When visitors think of Palazzo Brera, what comes to mind is most certainly Francesco Hayez’s often misinterpreted “The Kiss,” or perhaps the deceased Christ from Andrea Mantegna located inside the Pinacoteca. Few would think of a botanical garden with rare plant species from around the world. And yet, Milan is a city that does not reveal itself easily, and its hidden cortiles often manage to astonish.
Upon entering the atrium of the Palazzo, visitors are faced with many choices. The rectangular shape of the entrance allows one to proceed in many different directions. The most obvious one is up the stairs that lead into the Pinacoteca, but more curious visitors may notice that there is a long corridor near the steps that leads into the heart of the building. It is dark and not at all welcoming; an unknowing person would reasonably desist. Yet, following this unwelcoming path leads to one of the green gems of the center of Milan: an oasis of vegetation among the greyish buildings of the city.
Even for those that choose to enter, the open door that leads out of the building and into the garden is not easy to find. After taking the long corridor, there are a few twists and turns among the classrooms of the Accademia that finally lead to the entrance to the garden. Upon exiting, light seems blinding after the dark alleys. A small gravel road, where perfumes already lead the way, brings to a gate that marks the true entrance to the gardens.
The atmosphere is much more welcoming here: close to the entrance are chairs and benches where readers enjoy the sunshine and fresh air. There is a small shop with books about botany and the garden, to learn more about its rich history.
The Orto Botanico di Brera was founded in 1775 with the will of Maria Theresa of Austria, mother of the more famous and more unfortunate Marie Antoinette. The sovereign wished to make the Palazzo Brera the cultural center of the city; a few centuries later, one can say she has succeeded. The history of the Orto goes back even further, since the Palazzo was inhabited by Jesuits who used it as a sacred space of prayer. Clearly, though, it remained much more secreted until the arrival of the Hapsburgs. Beyond the creation of the Orto, the Palazzo was used to create teaching spaces, an astronomical observatory, and the famous Accademia. Even more followed during the Napoleonic era.
The Orto conserves its initial structure to this day. It is divided into three main sectors, with the first two being covered by a varied collection of flowerbeds, and the third – perhaps more alluring to inexpert visitors – is an arboretum, with two magnificent gingkoes that have been extant for centuries.
A walk in the arboretum perfectly captures the spirit of the Orto. While the two sections with flowerbeds are open and brightly lit, the arboretum is packed with tall, lush vegetation that forms a cathedral of leaves. When the sun is not shining intensely enough, it appears as though there might be an eclipse. Some branches stand many feet tall and seem unreachable, while others bend to the ground and “touch” the passing visitors. Here, too, there are benches and chairs where one can read or simply bask in the silence.
The Orto di Brera is a place for all seasons. In spring, the leaves are reborn and fill the place with color, just like in the paintings of the Pinacoteca. During the summer, the heat and burning light fades these colors away, but return with force, and a touch of melancholy, in autumn, as foliage creates an unthinkable view. During the winter months, the Orto is closed, but it is still possible to walk close to its walls and imagine what is inside. Now, as April nears, a walk in this hidden garden can make T. S. Eliot’s “cruelest month” more merciful.