Villa Necchi Campiglio, Milan

Villa Necchi Campiglio is a stupendous piece of aristocratic architecture, a piece of pure bourgeois elegance in the heart of Milan. To understand how it was born, we need to go back a bit in time.
It was a cold winter evening in 1931, and the two Necchi sisters, Nedda and Gigina, together with Gigina’s young medic husband Angelo Campiglio, were returning to their hometown of Pavia after a night at La Scala. They got lost outside the old city walls, near Milan’s orchards, where they were awaiting the taxi. It was easy to do so: at the time, this part of Milan was half-wild, thick with vegetation. But it was in this semi-central area, which had known little or no building work hitherto, that Milan’s moneyed classes were erecting their new palazzi. And the three decided that they would do the same.

The threesome hired the archistar of the time, Piero Portaluppi. Portaluppi was a real dandy, a lover of the good life; yet an intellectual too, who used elements of the avant-garde in his design, with touches of Milanese Rationalism.

The Necchi were pillars of Milan’s industrial establishment, initially manufacturing cast iron for medical equipment, and then later making sewing machines. The villa was intended to flaunt their wealth, their power and their ascent into the uppercrust, and the hiring of a big name like Portaluppi was meant to reflect just that. Portaluppi somehow managed to square a traditional sensibility with touches of inspired modern brilliance, and with an attention to the lines and styles of the 1930s. The villa was completed in 1935, with a tennis court and Milan’s first ever private swimming pool, plus a number of borrowings from haute hotellerie, like a lift, a laundry service, an indoor bell system and even a private cinema.

The villa remained in the Necchi-Campiglio family, except for during the Second World War, when they were forced to flee before the German advance. The villa was requisitioned and became the office of the Minister of Popular Culture, Alessandro Pavolini. At the end of the war, the family returned to the villa and decided to update Portaluppi’s style, which had been sadly tarnished by the Fascist regime under which he had worked. They entrusted this restyling project to one of the twentieth century’s great designers, Tomaso Buzzi, a man of elegance and taste, of letters and humanist culture. Buzzi tempered Portaluppi’s uncompromising Milanese Rationalism with a more traditionally classical surface. The result – every corner of which is now open to the public – is a masterclass of harmony and composition.

Nedda and the Campiglios led a life of urbanity and sophistication, and their unique menage à trois lasted until the end of their days. They went on exotic holidays; they collected modern art; they attended fashion shows. They hosted princesses for games of cards; they were invited to the homes of the great and the good; they served tea alla milanese, with teasets specially designed for the villa. Yet these fun and games never got in the way of their work ethic, which was second to none, and which saw the family businesses continue to grow.

Gigina died in 2001, at the age of a hundred. Nedda had died a few years earlier, in her nineties. As neither of them had left any children, and nor had their brother Vittorio, the villa went to the FAI (the Italian National Trust), which looks after it and organizes guided tours to this day. Generous donations by two Milanese families, the De Micheli and Gian Ferrari, have allowed the FAI to refurbish the villa, which has also come into possession of priceless artworks: Canalettos, Tiepolos, De Chiricos, works by Sironi, Morando and Carrà, and by more recent artists too.

The villa has also enjoyed a career on screen, appearing in Luca Guadagnino’s 2009’s film Io sono l’amore, which starred Tilda Swinton. Other films to have made use of the villa’s interiors and gardens include Francesca Comencini’s A casa nostra (2006) - with Luca Zingaretti and Valeria Golino – and Carlo Vanzina’s Sotto il vestito niente - L'ultima sfilata (2011), with Francesco Montanari and Vanessa Hessler. It has also featured in Vallanzasca, Gli angeli del male by Michele Placido (2011), starring Kim Rossi Stuart, Valeria Solarino and Filippo Timi. More recently, it has also lent itself to scenes in House of Gucci (2021).

One more point of interest: the Necchi sisters were firm friends with the young oncologist Umberto Veronesi, and proved to be extraordinarily generous benefactors (they had much, yes, but they knew that from those to whom much is given, much is expected). Their donations helped Veronesi to realise his dream, the European Oncology Institute, which, up to this day, flourishes as one of the most famous oncological hospitals in the world.