A unique tour for a special person. Explore Milan through the eyes of Leonardo da Vinci.
Airview of the castle (by zheng.yan, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
During the Renaissance, the scenery of the city was very different. The entire citadel was populated by structures in red brick, typical for Lombard construction. Moreover, many buildings were partially or wholly made of wood, separated by narrow, unpaved alleys and cobbled stone streets.
The urban plan of Milan was circular, protected by the moat of the Navigli and the imposing walls. This defensive line encircled the entire perimeter and closed in around the massive Castello Sforzesco, the stronghold of the Duchy.
Founded under the Visconti family, the Castle was later rebuilt and enlarged by Francesco Sforza, father of Ludovico, in 1450 CE. He entrusted his military and civil architects with creating an imposing building that would be both a military stronghold and, at the same time, endowed with Renaissance beauty.
When Leonardo arrived in Milan, the city and the entire duchy were under the rule of the Sforza, one of the most influential families during the Italian Renaissance. It was particularly Ludovico Sforza, son of Francesco, under whom Leonardo worked as an architect, sculptor and painter. Today, the renowned ‘Sala Delle Asse’, a room located on the ground floor of the northeastern corner tower, is an outstanding testimony to Leonardo’s work at the Sforza court.
Here it is possible to admire the hand of the Florentine artist and one of his incredible frescos. The room was called ‘Sala Delle Asse’ (Hall of the wooden planks) because of the numerous wooden coverings that adorned it, making it more comfortable and warmer.
Branches, leaves, and berries represent the most significant part of the vault decoration made by Leonardo. This floral theme creates an illusion of being in an open space rather than a castle. The complex is a tempera painting on plaster. Compared to the current sober appearance, the colours were meant to be more vivid, giving a visual impact to visitors. This tonality difference is attributed to numerous alterations and restorations that the room underwent over the centuries.
While Leonardo was working on this incredible fresco, the Sforza dynasty suffered a significant loss with consequences that extended to the kingdom’s future. In January 1497 CE, Beatrice d’Este, wife of the Duke of Milan, died of complications during childbirth. Unfortunately, also the infant did not survive, leaving Ludovico devastated by these two losses. It is said that the Duke was genuinely affected by that sad event. Alone and deprived of his wife’s support, he let his guard down, never again devoting himself to the politics of the duchy as before.
As a trace of his grief, there is a particular room within the castle dedicated to the mourning of Ludovico. The duke had a room decorated in black, later known as the Saletta Nigra (dark room), where he retired to mourn his wife in solitude.
With the fall of the Sforza family, historical and artistic memory of the castle began to be lost: the absence of a reigning dynasty to take care of the castle’s rooms and the looting carried out later led to the beginning of the decline. However, the fortress underwent many restorations over the centuries. In particular, the renowned Sala Delle Assi was poorly utilised over the centuries, even serving as a stable and storehouse for weapons and provisions. Fortunately for this unique hall, further restoration work began in 2012 which is still in progress.
Leonardo’s activity here is documented between 1497 and 1499 CE, during which he probably also concentrated on several other works at the same time before being abruptly interrupted by the war that we will explore later on.
Moreover, as further traces of Leonardo, the castle museum displays the Codex Trivulzano, a collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings and writings, comprising 51 papers between 1478 and 1493 CE, currently held by the Trivulziana Library in the complex. The manuscript was inherited by one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s pupils. Today, it represents a vital testament to Leonardo’s genius as it includes some caricatures or grotesque portraits, annotations for architectural projects, fortifications and war machines.
The castle offers a rich museum collection from different eras, bringing much of Milan’s history to life.
Today, with its imposing walls, this military fort rises as a reminder of the ancient power of the Duchy of Milan, encouraging imagination to fade back to ancient times. The building has changed appearance and function over the centuries, alternating between court residence and military post. It houses a museum containing one of the most valuable collections of the city’s history, giving us a heritage of wars, traditions and artistic values. Among many prestigious works of different ages, it is possible to immerse in a renaissance environment, with examples of the elegance of the Sforza family, the powerful dynasty of Milan.