I find traveling to new places to be one of the best types of adventure. Whether it is simply a venture into a neighboring county or traipsing across countries by rail, “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.”1
A museum visit while traveling is, for me, the perfect manifestation of this thought. It is at museums that we can be exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking, in both the expressions of culture on display and the ways culture is signified.2 Castello Sforzesco accomplished this exquisitely and was as a wonderful introduction to Italian culture, art and museums.
The castle-museum was one of the first amazing sights I stumbled across while studying in Milan, Italy, in 2013. It is located at one end of Parco Sempione, the green refuge in the historic center of Milan, close to where I lived during my studies. This park is also home to the beautiful Arco della Pace (a 19th-century victory-style arch, built under Napoleonic rule), Palazzo dell’Arte (housing La Triennale design museum), Arena Civica (a neoclassical amphitheatre) and a number of stray cats.
The Castello, as it is today, began construction in the 15th century, and has faced a number of destructions, remodelings and additions since then. The castle is named for Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan who initiated the reconstruction of the structure in the mid-1400s. In its 300 years of history, the structure has been used as barracks, private apartments and, more recently, the site of a Fashion Week catwalk. Today, it is also home to a number of wonderful and severely underrated mini-museums within Milan’s network of musei civici, or civic museums.3
My visit to the Castello Sforzesco museums occurred within weeks of arriving in Milan. Though the exterior was grand, I did not have incredibly high expectations for the museums themselves. This was promptly dismantled with pleasant surprise, as the collection and backdrop within the Castello propelled it to the top of my favorites list.
I visited three (maybe two and a half5) of the five-ish6 museums located within the Castello during that initial visit: The Ancient Art Museum, the Decorative Arts Museum and the Paintings Gallery.
I was intrigued by the presentation of the art, especially in the ancient galleries, which complemented the castle’s architecture and was an artful use of space. Beyond the incredible frescoes in nearly every room (including one, Sala delle Asse [“Room of the Wooden Boards,” or “Room of the Tower”], by Leonardo da Vinci) the object labels created out of wood were also memorable for their elegance.
After purchasing (a very reasonably-priced) ticket, I moved through the rooms composing the ancient art galleries. Set up in chronological order with an emphasis on the local, the ancient art collection was diverse and contained some exquisite examples, particularly of sculpture. With the earliest art dating back to the 10th century BCE, religious and effigy sculpture dominated the galleries, but there was also arms, armor and mosaics.
The first few rooms were mostly adorned with archaic sculptural, mosaic and architectural fragments. Many were from old churches and had religious motifs, but there were also highly embellished column capitals and bits of tomb decorations. The unique setting of the museum is immediately apparent in these rooms with the first glimpse of frescoes on its high ceilings.
With few visitors and natural light streaming through the giant arched windows during my afternoon visit, these lower galleries were mystical. Though simple enough in layout with a limited number of alcoves to get lost in, moving through the museum felt like a trip down the rabbit hole to another century.
After a few corridors, the art shifted rather rapidly to the Renaissance. One of these rooms, a paragon of the museum’s exceptional presentation, contrasted some very skilled portrait busts against a backdrop of giant tapestries from the 1500s, shown above.
This room was nearly overshadowed, however, with Sala delle Asse, the da Vinci-frescoed room that followed, shown at right. Dated to 1498, the room is adorned with greenery thought to be mulberry trees, painted to represent the duke of Milan (though alternate interpretations say the trees may indicate the room as a place between nature and grace).
The frescoes were covered until 1893, and have been submitted to numerous restorations since. At the time of my visit, the authenticity and microclimate were being studied. Even with most of the room roped off, the room was aweinspiring. I found it a more convenient and affordable opportunity to see some of da Vinci’s work in Milan, compared with a visit to Santa Maria delle Grazie, the basilica where “The Last Supper” (“Il Cenacolo”) is housed.7
After the Sala delle Asse, the ceilings continued to amaze in the rooms that were the private ducal apartments. As in the other parts of the gallery, these rooms showcased a few pieces of art, mostly religious sculpture, against a backdrop of frescoes. My favorite room was Cappella Ducale, with its bright fresco focusing on God and the resurrection of Christ with saints along the wall, shown at right. The few other pieces in the room were laid out expertly to complement this stunning backdrop.
