Milan is a city that is forever galloping outwards, and over the centuries it has built ever more capacious city walls like a serpent constantly shedding and regrowing its skin. The verdant countryside that was once the setting for this urban gem has retreated to far away, but you can still find a few pockets of green where flowers bloom and birds sing from the branches and bushes. Very often these secret gardens are almost invisible from the street, concealed by the plaster, bricks and concrete of the city’s buildings.
The garden of Casa Atellani, photo courtesy of Filippo Romano
Behind the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, one of the most beautiful art galleries of the city with a lovely collection of Italian proto-Impressionist art, there is a small garden that provides a taste of what life was like in the greatest city villas. The garden is beautifully scenic with a small Tempietto, winding paths and bridges, against the Neoclassical backdrop of the late 18th-century villa. Even though small, the garden is home to at least 53 plant species, all carefully labelled, from beech to zelkova.
The cloister behind the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, entrance from Via Caradosso
There is another much smaller oasis of peace inside the Santa Maria delle Grazie complex, the church that Bramante rebuilt in the late 15th century. An entrance on Via Caradosso, about 20 metres from Corso Magenta, brings you into a small cloister with a lovely fountain decorated with four frogs, well worth a quick visit after seeing the Last Supper in the Refectory of the same church. Just a few steps away, there is another building that conceals a garden with a surprise…
Ettore Conti's studio in Casa Atellani, photo courtesy of Filippo Romano
Palazzo degli Atellani, Corso Magenta 65, is one of the few Renaissance buildings remaining in the city, built in the 15th century and given by Duke Ludovico Sforza to the Atellani family in return for their staunch loyalty. Over the centuries the house changed hands several times, and in 1919, architect Piero Portaluppi restored the entire complex and recovered some 16th-century frescoes. In one room, the signs of the zodiac are depicted, and in another, members of the Sforza family are celebrated in a series of lunettes. Another room is the beautiful wood-panelled study used by the house’s owner from the 1920s to the 1940s, Ettore Conti, pioneer of hydroelectric power in the Alpine valleys.
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The garden behind the Galleria d'Arte Moderna
The surprise comes when you step into the garden, a long, narrow area with a graceful fountain. It had long been traditionally connected to Leonardo da Vinci, because according to records, in 1498 Ludovico had given Leonardo a vineyard, and even though Ludovico was ousted from power just a year later and Leonardo subsequently had to leave the city, the artist never forgot his vineyard and left it in his will to his favourite pupil. Over the centuries, all traces were lost of the vineyard, and it was only rediscovered by Portaluppi and fellow architect Luca Beltrami during the 1919 restoration. Amongst the trees and weeds, some of the vines were still alive… only to be destroyed by fire, Allied air raids in 1943, and subsequent redevelopment. Just a few years ago, the current owners of the house commissioned excavations in the area that had been identified by Beltrami, and, under the rubble, some organic remains of the vines were found. These were analysed by Prof. Attilio Scienza, vine DNA expert, who succeeded in identifying the variety: Malvasia di Candia. For EXPO 2015, the vineyard was replanted with the same vines. And so hopefully, in a few years, we will be able not only to see Leonardo’s vineyard, but also taste his wine.
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The Garden of Casa Atellani, photo courtesy of Filippo Romano
To get an idea of the nectar that Leonardo da Vinci presumably loved, you can taste Malvasia di Candia at the Enoteca Ricerca Vini, about 10 minutes walk away. Malvasia di Candia is a sweet white wine, with fragrances of tropical fruits, roses and dried flowers, offering a tasting experience in which the sweetness is perfectly balanced by its freshness. Pure aromatic perfection.