Milan’s Hidden Gem: the Museo Poldi Pezzoli

I went to the Poldi Pezzoli Museum expecting to see a few period rooms with minor league art (you might wonder why I went at all). My guidebook told me that Count Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli had amassed an art collection and then designed a museum with differently-decorated rooms in which to display it: one Northern Renaissance room, one Italian 14th Century room, and so on. And at one level, that’s exactly what I found. For example, here is the Baroque staircase (with a spectacular fountain at the bottom):

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What my guidebook failed to note, however, was that (1) this art collection was wide-ranging, eclectic, and sometimes even bizarre, and (2) most of the period rooms were destroyed during World War II. Only a few period rooms have been restored (all but one only partially) …

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… so you’re largely left with a wonderful and unusual art museum. Yes, there are paintings — in fact, the major exhibit at the Poldi Pezzoli right now explores the way in which the Madonna Litta by Leonardo DaVinci influenced painters all around Europe.

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But there’s so much more here! Want to see antique cutlery on display? No problem.

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Aching to see row upon row of portable sundials? The Poldi Pezzoli has those, too.

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If you want lace, Etruscan and Greek vessels, jewelry …

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… porcelain figurines (one for each of the four continents) …

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… strangely pinch-necked kuttrolf bottles …

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… etuis (sewing cases) …

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… slightly less portable sundials …

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… a Chinese wine vessel in the shape of a tapir …

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… it’s all here. Count Pezzoli assembled his collection between 1850 and 1879, and he did not want to limit himself to paintings. His goal was to create a romantic “house museum,” a space where each room had its own feel. So he worked two artist-decorators, Giuseppe Bertini and Luigi Scrosati, to create site-specific frescos and friezes, ebony walls and hand-carved doors (sadly, though we do have photographs of how the house looked prior to WWII, only a few of these pieces remain).

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Because this museum was meant to feel like a wealthy home, Pezzoli sought out precious furniture and decorative arts. He collected things like chairs, urns, carpets, great big mirrors …

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… inlaid tables …

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… and chests of drawers both large and small (my favorite were a pair of Italian cabinets from 1620 with an engraved ivory map at the front of each drawer, including this one of a pretty inaccurate Southeast Asia):

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Pezzoli’s interests appear to have been limitless. He had a theatrical Hall of Arms …

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… where this is easily the best piece …

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… and there are now two entire rooms devoted to mechanical watches and timepieces.

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There are pocket watches galore …

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… watches that would have been worn around the neck …

… and watches to be hung from chatelaines at the waist:

fullsizeoutput_61f6I’m really interested in antique watches and how they were made, so I spent a long time in this part of the museum. But my favorite room by far was the Dante Study, Count Pezzoli’s private study — and the only room in the house that has been fully restored to its original design:

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Here, Pezzoli went all out, installing a stained glass window (The Triumph of Dante, by Giuseppe Bertini)…

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… commissioning elaborate frescos and artwork …

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… and keeping some of his most valuable treasures.

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There are, of course, plenty of paintings to go along with all of this. Pezzoli specialized in Italian Renaissance art, so you see a lot of Madonnas …

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The Annunciation, by Francsco Pesellino

… including The Virgin and Child With a Lamb by Cesare da Sesto (a near-exact ripoff of Leonardo DaVinci’s The Virgin and Saint Anne, minus Saint Anne) …

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… and this triptych …

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… with a skull on the reverse:

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Backing paintings with skulls was a bit of a thing during the Renaissance, as you can see in this Portrait of a Man by Andrea Previtali detto Cordeliaghi (the skull on the back of the panel is visible here in a mirror):

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The Reformation is represented at the Poldi Pezzoli in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting of Martin Luther and his wife, Katharina von Bora:

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But while there’s a strong focus on the church and the Renaissance, there are also secular Italian paintings from the 17th century …

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The Sorceress Circe, by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione detto Il Grechetto

… the 18th century (I’d just been in Venice, so this view was a familiar one)…

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View of San Marco Square Towards San Giorgio Maggiore, by  Francesco Guardi

… and the 19th century (I love the unusual composition in this one):

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This isn’t a museum to visit if you want to see traditionally famous masterpieces, but if you want to be surprised in room after room, then make sure to add the Poldi Pezzoli to your list.

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This isn’t a museum to visit if you want to see traditionally famous masterpieces, but if you want to be surprised room after room, then make sure to add the Poldi Pezzoli to your list!

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One response to “Milan’s Hidden Gem: the Museo Poldi Pezzoli

  1. Pingback: Milan in 2 Days | Traveler Tina·

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