Few hours to spend in Milan between appointments, so……
Palazzo della Ragione, (literally, palace of the Reason) for about 8 centuries, was in fact the heart of Milan’s trade and business activities. As you leave the Cathedral square and walk towards Piazza Mercanti, you reach the Mediaeval Broletto Nuovo, which is now called Palazzo della Ragione. The word “Broletto” comes from the word “Brolo” which, in the late Middle Ages, indicated an open grass field where markets were commonly held.
The building was constructed between 1228 and 1233 for podestà Oldrado da Tresseno. It maintained a central role in the administrative and public life of Milan until the late 18th century. In 1773, under Empress Maria Theresa, it was restored and enlarged, to serve as legal archives. The structural changes were designed by architect Francesco Croce, who added a new upper floor with large round windows and restyled the whole building based on Neoclassic canons. Other major modifications of the buildings were done in 1854 by architect Enrico Terzaghi; these included glass panes that closed the ground floor ambulatory, which was reopened between 1905 and 1907. Between 1866 and 1870, the building housed the headquarters of the Banca Popolare di Milano, a major Milanese bank, but thereafter returned to its function as a legal archives seat until 1970. In 1978, Marco Dezzi Bardeschi restored the building again, but he strongly opposed any proposal of structural change, including that of removing the upper floor added by Croce
The palace is decorated with a relief representing Oldrado da Tresseno (podestà of Milan and fierce prosecutor of the Cathar heretics), and the bas relief of the scrofa semilanuta (“half-woolly sow”), which has been object of much controversy among scholars of the foundation and origins of Milan. Constructed in Mediaeval style, it has a rectangular floor plan, with a double portico on the open ground floor which thus forms a large covered but open-air area. At the time of the Visconti rulers, this area was used for trade, both for buying and selling merchandise, and for professional services such as notaries and intermediaries.
This is one of the busiest areas of the city and it is frequently full of tourists and passers-by, including the people of the city who like to stroll here. This part of the city provides a suggestion of life in a Mediaeval settlement. You will also find musicians and street artists here, who are always willing to perform for some spare change.
Delineating the piazza are buildings from different eras that are the result of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century restoration works: beside Palazzo della Ragione there are Loggia degli Osii (1316), Palazzo delle Scuole Palatine (XVII century), Palazzo del Podestà, Palazzo dei Giureconsulti (1561) and the Casa Panigarola (built in the fifteenth century and restored in 1899). The piazza, once rectangular in shape and completely adorned by porticoes, was established in the Middle Ages as a centre of political, commercial and urban life. A function that it upheld until the eighteenth century. There were six entrances leading to the city districts. In the piazza, where the curb of a sixteenth century well can still be found, there was once “la pietra dei falliti” (‘the stone for bankrupts’) where malefactors were exposed to public shame. Those who went bankrupt had to sit on the stone and withstand insults and jeers while, from the balcony of the Loggia degli Osii known as the parlera, a judge read the sentence and put all the person’s assets up for auction. The surrounding streets were named after the trades carried out in each district: Armorari, (Armourers) Spadari (Swordmakers) Cappellari (Hatmakers), Orefici (Goldsmiths) Speronari (Spurmakers), Fustagnari (Cotton traders).
In the second half of the nineteenth century the piazza was subject to urban planning restorations that changed the original aspect but it still remains a picturesque corner of Milan with a distinctly medieval flavour. Often the piazza is a ‘stage’ for outdoor exhibitions, markets and concerts.
Now, let’s go inside the palace…..
Today, Palazzo della Ragione is used for photography exhibitions, which are rendered even more attractive by this unique building. The exhibition currently on display is about the photos of Henri Cartier-Bresson and other foreign photographers, how they looked at Italy thought their cameras….
Beside Cartier-Bresson’s photos of his almost 30 years travels to Italy, there are works of Robert Capa following the american troops in Italy in 1943, the religious world of David Seymour, photos of life details and little villages by Cuchi White, or Herbert List and William Klein. Last but not least, Sebastiao Salgado, telling the story of the last tuna fishermen in Sicily.
“It’s easy to loose happiness, because it’s always undeserved. Same for Italy. Her grace, often unexpected, it’s seldom immediate. Because, from the very beginning, she lavishes poetry to better hide her truths” – Albert Camus