Ten centuries of history
Palazzo Reale has ancient origins and its history is interwoven with that of Milan and of the families who governed the city. From the Sforza dynasty to Napoleon and from the plague to the bombardments, countless persons and major events have shaped both the structure and the functions of the Palazzo; it is a reflection of the influential powers that alternated in the city government and which changed the appearance of the edifice over the centuries, until it became the prestigious location for major art exhibitions in Milan that we know today. To peruse the history of Palazzo Reale is akin to examining the changes that have influenced one of the most important cities in Italy and its people.
A Palazzo to rule the city
It was first called Palazzo del Broletto Vecchio - not to confuse it with the Broletto Nuovo - the present Palazzo della Ragione. In the Middle Age Communes in Italy a broletto was a place for democratic assemblies and in Milan it became the Town Hall, a place from where to govern the city, where the municipal meetings were held and where justice was administered. This role was consolidated, firstly with the Visconti lordships (1395-1447), and then with the Sforza family (1450-1535), the latter of which alternated with French rule: despite their official residence being the Castello Sforzesco, the Dukes felt the need for a Palazzo to represent them officially in Milan, a location that was less fortress-like and more oriented towards the magnificence of the Renaissance courts. However, it was the French, followed by the Sforzas with Luigi XII and Francesco I, who moved the Court here in the early decades of the sixteenth century, officially making it the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace).
Creating a court: the Spanish period
Subsequent to the alternation of power between the French and the Sforzas, in 1535 Milan passed into Spanish rule and remained so until 1714. The city faced some difficult years; it was afflicted by two outbreaks of the plague, the most serious of which was described in the famous novel by Alessandro Manzoni I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed).
The new governors took up residence the Palazzo and embarked upon major renovation and expansion works. The first theatre in Milan was built in its interior (1594), however, it was destroyed by fire in 1659 and rebuilt only in 1717 then, finally, its demolition was authorized in 1776 and the simultaneous construction of the famous existing Teatro alla Scala was commissioned.
Court life: the great works of the Habsburgs
With the Austrians, who took over the city government from the Spanish in the second half of the eighteenth century, the Palazzo became a place of sumptuous court life and was greatly enhanced by further renovations. In 1739 Maria Teresa of Austria stayed in the guest apartment upon her visit to the Duchy of Milan.
The Austrians can mainly be attributed with the renovation of the exterior of the Palazzo in the manner that we still see today. With the intervention of the architect Piermarini, summoned to court from 1770 to 1778, every architectural trace of Lombard art was eradicated and the Palazzo acquired a neo-classical appearance. From then on it became the Palazzo of the rulers, comprising Maria Theresa, Napoleon, Ferdinand I and the Savoy kings of Italy.
The Palazzo of rulers
With the arrival of the French the Regio-Duca Palazzo (Royal Ducal Palace), as it was called until 1796, took the name of Palazzo Nazionale della Cisalpina, until the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1879 when it was called, in rapid succession, the Regia Corte (Royal Court), Palazzo della Corte Reale (Royal Court Palace) or, lastly, the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace).
When Milan became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy in 1805, and successively the capital of Lombardy-Venetia, with the return of the Austrians the Palazzo reached the pinnacle of its splendour thanks to the embellishment work entrusted to Andrea Appiani, Pelagio Palagi and the young Francesco Hayez. With the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, Milan lost its status as the capital and the Savoy royal family, whilst still the owners of the building, seldom frequented it and used it mainly during official events such as for the Universal Exhibition in 1906.
In 1919, the last official visit to the Palazzo was that of President Wilson, welcomed to Milan by Vittorio Emanuele III.
After the First World War, the Savoy family forsook most of their possessions and conceded Palazzo Reale to the Italian state which, after reserving the ceremonial halls for the sovereigns, planned to create a museum of decorative arts which never actually materialised.
Severely damaged by the bombings in 1943, the Palazzo lost much of its treasures. Entire rooms on the main floor were irreparably destroyed along with frescoes, friezes, sculptures and decorations; the furniture and ornaments, transferred elsewhere during the war, were never relocated. The roof and ceiling of the Salone Delle Cariatidi (Great Hall of Caryatids) were destroyed and the caryatids were eroded by the fires, rain and snow following the bombardments.
The 1950s and the great exhibitions
Already in 1929 the Palazzo had hosted a commemorative exhibition of the works of Tranquillo Cremona to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death. But the Palazzo’s real exhibition vocation began in 1951 when Roberto Longhi curated the memorable exhibition on Caravaggio and his followers. It was the beginning of an extraordinary series of exhibitions that nurtured the cultural life of Milan in the fifties in the desire to rebuild, through culture, the socio-economic fabric and identity of the city affected by the war that had also left lacerating wounds and visible signs of destruction at Palazzo Reale. In 1952 an exhibition was dedicated to Van Gogh and, in 1953, another to Pablo Picasso; on this occasion the artist chose to present his ‘Guernica’ in the Sala delle Cariatidi, destroyed by bombings 10 years previously.
These were followed by exhibitions on the Etruscans, Modigliani and on seventeenth-century Lombard art. In the eighties the Palazzo played a major role in a revival of the exhibition circuit with countless retrospectives; amongst those worthy of a mention were the exhibition on the Thirties, the Altra metà dell’Avanguardia (The Other Half of Avantgarde) curated by Lea Vergine, an exhibition on the works of Munch, a display of eighteenth-century Lombard art and many other important topics in global art.
The twenty-year restoration project began in ... and, in the capable hands of the architect... it restored the rooms from the neoclassical period and the twelve rooms of the old Appartamento di Riserva (suite for distinguished guests), thanks to the commitment from the city of Milan, Fondazione Cariplo and the collaboration of the Superintendence for Architectural Heritage and Landscape of Milan