“I’d like that sunny table near the windows under the beautiful mirror,” he says to the hostess at Le Vrai, pointing to the niche set with two café tables, perfect for reading Dante all afternoon. Only a few decades earlier, the waistcoat and watch fob dangling from its pocket would have been out of place, but this is 21st-century Milan and eccentricity in fashion is a hallmark of the creative spirit these days.
Reading Dante in Milan
It was the honeycombed wall treatments in a luxuriant red that had caught his eye, and it’s no wonder. He’s carrying a leather-bound book of Dante Alighieri’s La Vita Nuova (The New Life), its cover scratched; it’s spine broken from constant openings. Think about the subliminal impulses here: I have never seen a painting or color portrait of the great poet of medieval times in which he is not clad head-to-toe in or wearing at least one article of clothing in the same hue of crimson. The poet’s flowing coat and cowl have come to represent the intellect’s place among the respected literati of his era.
“I see you’ve brought a book to read,” the hostess remarks as she seats him on the roomy leather settee. “I’ll put you here so you’ll be comfortable for as long as you like.”
“That’s so kind of you,” Shelley responds. “I’m fond of this place already, though it’s a bit of a surprise to find a French brasserie and boulangerie in the heart of Milan!”
Lunching with Percy Bysshe Shelley
A portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint, image courtesy WikiMedia.
“The owner, Claire Pauze, thought it time to bring a hint of Parisian charm to Lombardy,” she explained as Shelley sat down and placed his book on the seat next to him. “She asked designer Karine Lewkowicz to transform the building into a chic atmosphere with a welcoming feel.”
“Well, she succeeded marvelously,” he said. “I particularly like the tile pattern on the floor and the honeycombed wall treatment: très chic, indeed!”
“Enjoy your lunch,” the hostess said as she walked away. Shelley was already opening the book to immerse himself in the words of one of his heroes, the aroma of fresh-baked bread wafting through the restaurant a sensual tease. I wish Mary could have come, he thought; she would really like this place.
A glass of French champagne arrived, the waiter announcing, “Compliments of the hostess,” as he put the tall flute of bubbly on the small, mirrored tabletop. Shelley raised the glass to the immaculately dressed and graceful young woman, glad he had brought a book that would allow him to while away the hours drenched in Dante’s iconic love.
Dante Speaks of Love in Modern Times
And the poet never disappoints in this department:
Riding the other day along a road
I had to take, though most unwillingly,
I happened to meet Love along the way,
In pilgrim’s clothes and very lightly clad.
It seemed to me that he was ill at ease.
He looked like one who’d lost authority.
And he came sadly, sighing thoughtfully,
His head bent down, avoiding all men’s eyes.
He saw me and called out to me by name:
‘I come to you from somewhere far away,
Where your heart was, according to my will,
Which I, for other needs, now bring with me.’
Then I absorbed so very much of him
He disappeared. But how, I cannot tell.*
Le Vrai Design Details by Karine Lewkowicz
We’ll leave Shelley to enjoy his glass of champagne and his reading while I share some of the design and interior architectural details of the restaurant, bar and bakery in the Porta Nuova section of Milan. I asked Lewkowicz, who envisioned the transformation of the interiors, to give us an overview of her design directive by asking her a few pointed questions:
SH: Did you research any historical aspects of the building?
KL: My research mainly concentrated on the Porta Nuova historical district with its new architecture, the ecological buildings and the Unicredit tower. The neighborhood offers to the Milanese new meeting places, like a natural extension of the city center. All of these new architectural vernaculars meld perfectly with the Milanese classicism already extant. In this context, the restaurant had to be modern while being respectful of classic Parisian brasserie details.
SH: What was the building before it became Le Vrai?
KL: It used to be a bank so we had to review the volumes to bring a human scale to the place, while at the same time keeping the beautiful height beneath the ceiling, and creating a welcoming atmosphere.
Modern Spaces Fixed in History
The wood and brass bar is the focal point of the lounge, which is the first thing visitors see upon entry. It’s set within one end of a long, high volume punctuated by chandeliers that dangle elegantly from above, the design inspired by French brasserie lighting and created specifically for the space. In this area, café tables and low fireside seating make relaxing a pleasure.
The bakery counter, which is crafted of marble, was designed by Lewkowicz to anchor that portion of the restaurant. It’s nestled beneath the second floor at the foot of the central stairway, which Lewkowicz designed in brass and wood, painting the treads and landings dark for a quintessential Parisian flair.
The stairway separates two distinctive areas—a table d’hôte, or community table, downstairs—and a classic-style restaurant with velvet cushioned seating and covered tables upstairs.
On the first floor, the kitchen is visible through a glass datum that allows diners to view the chef and his team at work. The see-through also creates a feel of openness, the deep color of the honeycombed wall and the intricate pattern of the tile floor enveloping diners in a sophisticated warmth.
I asked Lewkowicz if she has an initial inspiration that comes to the fore when she is creating public spaces, and she answered, “Our research first concentrates on the place’s history; on its context. Then, we love to revisit these directives with building codes, materials, and colors. Creating spaces that are fixed in history gives legitimacy to a project.”
Legitimacy is an important word in architecture and design. It’s also supreme in literature, as is legacy, and few poets left better examples of historical relevance than Shelley or Dante. Given the timelessness with which Lewkowicz imbued the spaces of Le Vrai, it’s poised to be relevant for the long haul if the pace of our modern times and the change it seems to engender will allow it. I hope it remains the charming Parisian gem it is until I make it back to Milan so I can sit where Shelley chose to spend the sunny afternoon reading!
* Pages 13 and 14 of Dante Alighieri New Life published by Hesperus with a Foreword by Louis de Bernières.
The Modern Salonnière and this DesignLabs entry, Reading Dante in Milan, © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is an author, poet and SEO strategist. Books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.