While I followed the Art History courses at the Università Cattolica di Milano I was far from thinking about the theatre. I attended the lessons on Giotto and the Florentine Primitives held by Miklós Boskovitz, the professor who inspired reverential respect for his rigorous method backed up by an obsessive discipline (“work, work; you can rest in your grave” was his constant urging). I graduated in 1989 with a thesis on an expansive 18th-century Lombard painter, Giuliano Traballesi.

After leaving the antique brick cloisters of the University I crossed the threshold of the Palazzo dell’Informazione on Piazza Cavour. The editorial office of the daily newspaper Il Giorno was on an upper storey of the building with a breathtaking view of the faint outline of the Prealps.

It was not easy to give up academic writing for the art critic’s more natural journalistic language, but how satisfying it was as soon as the article was written to see it take up a whole page with a wealth of illustrations such as no other daily of the time had to offer. I shall everlastingly be grateful to Gianpiero Grecchi and Gianni Buosi for it! The pace for the delivery of a piece was sheer madness: in a rush you would hop on a train to Rome, Venice and Florence, to dictate on the telephone recorder (this sounds like prehistory) the article on the latest exhibition of the Impressionists, the novelties at the Biennale, or the International Antiques Show.

After seven years of militant reporting I gave up struggling with time and concentrated on classifying some twelve thousand scenography drawings in a confined basement (in fact once a bank vault) that the Teatro alla Scala had temporarily rented.

As curator of the scenographic patrimony of the greatest theatre in the world, I could handle masterpieces by Casorati, Cocteau, Burri, Carrà, De Chirico, Fontana, Foujita, Marini, Savinio, Soffici, Sironi. For the first time I understood that for many painters the theatre was not a sporadic activity but the other side of their art, their secret temptation. And looking around I realised that here was an almost entirely neglected field of historical research, with the important exceptions of historians such as Maria Teresa Muraro and after her Maria Ida Biggi in Venice; Moreno Bucci in Florence; in Turin a mentor, the incomparable Mercedes Viale Ferrero.

So I decided to bring back to life sketches and costume designs, telling their story and reconstructing the profile of their authors. I began in 2000 and never ceased. The Teatro alla Scala, the Amici della Scala, and other international institutions gave me the opportunity to do so, regularly publishing my work. Carlo Fontana was the first General Manager of the Scala who believed in me: I am grateful to him as I am grateful to Stéphane Lissner who generously renewed this trust.

The names of the Galliari brothers, Paolo Landriani and Caramba, the remotest in time, opened perspectives onto the Habsburgian, Napoleonic, and early 20th-century Milan. Today few remember them but they were scenographers of legendary fame, inspirers and witnesses of the artistic taste of an era. Complex figures, their lives were marked by intricate events, amidst a succession of political changes, antagonisms, financial upheavals, glories and oblivions which fashioned their highly personal styles; and above all personalities close to us, with the same impossible dreams and the same passions.

For me the most disheartening study was the one I devoted to Piero Zuffi, a brilliant artist, entirely vanished. Seeking to trace where he might be I engaged in a sort of investigation that unhappily led me to the discovery of his suicide. He felt forgotten by everyone and was not aware that La Scala was about to devote to him a monograph which would have revived interest in him. This publication (2007) has the bitter taste of a missed appointment: a gesture of love that might have changed his fate.

Then the most moving memory was back in 2000 when I climbed the narrow stairway of an old building in Paris to visit the “mythical” Lila De Nobili, the last great protagonist of pictorial scenography. In the attic of a modest flat, holding a mute conversation with a little old lady who communicated with the stub of a pencil owing to her total deafness, I found myself cast into a tableau vivant of La Bohème. The same reflections of light fading into a golden cloud: the biographical logic of a woman who had never separated life from poetry.

There were many stories I tried to tell, and with them evoke the very human traits of each protagonist. I was acquainted with the last wave of an artistic civilisation on its way out, figures like Gian Carlo Menotti, Giorgio Strehler, Lele Luzzati, Josef Svoboda, Fabrizio Clerici, Luigi Veronesi, Piero Dorazio, Renzo Mongiardino. Gianni Ratto, to whom I devoted a monograph, wished to see his Milan before dying: as always surrounded by beautiful girls (including wife and daughter), he arrived from Brazil with a smile and the nostalgia for a world lost forever. Trained at the school of the Piccolo, Luciano Damiani with coherent obstinacy always repeated his innovations of the stage space. His dreamer’s temperament finally won out over his iron pragmatism: he gave up his life to the Teatro dei Documenti. He was a sincere and genuine friend.

With the protagonists of contemporary scenography I have bonds of affection, strengthened by working together. I enjoyed the generous hospitality of Ezio Frigerio and Franca Squarciapino in their various homes (in Turkey, in Paris, Rome and Milan), stages mingling inventions and travel experiences, imagination and love for an Oriental embroidery, a Roman bust, an 18th-century painting.
With the noble manner of a cardinal Pier Luigi Pizzi introduced me to his Venetian palace; the huge collection of 18th-century paintings, arranged on several registers along the salmon-coloured walls, almost seems to wish to preserve the flavour of a vanished world. Yet his collector’s eye always looked forward to convert future projects in a commitment to the present. And above all he expressed his friendship for me.

Each meeting renewed a stimulus and the will to go further: my affection and esteem go to Franco Zeffirelli, Piero Tosi, Filippo Crivelli, Emilio Carcano, Claudine Gastine, Maurizio Balò, Luisa Spinatelli, Gianni Quaranta, Dada Saligeri. Different worlds, different styles, and in common the devouring passion for art and the theatre.

To conclude, my scientific but above all human debt towards Francesco Degrada will never end.

I decided to create a website to present these and other experiences, as a moment of reflection, to share them with other scholars, enthusiasts, and friends.

Milan, November 2009