Throughout her childhood and most of her adult life, Lavinia Albertini woke to frescoes. Growing up in an 18th-century palazzo in Bologna and then later in her own home in Milan, filigree swirls of blue and golden paint wrought across ceilings and walls were part of her everyday life.
Then last year the 44-year-old banking executive made a break with the past and moved with her husband into a bright, white Zaha Hadid apartment building, one of a number of dramatic new developments changing the skyline of Italy’s business and finance capital.
Today, Albertini wakes not to frescoes but to the view from her window of a new 50-storey tower designed by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki — the neighbouring building to her boat-shaped apartment block. It has, she says, changed more than just her visual outlook.
“Continuously fighting modernisation is part of my culture. I never thought I would live in something so different,” she says, cradling a pink teacup in her fourth-floor kitchen with its unobstructed views of the snow-capped Alps. “It is part of our mentality as Italians that you are always linked to the past. That’s why people look at us as if we have moved to Mars. But it can be done, and I’ve found that it gives you the freedom to think differently and it liberates energies that you have put into dealing with all this past.”
Albertini’s experience tells a broader story about a renewal under way in Italy’s second city. Long derided as the ugly, industrial sister among Italy’s resplendent art-filled cities such as Rome, Venice and Florence, Milan is channelling a new identity.
Nikhil Srinivasan, chairman of Generali Real Estate, which owns the CityLife development district where the Zaha Hadid building is located, believes Milan is signalling the way for a “renaissance of residential building in Italy”.
Like many in the city, Albertini thinks it is part of a bigger desire for change gripping Italy after a decade of economic stagnation. “It is exciting to think that in Milan this change is taking place: it gives us hope,” she says.
I first lived in Milan in 2001, as a reporter for Reuters, and the greyness of the place — then a stronghold for Silvio Berlusconi and his allies — mostly made me miserable. Moving to Rome as soon as I could, where I lived for the following three years, Italy appeared as I then imagined it should be; a riot of colour, architecture and noise.
When posted back to Milan by the Financial Times in late 2010, the city, like Italy, was entering a punishing recession and I greeted the idea of my return with some nervousness, given my first experience. But an old friend, who was incidentally Roman, told me that I was going to watch the city change, and probably for the better. He was right. While it can never rival the beauty of Rome or Venice, Milan is undeniably crackling back to life and, as it does, it is showing signs of striving for a new identity.
Part of the resuscitation of the city has coincided with the arrival of Expo 2015. The World’s Fair, which was last held in Shanghai in 2010, opened in Milan on May 1 for six months and is based around the theme of “Energy for Life”. While a corruption scandal over building works has caught the headlines, the prospect of an extra 20m people visiting the city — a figure predicted by the local organisers — has caused a flowering of positive activity. Local economists forecast it could add 0.7 per cent growth to the local economy.
The city has also taken on a new status under the reformist government of 40-year-old Matteo Renzi, as a gateway for foreign investors to the country and the modern, can-do face of Italy. It is the home of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” and the football clubs AC Milan and Inter Milan, but is it also a hub for Italy’s world-class design, fashion, food and precision-manufacturing industries. In a boost for the cultural scene, homegrown fashion group Prada opens a new Rem Koolhaas-designed venue for its arts foundation this weekend.
Meanwhile, lower real-estate prices and more accessible schools compared with London or Paris are starting to see the return of Italian émigrés, often from financial jobs in the UK and the US. The short flight from Milan’s Linate airport — 15 minutes by car from the city centre — to London and other European capitals means it is possible to work elsewhere during the week but still live in Milan.
Living habits have inevitably changed, too. The bars and coffee shops that are an extension of Milanese kitchens and sitting rooms have gentrified along with the city’s residential buildings, reflecting the changing tastes of the city’s inhabitants.
There are restaurants with top chefs, such as the Michelin-starred eateries Berton and D’O. Many boast communal table eating areas — “see and be seen” venues much enjoyed by locals who dress like they are heading to a fashion show even when out buying milk.
Even the grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II — a shopping mall known locally as Milan’s drawing room because its ritzy old-world coffee houses have been a gathering place for generations of Milanese — has undergone a huge clean-up, returning its stone to a more welcoming sandy hue than its previous pollution-daubed grey.
Jane Reeve is the British chief executive of Camera della Moda, Italy’s governing body for fashion, and has lived in Milan for 27 years. A self-professed fan of the city’s lifestyle with its easy access to both the mountains and the seaside, she thinks Milan’s redevelopment has shown its true identity. “Milan is beginning to reveal a part of its soul which has always existed but which until now has been largely hidden,” she says.
The building that has become the leitmotif for this change is a skyscraper 1km to the east of the city centre on a former industrial site badly bombed during the second world war.
From almost anywhere in the city you can see the glinting pinnacle of the 231-metre UniCredit skyscraper by César Pelli, which is the centrepiece of Milan’s Porta Nuova development. Named after one of the ancient gates into the city, the entire development of 25 commercial, residential and office buildings with an estimated value of €2bn, was sold in February to Qatar in one of the biggest property deals ever in Italy.
The image of Milan has now shifted from the spire of the Duomo to the spire of Porta Nuova’s skyscraper. Manfredi Catella, chief executive of developer Hines Italia, says 80 per cent of the residential buildings sold have been bought by Italians.
There are other distinctive buildings in this district. Swaying high above Porta Nuova is the Bosco Verticale, or “vertical forest” — two high-rise apartment buildings where every balcony is covered in trees and plants.
Susy Gariboldi, an Anglo-American married to an Italian, lives on the ninth floor of the Bosco Verticale. Outside the bathroom window on one of her wide balconies are flowering cherry trees showing the first signs of buds. In a city long dismissed as grey and full of concrete, it is a disarming shot of nature.
“You don’t have to worry about not having a green thumb, or your neighbour not having a green thumb. It is all taken care of,” she says with a laugh.
Gariboldi previously lived in Milan’s Brera area, a pretty cobbled district a couple of streets behind La Scala opera house, that was a popular place for artists to live. But with a full-scale gentrification under way you are more likely to find Marc Jacobs and Gucci stores here now than traditional delicatessens.
In the Bosco Verticale, Gariboldi feels she still has contact with that “old Milan”, which is becoming harder to find in the centre as rents rise and big brands move in.
A quick stroll from the front of her building will take you to Brera and its ritzy, high-end stores. But go out the back and walk in the opposite direction and you will soon reach Isola, perhaps the last remaining district of vecchia Milano. Here trattorias serving ossobuco (veal) and risotto alla Milanese jostle with housing estates and local artisans.
Gariboldi came to Milan from New York via Paris, and works in the fashion business. A frequently heard complaint is that Milan is the ugliest and least buzzy of the fashion quartet of Paris, New York and London. But she says that with the revitalisation of Milan, even that old certainty is changing.
“It’s nice now to be able to say to the New Yorkers when they come: we have some cool new things in Milan now, too,” she says.
Rachel Sanderson is the FT’s Milan correspondent
Photographs: Paolo Rosselli; Carla Mondino; Alberto Fanelli; Bruno Cossa/4Corners
Get alerts on Milan when a new story is published