Renaissance Revival at Palazzo Bagatti Valsecchi

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Tapestry, detail. Mercury and sons, c.1560. Palazzo Bagatti-Valsecchi, piano nobile stair hall.

Although extravagant Renaissance palaces line the Venice-Florence-Rome corridor, Gilded Age architects, designers and artisans were as inspired by the Palazzo Bagatti Valsecchi, an 1880s Neo-Renaissance reconstruction, as they were by its authentic15th and 16th century counterparts. With the founding of the Kingdom of Italy during the 1870s, Italians sought cultural coherence, envisioning no better way to be modern than by reviving the accomplishments of the country’s Golden Age. In Milan, two wealthy barons Fausto Bagatti Valsecchi (1843-1914) and his brother Giuseppe Bagatti Valsecchi (1845-1934) were captivated by the Risorgimento, skillfully transforming their family’s immense Neo-Baroque villa into a High Renaissance classic.

“Nobility and Bourgeoisie.” Following Giuseppe’s marriage to Princess Carolina Borromeo in 1882, the Bagatti Valsecchi family of lawyers and landowners ascended into Italy’s highest-ranking nobility. While the Bagatti Valsecchi family’s titular barony was acknowledged after the fall of Napoleon in 1815, the Borromeo family was among Milan’s oldest and wealthiest aristocracy. Carolina Borromeo (1864-1925) was the daughter of Count Carlo and Costanza Borromeo. During the 1880s, Fausto and Guiseppe led the restoration design of the Borromeo family’s Lake Maggiore palaces featured in the 2011 New York Social Diary Borromeo Baroque.

While the brothers may have spent their lives quietly designing villas, chapels, gatehouses, restorations, and gardens for family and friends, their own magnum opus became a significant turn-of-the-century destination long before its fashionable Montenapoleone location became an attraction. Almost immediately after its completion in 1883 and for the next several decades, the palazzo’s Via Gesù guestbook was autographed by the likes of VanderbiltsWanamakers, and Fricks, along with their architects, art advisors and decorators, who were creating their own American Renaissance.

As America’s newly minted monopolists and robber barons acquired Raphael paintings, ducal fireplace mantles, and Savonarola chairs from dealers and longstanding noble families short on cash, installing them in their New York or Newport showplaces, the Bagatti Valsecchi prototype served a more principled less ostentatious purpose,  a model for Renaissance artistry and craftsmanship.

“It was not intended to create a museum, or a collection,” wrote Giuseppe Bagatti Valsecchi, “rather to reconstruct the dwelling of a princely inhabitation around the middle of the 16th century in which one found objects of the 15th and 16th centuries of the most varied kind, among them, paintings, tapestries, rugs, furniture, arms, ceramics, bronzes, and domestic objects of all kinds. All collected with studious care, restored, and returned to their original use.” Though trained as lawyers, the brothers had created an architectural phenomenon, a time machine where they utilized the Renaissance objects they collected or facsimiles they crafted in their day-to-day lives, as if the calendar had returned to 1530.

A painting of the Bagatti Valsecchi family tree shows Giuseppe (Joseph) and his five children at the top of the tree; Fausto, a bachelor without heirs, is depicted on the branch below them.
Watercolor drawing. Late 19th century books and articles also spell the Bagatti name as Bagati. Along with vast landholdings in Milan and the palazzo, the family had long owned Villa Bagatti, a 16th century farmhouse in Varedo, near Monza, that the brothers converted into a Renaissance-style villa, as well as a villa on Lake Como located near Mennagio. Image courtesy Bagatti Valsecchi Archive.

Because of Milan’s prosperity in the decades before World War I, there was an increasing demand for luxury consumer goods as the bourgeoisie sought to mimic the aristocratic lifestyle  Milanese craftsmen and businessmen utilized the Bagatti Valsecchi model for tooling customized domestic articles and furnishings. There were far more moneyed Milanese accustomed to large staffs, silk pillows and elegant carriages than Florentines, Venetians, or Romans.

The brothers formulated illustrated brochures detailing the intricate Renaissance-style composition of their various lace, silk, leather, and ceramic pieces. Night stands and armoires replicated 15th and 16th century designs. By 1900, English, French and American writers had celebrated the Bagatti Valsecchi palazzo as  “without the frozen regularity of museums, or the bizarre disorder of an antiquarian’s shop … every object was returned to its original use … a private art collection that is lived in, joined with the preservation of Italy’s heritage.”

Giuseppe Bagatti Valsecchi. Image courtesy Bagatti Valsecchi Museum Archive.

The Bagatti Valsecchi Museum’s magic, its timeless mirage of illusion and reality as much a Renaissance hologram as a setting for a Fellini or Visconti film, is a 21st-century wonder.

