there is the garden and the famous Leonardo’s vineyard.
The garden was used in the 16th century for parties and events. It was completely different at the time, its modern shape is due to the intervention of Pietro Portaluppi, who created a small boulevard and placed statues and fountains. At the very end of the garden, finally, you can visit the vineyard.
Ettore Conti’s study – can you spot the cat?
The vineyard was a gift from Ludovico il Moro to Leonardo Da Vinci, who was busy working at his Last Supper on the other side of the road. After a whole day of work, Leonardo would just cross the street and relax among his own vines. He was very attached to this small vineyard in the center of Milan and he even mentioned it in his testament.
Leonardo’s vineyard was destroyed in 1943, during a bombing that miraculously spared the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Atellani house. However, Expo 2015 was the occasion to bring the vineyard to a new life: a scientific committee did some studies on the soil and was able to find the type of vines that were planted there at the time of Leonardo, namely the Malvasia di Candia, coming from the hills near Piacenza.
So the vineyard has been planted and Casa degli Atellani, which had been completely private until then, has opened its doors to the public, giving people the chance to admire the work of Pietro Portaluppi and enjoy the atmosphere of such a fascinating place.
I have been there in late September and I really enjoyed the visit but I think that it would be even more fascinating to visit it in autumn, during foliage. But I am sure it is interesting to see it all year round! Moreover, there are some apartments for rent in a separate area, if you like the atmosphere and want to enjoy it a bit longer, and a bistro where you can taste some local products. A perfect place to take a break from the chaos of Milan!
September 2023 update: this place is sadly closing down to the general public because it has been purchased by LVMH and it will probably be turned into a hotel. It is unknown if a part of it will still be open to the general public in the future.