Neoclassical and Napoleonic‐Era Architecture in Milan and Northern Italy

When the Ruskins visited Milan in 1833, Ruskinʼs cousin, Mary Richardson, took note especially of Napoleonic monuments in the city. In Ruskinʼs extant writing about the city for the Account of a Tour on the Continent—the poem “Milan Cathedral”—his imagination is captured by the vertical thrust of the Gothic architecture complemented by the mountain heights beyond the city. In contrast, a planned but apparently unexecuted section for the “Account”, “The Corso of Milan”, presumably would have responded to the horizontal expanse of neoclassical and Napoleonic‐era monuments in the city (although the list of planned illustrations for this section consists only of the enigmatic direction “The town with cathedral recollected”) (Diary of Mary Richardson, 1833, 46–51; Plan for the Continuation of the Account of a Tour on the Continent).
For other contexts in which the young Ruskin encountered neoclassical architecture—particularly, the transformative Greek Revival “improvements” that altered the style and experience of urban settings in the early nineteenth century—see The Colosseum, Hornorʼs London Panorama, and the London Diorama in Regentʼs Park; City of London; Early Victorian Cemetery Architecture.
Neoclassicism in Milan
During the Enlightenment, under the administration of the Hapsburgs, urban planning in neoclassical style for Milan was overseen by the architect Giuseppe Piermarini (1734–1808). The Ruskins visited his most famous building, the Teatro alla Scala (1776–78), although they were unable to attend a performance, and they would have encountered other structures associated with Piermariniʼs neoclassical renovations throughout the city. For example, the corso that Ruskin planned to write about and that Mary mentions in her diary was most likely the Corso di Porta Orientale (also known as the Porta Venezia), which underwent modernization between 1827 and the year of the Ruskinsʼ visit, 1833. As described in an 1836 Milanese guidebook for English tourists, the corso “proceeds from the central square of the town . . . almost in a straight line”, presenting “several striking points of view, and exhibit[ing] an uninterrupted succession of fine houses, handsome palaces, and well planted gardens”, until reaching the “ramparts majestically opening on each side of the gate” (Mazzoni, The Travellerʼs Guide of Milan, 61).
The Porta Venezia Gate, designed by Rodolfo Vantini (1792–1856), features a pair of cubical structures that, like the Brandeburg Gate in Berlin, evokes the Propylaea of the Acropolis in Athens. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such imposing neoclassical gates were meant to herald the entrance to the city conceived as a “work of art” (Kirk, Architecture of Modern Italy, 1:77–83; Etlin, Symbolic Space, 2–4; and see Olsen, The City as a Work of Art). Another place where Ruskin encountered a modern neoclassical propylaeum in Doric style was the entrance to the New Cemetery in Frankfurt am Main; see “Francfort” in the List of Proposed Additional Contents for the “Account”.
Napoleonic Monuments in Milan
By the 1830s, however, the Enlightenment Hapsburg project in Milan had been overlain by Napoleonʼs appropriation of the Enlightenment neoclassical program to impress the stamp of republican and imperial ideals on the principal cities of his Italian kingdom. This symbolism was often expressed using a columnar, Doric vocabulary associated with Paestum. The Ruskins appear to have sought out these Napoleonic monuments. Mary mentions a vast “amphitheatre” “built by Napoleon“ to accommodate tens of thousands of spectators. She doubtless refers to the Foro Bonaparte (1801–6), which Giovanni Antonio Antolini (1756–1841) planned as a spectacular entrance to the city from the Strada del Sempione, connecting to the Simplon Pass that Napoleonʼs engineers had modernized as an accessible carriage road. By the time of the Ruskinsʼ visit, the Foro Bonaparte had been completed by Luigi Canonica (1762–1844), who reduced the scale of Antoliniʼs original plans (Maryʼs figure of 42,000 spectators hugely exaggerated the forumʼs capacity) (Diary of Mary Richardson, 1833, 46; Gregory, Napoleonʼs Italy, 75–76; Kirk, Architecture of Modern Italy, 1:87–95).
At the forumʼs entrance on the city side, the Ruskins also viewed the ceremonial arch commemorating Napoleonʼs victory at Marengo, the Arco delle Vittorie napoleoniche, designed by Luigi Cagnola (1762–1833). Begun in 1807, the arch not only remained unfinished when the Ruskins visited, but was also in process of redefinition. As explained in Murrayʼs guide to northern Italy (1847), the triumphal arch was meant to be decorated “with bas‐reliefs representing the events of Napoleonʼs wars”; however, when the Kingdom of Italy fell and Milan returned to control by Austria, the name of the monument “was changed to the Arch of Peace [the Arco della Pace], . . . and the sculptures underwent a transformation to make them represent the events which preceded the general peace”. An American traveler who viewed the arch in the same year as the Ruskins reported that “the structure was nearly completed”, but while the reliefs “which represent the battle of Marengo and the humiliating treaties which followed” were “allowed to remain unharmed”, the panels were “surmounted with others of equal execution, setting forth the battle of Waterloo and the abdication of Bonaparte. The triumphal chariot, and bronze horses, which were to support the statue of Napoleon upon the top” were planned to “be occupied by an allegorical figure representing Peace” (Bigelow, “The Alps”, 412). This program was completed in 1838 for the Milan coronation of the Austrian emperor, Ferdinand I. (Maule, Hand‐book for Travellers in Northern Italy, 147; Gregory, Napoleonʼs Italy, 75–76; Kirk, Architecture of Modern Italy, 1:96–98).
