Between Past and FutureMassimo de Carlo
Here, the library that once hosted Milan’s preeminent 18th and 19th century scholars now plants seeds of inspiration for artists like Carsten Holler, Ai Wei Wei and Liu Xiaodong
The tree-lined expanse of Via Lombardia is as typically Milanese as they come. Precipitous elms stand sentinel outside rows of handsome apartment buildings. Some are in the late 19th century liberty style, their facades garnished with elaborate scrolls and carved detailing. Others conform to the rigorous rationalist geometry that proliferated in the city between the First and Second World Wars, with broad, horizontal windows, little to no embellishment, and symmetrical organisation. Of the latter, Casa Corbellini-Wassermann is undoubtedly the finest. Designed by architect Piero Portaluppi in 1934, it was once home to the Corbellini-Wassermann family, a clan of wealthy industrialists who amassed their riches in pharmaceuticals. But since 2018 it has served a very different purpose, as the home of Massimo De Carlo’s Lombardia gallery.
“In recent years, it has been the trend to use white cube style post-industrial buildings to host galleries and museums,” notes Flavio Del Monte, a long-time curator at Massimo De Carlo. “So we’re used to experiencing artwork in a context that is very consistent. But Massimo De Carlo had the opposite intuition: he wanted to challenge artists to work in very charged spaces, both historically and visually, to build new conversations with history and with architecture and, in this specific case, the history of Milan.” It’s a tactic that has become a calling card for De Carlo, whose portfolio of galleries includes London, Hong Kong, and a second location in Milan, Belgioioso, housed within a neoclassical palazzo. All share a similar ethos of reanimating historic locations through the presence of contemporary art.
Climbing the few steps from the quiet residential avenue into the Lombardia gallery’s grand entrance hall, the first detail that greets you is a hand-painted mural of the Pianura Padana, the low-lying farmlands that stretch southwards from Milan. Naively rendered illustrations of village churches, hedge-lined country roads and the winding River Po are interspersed with finer, more detailed drawings of native birds — a decidedly pastoral foil to the cosmopolitan world that the Corbellini-Wassermann family inhabited. Beyond the entranceway, a series of grand rooms follows. “Visually the architecture is interesting because of the use of marble, for example, as navigational markers,” explains Del Monte, referring to the pinstripes of inlaid stone, which Portaluppi called millerighe, or ‘one thousand lines’, which snake outwards from the entranceway. Heroically scaled coloured marble details in shades of turquoise, forest-green and terracotta-red frame doorways and fireplaces, announcing the Corbellini-Wassermann family’s, at the time, inconceivable wealth.
Through the ground floor windows, a corkscrew staircase can be glimpsed curling from the terrace to the first floor, designed by Portaluppi alongside Milanese architecture firm BBPR Studio. The staircase was installed at the home after being exhibited in 1933 at the Triennale Design Museum in a show dedicated to residential architecture, a reminder of the strict modernist edicts under which Portaluppi built, and an example of the building styles in which contemporary architects were, piece-by-piece, remaking the city. “Portauppi’s modernist approach is what makes this building incredibly charged as a space for presenting contemporary art,” says Del Monte.
Across town, Massimo De Carlo’s first Milanese location, the Belgioioso gallery in the heart of the city’s historic centre, has a similarly rich architectural story. Occupying the former library of an 18th century neoclassical palazzo, the building was designed by Giuseppe Piermarini, the architect of the nearby La Scala Opera House. With its patterned terrazzo floors, ornately frescoed vaulted ceilings inspired by Imperial Roman villas, and tall windows that usher in the bright Italian sun, the former residence of the aristocratic Belgioioso family speaks to an opulent moment in Milan’s history. It was built in the span of a decade that saw the doors to La Scala open and composer Giuseppe Verdi stun audiences with his sonic masterpieces, only a few years before Napoleon would arrive from France to claim the country as his own. Partially damaged by bombing during the Second World War, the elaborately decorated rooms were among the few elements left unscathed. (“It was almost a miracle,” proclaims Del Monte.) Here, the library that once hosted Milan’s preeminent 18th and 19th century scholars now plants seeds of inspiration for artists like Carsten Holler, Ai Wei Wei and Liu Xiaodong, all of whom have shown at the gallery in recent years. “Belgioioso has a rich history that spans centuries; showing in the gallery gives an artist the chance to confront this beautiful space,” says Del Monte. “It is incredibly inspiring.”
A historic venue is a fertile, if not complicated, context to work within. Casa Corbellini-Wassermann’s biography, for example, is not as clean-cut as it’s neoclassical counterpart, Belgioioso. “It was built in 1934 in a very specific time of Italian history,” explains Del Monte, referring to the period between the First and Second World Wars that saw Mussolini solidify his power within Italy. At the time, rationalist architecture was the state-sanctioned building style, conceived as a way to project consistent national values while using materials native to Italy in order to boast of the country’s rich natural resources. “Living in Milan, the Corbellini-Wassermanns were very close to the Fascist party, so they were essentially allowed to do whatever they wanted.”
This mark on the building’s history is something Massimo De Carlo Gallery has chosen to acknowledge in its curation, and in the past has encouraged artists to respond to the property’s fraught genesis. Its first ever show, MCMXXXIV (the Roman numerals for 1934, the year the home was built), conjured up the material conditions of the family at the time. “We chose works that were famous and important among the bourgeois circles in the 1930s,” says Del Monte of the exhibition, which juxtaposed a cohort of artists active during Mussolini’s reign — Adolf Wildt, Maria Lai, Sirio Tofanari — with those working today, including Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Richard Prince and Yan Pei-Ming, resulting in a blockbuster show rich with meaning and endlessly open to interpretation. According to Del Monte, that has always been the point: “It is a continuous conversation between past and future,” he adds. “In every one of our shows, the space will always have a presence.”