The palazzo was built on the remains of a 14th century monastery of the Umiliati order which was subsequently given to the Jesuits, who founded a school here. Francesco Maria Richini began in the early 17th century to turn it into the solidly austere building we see today.
When the Jesuits were disbanded in 1773, the Collegio di Brera became state property and Empress Maria Theresa of Austria decided to use it to house several of the city’s leading cultural institutes. In addition to the Accademia di Belle Arti and the Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere, she also assigned the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense, the Osservatorio Astronomico and the Orto Botanico to her new foundation.
The man commissioned to design and execute the work was Giuseppe Piermarini, one of Italy’s leading Neoclassical architects. He was responsible for renovating the library (one room of which can be seen in Room I in the Pinacoteca, or picture gallery), for building the solemn entrance on Via Brera and for completing the courtyard. A bronze statue of Napoleon in the guise of Mars the Peacemaker, cast in Rome to a design by Antonio Canova, was erected in the centre of the courtyard in 1859. Porticos, courtyards, hallways and corridors were chosen throughout the 19th century as settings for monuments publicly celebrating artists, benefactors, humanists and scientists associated with Brera and the Braidense. The best works in this extremely rich and little-known collection include the monuments to Cesare Beccaria by Pompeo Marchesi and to Giuseppe Parini by Gaetano Monti which can be admired on the monumental staircase leading up to the Pinacoteca.