Napoléon’s Lost Vision of Milan

From 1805 to 1814 Napoléon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French Empire held a second role as King of Italy. During this time as King of Italy, he started a project with the architect Giovanni Antolini that would transform Milan into a mini Paris. Some of the buildings adorn Milan with elegance; others remain lost sketches and unfinished plans.

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I was invited by Guido Tour Sharing to take part in the debut tour of What Milan is Made Of. All opinions are my own and have not been influenced in any way. Guido Tour Sharing is a tour company that allows visitors to save money by sharing tour fees. It’s an excellent way to learn about the cultural heritage of Italy with likeminded travelers. The more people in the group, the more you save.

What Milan is Made Of

The tour What Milan is Made Of was guided by Fabio Tranchida, professional guide specialized in architecture and music. Although the focus of the tour was based on the materials, textures, and architecture of Milan, I found it most intriguing that much of what we saw was inspired by an urban plan that Napoléon Bonaparte had commissioned Giovanni Antolini to implement.

Our tour started at the Sforza Castle where we then worked our way through the Sempione Park and to the Arch of Peace.

Napoléon Bonaparte King of Italy

Napoleon, King of Italy by Andrea Appiani

Unbeknownst to many, Napoléon Bonaparte was not only Emperor of France, he was also King of Italy; both at the same time from 1805 to 1814.

Starting off as an artillery officer in the French army during the French Revolution (1789), Napoléon Bonaparte strategically rose through the ranks of the military and reached the rank of General at the age of 24. He was a man of battle, strategic planning, and propaganda. Historians both criticize and praise him for his legacy. He pillaged and plundered whole civilizations, yet he also instated standards of law and education that most modern societies still adhere to today.

During his reign as Emperor over continental Europe, in 1805 he proclaimed himself King of Italy. Even though Italy had not had a king since medieval times, the politicians and nobility of the era accepted it. An elaborate coronation ceremony took place May 26, 1805 at the Duomo cathedral in Milan.

Italy at the time was not the boot-shaped peninsula we know today, but only Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and some portions of Veneto and Tuscany. It became known as the Cisalpine Republic.

Milan was the capital of the Kingdom of Italy and the 14th century Sforza Castle was its military base and stronghold. By the time Napoléon moved his troops in, using the castle as barracks and a hospital, it had previously been occupied by the noble families of Visconti and Sforza, and was remodeled as a citadel during the Spanish occupation.

The oldest part of the castle dates back to 1360 and some of the original brickwork can be seen beside the Filarete Tower which was rebuilt in 1905.

Plans for a Milanese Paris

In 1801 architect Giovanni Antolini was commissioned to present an urban planning project that would transform Milan into a little Paris. It included Piazza Castello, a circular plaza in front of the castle and the Foro Bonaparte, a ring road surrounding the castle that would become the central location for neoclassical public buildings; Baths, an Arena, a Pantheon, a National Museum, the Stock Exchange, a Theater, and Customs tolls. An elegant gallery and arcade would connect shops and private buildings and the canals of Milan would be part of the city planning as it was in Venice. The idea was to move the city center away from the Duomo and towards the Foro, shifting the social focus towards the government, business, and commerce. The plans were grandiose and too expensive to execute, so Antolini’s designs were put into storage until they were later entrusted to Luigi Canonica.

Foro Buonaparte

Photo Nikos Roussos / Flickr

Canonica became the official architect for the Cisalpina Republic, and in Milan developed Antolini’s designs for the Foro Bonaparte as an upscale residential plan. Today, Foro Buonaparte is an elegant neighborhood of tree-lined boulevards and 19th-century buildings adjacent to the Sempione Park.

The Civic Arena

Another project Canonica developed from Antolini’s blueprint was the Amphitheatre, today is known as the Gianni Brera Civic Arena and used for sporting events and concerts. It’s another example of neoclassical architecture in Milan, the arena was inaugurated in 1807 and has a capacity for 30,000 spectators. In order to save time and money, the derelict walls of the 15th century Castle of Trezzo d’Adda were salvaged to complete the arena. The ensemble is a mix of brick, Pietra di Ceppo (Ceppo di Grè) and Rose Granite found in the mountains of Lombardy.

Palazzina Appiani

The entrance hall of the arena is a small palace called the Palazzina Appiani and was destined to become the guest residence for the French emperor’s family. It is considered a neoclassical architectural jewel and is now entrusted to FAI – Fondazione Ambiente Italiana. The Hall of Honor is decorated with marble, crystal and large fresco murals depicting triumphal Roman parades painted by neoclassical painter Andrea Appiani.

Arch of Peace

Standing tall in a circular plaza, the strong marble Arch of Peace reflects hues of grey, beige and pink. On the north side, is the long boulevard Corso Sempione that was originally destined to become a Champs Elysee. On the opposite side of the arch is the Sempione Park and Sforza Castle.
In 1806 Napoléon commissioned architect Luigi Cagnola to build an “ephemeral” Arc de Triomphe like the one in Paris that would welcome newlyweds Prince Eugenio of Beauharnais and Principessa Amalia of Baviera arriving from France via Corso Sempione. It was first built of wood, but deemed so beautiful, local authorities decided to have it built in the same prestigious Candoglia marble used for the Duomo cathedral. The Corso Sempione boulevard was never fully developed into the prestigious district is was meant to be, but in the immediate vicinity of the arch, early 19th century villas and structures can still be found amongst the contemporary buildings.
When Ferdinand of Austria defeated the Napoléon Empire, he had the horse statues on the top turned to have their rumps facing Paris. It was later renamed Arco della Pace (Arch of Peace.)

Napoléon III

Hidden amongst the trees of Sempione Park, is an enormous bronze statue of Carlo Luigi Napoléon Bonaparte a.k.a. Napoléon III, Napoléon Bonaparte’s younger brother. It is an 8-ton bronze statue depicting the leader on his horse marching triumphantly waving to the crowd. Commissioned to commemorate his death in 1873, at the time, sadly to say, nobody really wanted it and they didn’t know what to do with it. It was finally placed in the park facing towards the city center as if he had just crossed under the Arc de Triomphe. The names of soldiers who battled the French, Italian and Austrian wars are etched on the base.

These are only a few of the beautiful parts of Milan we saw during the What is Milan Made Of Tour. If you are passionate about architecture and history, you will certainly love the Guido Tour Sharing tour and the many other surprises it has to offer.

I highly recommend Guido Tour Sharing. It was an absolute pleasure learning about Milan architecture. Fabio, the tour guide, was extremely knowledgeable and professional. The tour is available in English and Italian.

For more information:

Guido Tour Sharing

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See the calendar of upcoming tours:

Milan | Florence | Pavia | Paris

Celia Abernethy

Celia is the founder and managing editor at MilanoStyle.com. Originally from New York, she now spends her time between Milan and Lake Como sharing her discoveries and experiences living in Italy. Follow @CeliaAbernethy on Twitter

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