The Accademia di Belle Arti di Milano was founded in 1776 by order of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. The location was immediately selected as the former Palazzo del Collegio dei Gesuiti in Brera (hence its name), already the home of the Palatine Schools of the Juridical Sciences and high school, as well as the Astronomical Observatory, the Laboratories of Physics and Chemistry, the Botanical Garden, the Public Library and the Palatine Society for the Promotion of Agriculture and Manufacturing, with which the Academy established agreements for certain parts of its curriculum. The aim of the Austrian government was twofold: on the one hand, to concentrate in a single site all the Milanese institutions for advanced training of future officials of the imperial administration, increasing the degree of control over their background; and, on the other, to safeguard the teaching of art and crafts skills, preventing their loss. Another particular feature of the Academy in Milan was the close relationship between the Department of Architecture and the “Commissione di Ornato” (Embellishment Committee), also giving the school a practical mission.
The initial curriculum of the Academy called for courses in drafting, arts and crafts, the nude, figure drawing, architecture, decoration, chemistry, physics, mathematics and letters.
In 1801 Ludovico Bianconi (the secretary since 1778) was replaced by Giuseppe Bossi, leading to the flourishing of the Academy during the Napoleonic era and its full organizational and educational establishment, now covering eight schools (architecture, painting, sculpture, perspective, decoration, figure, engraving, anatomy). Not until the Restoration was the accent put back on the need to also open a school of manufacturing as well, namely a department covering the skills and practices of the applied arts. Today the school’s programs focus on the four areas of painting, set design, sculpture and decoration.
The feather in the Academy’s cap was represented by the Exhibitions, which began in 1805 on an annual basis, then shifting to a triennial schedule starting in 1891. For many decades these events were a moment of great prestige for Italian and foreign artists, as well as a school of creativity for students, stimulated to participate also due to the prizes at stake.
Countless students of the Academy have become protagonists on the art scene (Renzo Bongiovanni Radice, Giovanni Segantini, Mario Negri, Lucio Fontana, Enzo Mari), and many outstanding artists have directed the institution (Francesco Messina) or taught there (Adolfo Wildt, Carlo Carrà, Achille Funi, Alik Cavaliere, Andrea Cascella).