Go inside the worlds of art, fashion, design, and lifestyle.
Milan is known for its legacy in fashion, product design, and Alfa Romeo sports cars. Beauty, precision, and attention to function carry over into the marvelous products still made in the region. That history is on display at the Alfa Romeo Museum, about eight miles from the city center, a worthwhile excursion for both the fervent car enthusiast and the curious observer of Italian design.
For Alfa, a company with deep Milanese roots, the essence of Italian automotive history and industrial design are intertwined in its motorsports pedigree. Part of what makes the permanent exhibition strong is that Alfa Romeo always prided itself on building a collection of its most important vehicles. The museum was founded in 1976, and entirely redesigned in 2015 by the architect Benedetto Camerana, who also designed the Olympic Village in Torino and Technocity Environment Park in Turin. The five-story building is dynamic and outfitted with clever details such as a panoramic window shaped like the side mirrors of an Alfa Romeo.
The exhibition explores this relationship between structure and speed in a vast collection of vehicles on display. Racing underpins Alfa’s signature style. Company drivers won five world championships from 1925 to 1977. Enzo Ferrari drove for Alfa and managed the race team, before launching Ferrari.
Here the work of some of the world’s most influential car designers Nuccio Bertone, Franco Scaglione, and Giorgetto Giugiaro shines in the spacious galleries. The exhibit begins with ephemera including original graphic icons that date back to 1910 when the company was known only as A.L.F.A. A red cross, a crown, and a serpent with a human figure dangling from its mouth are embossed on the crest. In 1925, “Romeo” was added to the name and the logo. After World War II, the color was stripped in the lean times, later to be added back in 1950.
Early vehicles made by Alfa Romeo were hand-crafted by coach builders Elio Zagato and Sergio Pininfarina. Eventually, the brand came into its own, made distinct by the triangular trefoil grille, circular headlights positioned like two eyes, and wheels with unique oval shapes. The 1962 2600 Sprint was an early example of Alfa’s character and the iconic 1962 Giulia, shown along with images of posh Italian life on a screen from the era. Many of the vehicles carry Alfa’s colors deep red and bright green. Surprising cars like a tangerine 1970 Alfa Romeo Montreal by Bertone are fun to discover up close.
In another gallery, concept cars illustrate the wild imagination designers had well over a century ago including a 1913 silver aerodynamic pod-like bus. The influence of Italian car design on conceptual thinking is evident in a wedge-shaped car by Pininfarina and a sports car sprinkled in silver paint by Giugiaro.
An homage to Alfa’s history in American and Italian cinema plays in a separate gallery including a clip depicting Dustin Hoffman driving an Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider over the Golden Gate Bridge in The Graduate (1967). Overlaps with industrial designers are mixed into the exhibition, including a Gaetano Pesce chair made for Cassina for “10 Seats at the Museum,” a project inspired by the Alfa Romeo 8C 2900.
Alfa Romeo had its travails—the late 1980s and early 1990s were a lackluster period, a period the exhibition doesn’t shy away from in its retelling. The re-emergence of Alfa design is embodied by Alfa Romeo 8C Sport made for its 2003 conceptual debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show. One of the more exclusive treats for a curated tour includes a visit to the fifth-floor archives where hundreds of iconic Alfa Romeos are tucked away.
Museum Curator and scholar Lorenzo Ardizio has long stories about each of the Alfa Romeo’s pedigrees and finite details of the designs. When asked about his scholarship, his eyes well up as he attests, “This is my life.”
In Italy, reverence for its car culture spills out in the streets, such as the Mille Miglia, an annual cross-country race of elegant sports cars that pass through villages and towns. Residents line the streets to pay homage to the native sports cars as they sail by. A 1930 bronze sculpture of a calf spilling milk into the mouths of children marks the Mille Miglia and pays homage to one of its famed drivers in one room of the museum. Adoration for Italian’s motorsport traditions continues today as luxury fashion houses seek to have a presence at Formula 1 where passion for the brands and the drivers invites new audiences to carry on an integral part of this lineage.
After visiting the museum, I met with Alfa Romeo’s Chief Executive Officer Jean-Philippe Imparato, who presented Alfa’s newest model, the Tonale, a racy hybrid sport utility vehicle. Imparato spoke on the priority of preserving the brand’s performance-based chic legacy. “When you see the museum, you see big pressure on the shoulders.” As I drove that spirited Tonale later in the day in the Italian countryside, I could see the throughline of a company that’s committed to going fast in immaculate style.