On their last day in Milan, the Ruskins went out of their way to view the western gate, the Porta Ticinese. It was rebuilt to Cagnolaʼs design, 1801–14, and opened in 1815. This was the gate “for entering from Pavia, and by which Bonaparte entered after the battle of Marengo”, according to Murrayʼs 1847 guidebook (Diary of Mary Richardson, 1833, 50; Maule, Hand‐book for Travellers in Northern Italy, 146).
Neoclassicism in Northern Italian Villas
Another exposure to Italian and French‐influenced neoclassicism for the Ruskins in 1833 lay in the villas they visited on Lake Como, prior to arriving in Milan. Mary Richardson records that, near Bellagio, they visited Villa Melzi, designed by Giocondo Albertolli (1743–1839), which guidebooks recommended for its gardens; and near the city of Como, they toured Villa Odescalchi (a.k.a., Villa Olmo), designed by Simone Cantoni (1736–1818). On the Cadenabbia side of the lake, where their hotel stood, the family toured Villa Sommariva, now known as Villa Carlotta. Here, the “fine statues” mentioned by Mary consisted of the remarkable collection of neoclassical sculpture by Antonio Canova (1757–1822), Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770–1844), and others, assembled by Gian Battista Sommariva (1760–1826)—although one of the most popular attractions, Canovaʼs Cupid and Psyche as copied by Adamo Tadolini (1788–1863), may not as yet have been installed at the Como villa by 1833 (Diary of Mary Richardson, 1833, 42–44; Murray, A Hand‐book for Travellers in Switzerland, 224; Haskell, An Italian Patron of French Neo‐Classic Art, 23).
Sommariva was a friend of Napoleon and member of government in Napoleonʼs Cisalpine Republic, who turned to collecting when his political fortunes fell, Napoleonʼs favor having shifted to Francesco Melzi dʼEril (1753–1816), whose villa stood opposite on the Bellagio shore. When the Ruskins toured Villa Sommariva, it would have retained its original collection, augmented with some works brought from Sommarivaʼs French residences after his death by his son (collections that were dispersed later in the century). According to Mary, the collection consisted, along with the sculptures, of “paintings chiefly by French and Flemish artists” (Diary of Mary Richardson, 1833, 42). While including Old Masters—an 1836 guidebook mentions the northern Italian Renaissance painters, Gaudenzio Ferrari and Bernardino Luini, and the Dutch and Flemish masters Wouwerman, van Poelenburgh, Van Dyck, Rubens, and examples from the Teniers and the Brueghel families—the collectionʼs emphasis was on modern pictures commissioned during the Napoleonic and Restoration periods. According to Francis Haskell, Sommariva as a collector “played a greater part than any other patron in Europe in prolonging the classical art of the last half of the eighteenth century into the era of Romanticism”—and particularly sustaining the art “of the sentimental‐erotic world of the eighteenth century in France, just before it collapsed with the ancient régime”. Guidebooks single out Italian neoclassical painters Andrea Appiani (1754–1817) and Gioacchino Giuseppe Serangeli (1768–1852) and also Italian Romantic painters (Haskell, An Italian Patron of French Neo‐Classic Art, 22, 20; Mazzoni, The Travellerʼs Guide of Milan, 115–16).
Sommarivaʼs neoclassical taste, Haskell points out, “could hardly be more removed from that of the average English art lover of the day”, allowing “hardly any landscapes, and virtually no ‘troubadour’ or genre scenes” (although an Italian guidebook writer strove to enliven the interest of his British audience by dwelling on a picture based on Shakespeareʼs Romeo and Juliet by Francesco Hayez [1791–1882]). Primarily “large pictures of mythological and other antique subjects” met Sommarivaʼs neoclassical standard; and while he tempered this austerity with a taste for erotic and “lush classicism”, he reserved the more licentious works for his Paris residence, “while keeping his more orthodox, masculine, ‘neo‐classical’ works in his Villa on Lake Como” (Haskell, “More about Sommariva”, 692, 691, 695; Mazzoni, The Travellerʼs Guide of Milan, 116; and see Cadenabbia).
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