The final few rooms of the ancient galleries contained another fresco, some armor and funerary art. The armory had decorative helmets, guns and swords from the 15th through the 19th centuries, with quite a diverse history as a collection. There was a good amount of informational signage (in Italian) in the armory, but I was most interested in looking at the delicately engraved handguns and the sculpted caskets in the room over.
The museum ended with Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà, separated from the rest of the gallery behind wooden and stone screens. Today, this unfinished sculpture, said to be one of the last pieces Michelangelo worked on shortly before his death, has an even more secluded presentation.8
The decorative arts galleries were around the corner, beyond an aged courtyard and up a flight of stairs. These rooms, with objects through the 20th century, were also mostly chronological, and had a much more recent feel in their presentation than the ancient galleries. While the ancient galleries occasionally had paper handouts available in multiple languages, the decorative arts rooms were much more English-happy in their exhibit labels. The objects ranged from coins and chairs to chests and globes.
There was another remarkable fresco within these galleries, shown at right, this time from the Castello di Roccabianca in the province of Parma. The ceilings had figures representing the planets, constellations and zodiac signs, while the walls showed the story of Griselda, from Boccaccio’s Decameron, a 14th-century collection of novellas.9 The presentation of the room was unique, set in the middle of the displays and complete with windows to look in on the room.
The paintings gallery (“Pinocoteca”) followed the decorative arts. There was limited access at the time of my visit as the gallery was being remodeled, but the paintings I did see had a lasting impression. It was here that I saw my first paintings by Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto, and was immediately taken with his style and subject.
On view at the time were “Veduta del molo di Venezia” (“A view of the wharf of Venice”), above right, and “Il Molo verso la est con la colonna di San Teodoro” (“The Molo towards the east with the Column of St. Theodore”), below right, painted in the mid-18th century. The views of Venice are very typical of both Canaletto and vedutismo, the 17th- and 18th-century painting style that showed a veduta ideale, or ideal view, that was largely fantastical and consciously fictional.
The Castello, like its location in the city, remains in the heart of my Milan. With its impressive architecture and collection to explore, visiting the Castello was the first of many adventures in foreign spaces, and proved to be one of my favorites.
Thanks for reading! I greatly appreciate all feedback (i.e. are footnotes annoying? is this a good length?) and look forward to hearing from you! I plan to elaborate on some of the art from the Castello’s collections in future posts.
If not attributed below, the information above comes from the handouts I picked up in each room, created by the Comune di Milano, or from the descriptive labels in the museum. All the photos are my own. Visit the museum’s official website for the most up-to-date information on visiting.
- Attributed to Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the Roman philosopher and statesman from the 1st century BCE.
- As a fair warning, these are themes that greatly interested me as an anthropology student, and continue to influence the way I view museums.
- See Milan’s civic museums’ website for the institutions that are a part of this network.
- I had the opportunity to visit the Castello’s Archivo Fotografico in July of 2013, thanks to a wonderful Italian friend who knew my interest in old photos and also one of the workers there. I was able to see (and photograph!) a number of old school photos, mostly of the buildings and people of Milan, to my delight. Visits are available through making an appointment, and you’ll likely need some proficiency in Italian to do so.
- Some of the galleries were closed when I visited due to restoration, but were scheduled to be reopened within months. Most of the Paintings Gallery was closed at the time, as I later discuss.
- The museums seem to overlap and are divided differently in each source I research. In addition to the galleries I visited, there are also an Egyptian Museum and Musical Instruments Museum. Additionally, there are archives, like the Photographic Archive. The new Michelangelo display, discussed further on, is also being called its own museum by some, but was a part of the ancient galleries when I visited. I see it as a matter of discourse.
- The admission price for Santa Maria delle Grazie seems to have gone down to 10 euros from the steep price of what I remember. Admissions are staggered and visits are 15 minutes long. While searching for this information, I also found a really cool virtual tour on the basilica’s website (audio in Italian).
- See Inexhibit’s article and photos for a great look of the new space.
- The Decameron (here in a full, English translation), any semi-advanced Italian student may have had the pleasure to discover, is quite strange. The story of Griselda, one of the more tame of the lot, tells of Griselda being tested for her loyalty and obedience by being told (spoilers ahead) that her children must be put to death and later that her husband has received permission to divorce her. She is recalled to his wedding as servant, and expected to wish the new couple well, which she does. It is then revealed that it was all a ploy, as the bride is really her daughter and her husband was just having fun. Typical Medieval literature.