Along with their interest in air balloons and equestrian sports, Fausto and Giuseppe were active in competitive bicycling, among the founders of Milan’s Veloce Club. Image courtesy Bagatti Valsecchi Museum Archive.
During the mid-1970s, Pasino Bagatti Valsecchi, along with his four children, Pier Fausto, Cristina, Annamaria, and Fausta, established a foundation to preserve the family’s collections and then donated the palazzo’s furnishings and artworks to it. At the same time, the palazzo was sold to the Regione Lombardia with the proviso that it be maintained unchanged. The Bagatti Valsecchi family lived in the palazzo until 1974; the museum opened to the public in 1994. The museum is managed by the Fondazione Bagatti Valsecchi, currently headed by Pier Fausto Bagatti Valsecchi.
5 Via Gesù. The palazzo extends from Via Gesù to Via San Spirito, midblock between Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spiga. The Bagatti Valsecchi Museum provides a view of the wealth, power and artistry of the Renaissance as framed and understood by 19th-century Milanese aristocrats.
A view from the Via San Spirito entrance toward Via Gesù, extending across twin courtyards paved with geometric mosaic patterns. After completion in 1883, the exteriors were redesigned several times between 1883 and 1887, intent to perfect a portrait of the High Renaissance in Lombardy. The Latin inscription acknowledges Fausto and Giuseppe as the architects and dedicates the house to Giuseppe’s wife Princess Carolina Borromeo.
Courtyard, mosaic detail.
The Via Gesù entrance stairway leads to the piano nobile where the arrangement of rooms, Fausto and Giuseppe’s private suites and shared areas, are exactly as the brothers organized and furnished them during the 1880s.
Entrance stairway to the piano nobile.
Tapestry. Mercury and sons, ca. 1560. Entrance Stair Hall on the piano nobile.
Room of the Fresco. The Madonna of Mercy, 1495. Antonio Boselli, fresco artist. Part of Fausto’s suite, the family’s private chapel was utilized for special occasions, such as weddings and baptisms.
Bevilacqua Room, fireplace. Named for 15th century artist Ambrogio Bevilacqua, the room was Fausto’s private drawing room. This room and the Grand Salon are the only two rooms that preserve the original wall coverings.
Bevilacqua Room, fireplace mantle and wall coverings, detail.
Dining Room. The wall coverings are formed by four large panels created out of a pair of tapestries featuring episodes of the life of the ancient Persian king, Cyrus, that were produced in Brussels, ca.1570. On the left of the fireplace, a door leads to a pantry area where food was plated after it arrived in a dumbwaiter from the kitchen located on the ground floor.
Dining Room, fireplace mantle with 16th century offering plates.
Green Room, fireplace mantle.
Stained-glass window.
Round leaded-glass window.
Ceiling panel, detail.
Ceiling, detail.
Labyrinth Room, ceiling detail. The ceiling decoration was inspired by the 16th c. Ducal Palace in Mantua.
Zodiac, ceiling panel. This panel is located in Giuseppe’s suite. Above this room’s fireplace, a Latin phrase warns: “Whoever loves to say bad things about those not present, know that this fireplace is forbidden to you.”
Ceiling panel, detail. Gallery of Arms.
Ceiling, Cupola Gallery.
The Cupola Gallery is named for the skylit cupola above the gallery. This room flanks the Grand Salon, and acts as a bridge between the two halves of the mansion, joining Fausto and Giuseppe’s private suites. On the long table, part of the ceramics collection is displayed, including a large vase signed and dated by Ippolito Rombaldoni in 1678.
Guiseppe’s Bedroom, adjacent to his master bedroom. Following aristocratic custom, Guiseppe also had his own private sleeping room. The bedroom’s banner contains a Latin quote translated as: “Neither wealth, nor the famous name of ancestors, rather virtue and great ability make great men.”
The Bagatti-Valsecchi Archive houses hundreds of the brothers’ drawings, pen-and-ink sketches, watercolors, and tempera renderings of architectural details. Above, a detail similar to the border around the bed.
Giuseppe’s bedroom.
Giuseppe’s bedroom, detail.
Fausto’s Bathroom. 19th century conveniences were concealed behind 15th century veneers.
Carolina and Giuseppe’s Bedroom. The large gilded wrought-iron Sicilian bed is the room’s centerpiece, flanked by 15th and 16th century paintings. Among these, St. Justine by Giovanni Bellini, c. 1470, deemed a masterpiece by Bernard Berenson.
Carolina and Giuseppe’s Bedroom.
The Grand Salon is the palazzo’s largest room. The large central chandelier, eight wall sconces,and four standing lamps were initially gas-lit. When electricty became available in Milan, the Bagatti Valsecchi was one of the first private homes to have electricity, expressing the brothers’ appreciation for the most advanced engineering, electrical, and plumbing innovations while maintaining a centuries old facade.
Grand Salon, detail.
The Bagatti Valsecchi brothers valued craftsmanship. Their vast Renaissance collection includes musical instruments, jewelry, scientific instruments, clocks, gilded coffers, ivory, and precious metal objects.

Gallery of Arms. Parallel and symmetrical to the Cupola Gallery, this lengthy hall displays authentic Renaissance pieces with artful reproductions. Swords and pikes are displayed in wall racks. Helmets are set atop antique chests. Armorial suits have been re-assembled on stands, recreating the Renaissance that they sought to evoke.
Gallery of Arms. Flanking the Grand Salon, the gallery leads from the piano nobile back to the Entrance Stairway.
The Gallery of Arms blends 15th and 16th-century side arms with reproductions cast and modeled from authentic pieces by late 19th and early 20th century Milanese artisans.

Bagatti-Valsecchi Museum Archive

Fausto and Giuseppe Bagatti Valsecchi were accomplished designers, draftsmen and artists. Their hundreds of sketches and technical drawings are housed in the museum’s archive.

Palazzo Bagatti Valsecchi

Palazzo Bagatti Valsecchi, Via San Spirito courtyard. Ristorante Il Salumaio di Montenapoleone.
The area below the arcade between the courtyards.
The double-columned arcade connects the palace’s wings and provides views into the courtyards.
Palazzo Bagatti Valsecchi.

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