Magniloquent Milan

We returned from Busto Arsizio using the line of the former Ferrovie Del Nord and arriving at Cadorna station. Remembering that four years previously I had successfully entered the refectory of Bramante’s church Santa Maria delle Grazie without previous booking in order to see that iconic fresco, Leonardo’s Cenacolo (or last supper), I reattempted the feat, this time, alas, without success. The personnel were quite stone-faced about not allowing me admission without a week’s reservation. No matter, there is another, even larger fresco by Leonardo quite near, although few people realize it. It’s in the Castello Sforzesco, the castle of the Sforza, also very near the Cadorna station.

The “Sala delle Assi” (hall of the boards), so-called because of the former presence of a wood panelling on the walls, was frescoed by Leonardo and some co-workers. It depicts a mock arbour, or pergola, formed by flowering and densely woven branches interleaved by a golden rope. At the centre the apotheosis of Ludovico il Moro’s governance is represented by the Sforza coat of arms. What a pleasant, pastoral relief this room must have provided for those courtiers and soldiers hemmed inside a grim fortress, perhaps even under siege.

This must be one of the most astonishing rooms, whether in a castle or in any other building. Leonardo has achieved an ornamental scheme of great complexity and, at the same time, given it symbolic meaning. Only now are we discovering more about this place, including hitherto unknown Leonardo sketches, since a long-term restoration scheme has started – one of the findings of which was to discover that the original name of the room was, in fact, Sala del Morino – named after Ludovico il Moro i.e. Ludovic of the dark complexion – one of the most powerful rulers of the Visconti and Sforza dynasties. The restoration project is planned to finish next year in time for Milan’s portentous Expo 2015. Knowing the Milanese character I’m sure it will be too.

The Sforza Castle, which dates back to 1450, is assuredly one of the most magnificent in Italy and yet its architectural glory was not always appreciated as such. For the majority of Milan’s citizens it was regarded as a symbol of oppression by despotic rulers, especially those coming from Spain and Austria. Even Napoleon thought up a grandiose scheme to partly demolish it and convert it to a neo-classical palace. When Italy was finally unified in 1861 the future of the castle lay in jeopardy and parts of it, including the external walls, began to be demolished. However, by the end of the nineteenth century the castle’s artistic worth was separated from its history of oppression and it was fully restored to its present appearance. The Castello Sforzesco may look old but parts of it are reconstructions: in particular Filarete’s main tower was built, using original designs, only in 1895.

Another amazing art-treasure which the castle harbours is Michelangelo’s last sculpture – the Rondanini Pietà. Much mystery surrounds this incredibly moving work. In particular the realisation that it is an incomplete (because the great artist died only a few days after he was still at work on it) re-sculpturing of a previous pietà with which Michelangelo was dissatisfied. This is a non-finito to finish off all other non-finiti indeed….

The Castello Sforzesco is truly Milan’s answer to London’s V& A. It also contains a picture gallery, sculpture gallery, fine arts section, furniture displays, musical instruments collection, prehistoric remains and even an Egyptian museum. We could not possibly visit all in the few hours at our disposal but concentrated instead on those items which justly make the whole building an outstandingly good reason to visit Milan.


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