Before the days of “Milano da bere”: artisans and crafts from Montenapoleone to Brera

Already back in the Renaissance the world of crafts in Milan included armorers, jewelers, glassmakers and weavers of sublime skill, whose creations found places in the estates and palaces of the Italian and European aristocracies, willing to fork out enormous sums for such purchases. Milan’s topography still conserves traces of the nestling of workshops on certain streets in the old heart of the city, such as Via Orefici, Via Armorari, Via Speronari (respectively for goldsmiths, armorers and makers of helmets).

Few still recall that even in the last two decades of the 1800s and the first two of the 1900s, the zones considered the height of chic in Milan, full of fashion and night life, namely the fashion quad and Brera, were still not so different from the industrious quarters of the 1400s and 1500s. On a stroll inside the circle of canals, through the grid of streets between via Senato, via Manzoni and Corso Vittorio Emanuele, one could still see the luxurious residences of nobles and the upper middle class, with elegant neoclassical facades and internal gardens of unexpected beauty, and in their midst – at times directly in their spaces, at ground level – a great quantity of crafts workshops, storerooms and emporiums.

These small businesses, often family firms passed down from generation to generation, were probably attracted precisely by the lifestyle of those wealthy families, their desire to make a good impression in society, the comfort and elegance they demanded, the glitter of certain occasions, as well as the smaller but infinite needs of everyday maintenance of their dwellings. There was certainly an abundance of opportunities for the work of a craftsman.

We know, for example, that the Bagatti Valsecchi family procured wallpaper from Giovanni Ferro, an artisan and dealer of French and English wallpapers, at Via Montenapoleone 49, or at number 29, from Luigi Vignolo, while for furnishing fabrics they turned to Giuseppe Galli, on the same street at number 6, while nearby, at number 11, Paolo Berera took care of the maintenance of devices running on gas. For frames they would call on Enrico Brunetti, gilder and painter, first at Via del Gesù 23, then at Via Spiga 15. Innocente Cattaneo, at Via Manzoni 25, was a cabinetmaker and wood carver with an antique store, offering restoration and retailing of objects. For fireplaces, stoves and burners people visited Michele Castelli on Via Santo Spirito, where the Confalonieri brothers, both carpenters, also worked. Next to Brunetti, at Via del Gesù 3, the family also had its blacksmith, Luigi Brioschi, and another at Via Spiga 34, named Emanuele Restelli.

On these same streets, and in the same decades, dukes of the House of Visconti had their gilder and painter of choice, Giovanni Peri, with a workshop at Via Manzoni 25, also bringing him to their villa at Vaprio d’Adda; the glassmaker Achille Perego at Via Spiga 8, for ordinary and luxurious items; and Giovanni Rizzio, at via Montenapoleone 6, who supplied their coffeemakers, bathtubs and oil lamps. The Arese Lucini family went to Via Manzoni 50 to the Zedda brothers (also official suppliers of the state railway company) for the maintenance of their electrical system, doorbells included, in their home in Milan and their villa in Osnago, where the wood floors were made by Pietro Pagani and the Varisco brothers, carpenters at Via Spiga 8.

Shifting to the zone around the Brera Academy, the homes became less prestigious and the streets narrower, but from Via dell’Annunciata, passing down Via Fiori Chiari, Via Solferino and Via Pontaccio, all the way to Porta Garibaldi, there were many crafts workshops, with the same alternation of luxurious crafts and small shops for ordinary, everyday services: the Calderara brothers, who crafted and sold stones of all kinds, Ernesto Bossi, plumber and coppersmith, Federico Castiglioni, gas devices and electrical lighting, Gaetano Chiodoni, turner, the carpenters Giovanni Barlassina and Ambrogio Barzaghi, the painters, decorators and plasterers Caremi & Bottari, Bertoli formerly Ambrogio, dealer in wood, coal and lime, the upholsterers Carmine & Mobiglia, Angelo Comi, plasterer, were just a few of the many artisans who supplied the needs of a growing city.