Milanese cafes, from Cova to Bar Jamaica

A guide to the city of Milan from 1841 reviewed 20 cafes, including Caffè dell’Accademia in Contrada Santa Margherita, Gandini on Piazza della Scala, Caffè del Commercio and Caffè Reale on Piazza del Duomo, Caffè Mazza in the Coperto dei Figini, Caffè dei Servi on the street of the same name, Caffè Nuovo, Caffè dell’Europa and the Merlo cafe on Corso Francesco (Corso Vittorio Emanuele), Caffè della Galleria de Cristoforis, Caffè Gran Brettagna on Corsia della Palla, Caffè delle Colonne on Corso di Porta Orientale, and Caffè delle Sirene on Corsia Giardino (Via Manzoni).

The most famous, the most beautiful, the most aristocratic of all, however, was Caffè del Giardino, founded in 1817 by Antonio Cova, a former officer in the army of Napoleon, who after leaving military service opened a venue in the building at the corner of Via del Giardino and Via San Giuseppe (now respectively Via Manzoni and Via Verdi), right next to Teatro alla Scala. Extremely elegant, its spaces featured a counter and shelves of Hungarian aramé and ash wood, with inlays of Indian walnut and finely decorated doors (all by the master craftsman Paolo Bossi, of Milan), with a bronze scale looming on the counter (cast and decorated in the workshop of Bartolomeo Greppi).

The dazzling rooms full of mirrors and chandeliers immediately became a gathering place for literati, poets, journalists, actors and musicians. And also for conspiracies: it is certain that in 1848, at Caffè Cova, as it soon came to be known, there were discussions on how to drive the Austrians out of the city, though perhaps the meetings were less obvious than those held elsewhere, such as at the Caffè della Cecchina, on the mezzanine of Caffè del Teatro (Caffè Martini starting in 1832, Caffè delle Cinque Giornate from 1848, Caffè du Jardin from 1858) in front of Teatro alla Scala, where moderate patriots in favor of a constitutional monarchy gathered, or at Caffè della Peppina, in Contrada Cappello, next to the cathedral, where those with more democratic convictions met and plotted; or at the Osteria del Cervetto, in Contrada Rebecchino, a cove of Mazzinians. Workers felt more at home at the Osteria del Cadenino, on Via della Signora.

Antonio Cova was also rooting for the Milanese: during the fourth of the famous Five Days of Milan, a rifle shot broke one of his mirrors, but he never replaced it and actually conserved it as a memento, adding the inscription Marzo 1848.

The clientele of Cova always came from the ranks of the elite, though not necessarily or not only aristocrats by birth. They were a combination of nobles, the great bourgeois families, intellectuals and entrepreneurs. Over the course of the 19th century, after all, the bourgeoisie was laying claim to a clear role in the ruling classes, also imposing its presence and its style on the tone and forms of social life. Counts and marquises took their places alongside men of letters, businessmen and city officials, now all admitted to the same circles.

While Caffè Cova, now located on Via Montenapoleone, embodies with its history the spirit of Milan in the first half of the 1800s, Bar Jamaica seems to do the same for another period, that of the 1950s and 1960s. Opened in 1921 in the heart of the Brera district, close to the Accademia, it soon became the cafe of artists. Young and more or less struggling talents sat at the tables, some of whom were to go on to write the history of design, art, literature and lifestyle. They were not only Milanese but also from elsewhere in Italy, including figures like Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana, Salvatore Quasimodo, Ugo Mulas.

Emilio Tadini wrote that a minor Olympus kept vigil over the dreams and hopes of the young artists of Jamaica. But much of the credit should go to Elio Mainini, founder of the venue, and his mother, known to all as Mamma Lina. It was Elio, in fact, who inherited the Bottiglieria Ponte di Brera, open since 1911, from his father, and transformed it into a stylish hangout. He also knew how to make good use of the talents of his artist customers: first by organizing exhibitions, and then with a prize called Post Guernica. Many of those artists had Mamma Lina to thank, on the other hand, for putting food and drink on their tab during hard times.