Exhibition marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci

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Exhibition marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci
A picture taken on May 23, 2019 at the Sforza castle in Milan shows the Leonardo da Vinci multimedia installation "Leonardo mai visto" (Leonardo never seen). 2019 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of the artist and inventor. Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

MILAN.- From 16th May 2019 until 12th January 2020, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci's death, the Sala delle Asse has been reopened to the public. The most important room in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan is once again accessible to the public after 6 years of investigations and restoration works, that have brought Leonardo’s paintings back to light on its walls. After the Sala itself was found at the end of the 19th century, this is yet again another discovery, revealing a new geography of the decoration project conceived by Leonardo. In turn, it lays the basis for new investigations on Leonardo da Vinci’s uniquely ingenious work.

Through the amazing multimedia installation “Sotto l’ombra del Moro. La Sala delle Asse”, visitors will be guided through a better understanding of the whole room, shifting their attention from the vault to the side walls, to learn more about the idea of imitation of nature developed here by Leonardo. He even painted an undergrowth and, beyond the trees, houses and hills on the horizon, guiding our view from Duke Sforza's room to the land under his rule. Visitors will be able to understand the importance of the Sala delle Asse in Renaissance times and to learn about its complex history and restoration efforts.

Indeed, in the last five centuries, the Sala has followed the same tormented fate as the rest of the Castle, which was rebuilt by the Sforza family in the mid 15th century as an extension of the Visconti Castle at Porta Giovia. With the aim of transforming it from a military fortress into a place of delight, the Sforzas hired the best Renaissance architects and artists: Donato Bramante, Filarete, Bartolomeo Gadio, Bramantino and, of course, Leonardo da Vinci. Passed to the French (1500), the Spanish (1535), the Austrians (1714) and then again to the French under Napoleon (1796), and then again to the Austrians (1815), and finally to the Kingdom of Italy (1861), the Castle was then used as barracks and stables, and the Sala delle Asse was repurposed as necessary during times of war. As a result, the decorations painted by Leonardo were covered by several layers of lime.

Leonardo a Milano Multimedia Installation Curated by Edoardo Rossetti and Ilaria De Palma Multimedia Project Culturanuova Srl – Massimo Chimenti
Milan, Castello Sforzesco, Sala delle Armi 16th May 2019 through 12th January 2020

An ad hoc designed architecture outside the 15th century Portale del Banco Mediceo is the setting where Leonardo da Vinci and Cesare da Sesto interact to tell us about Milan at the time when this versatile Tuscan artist came to work here for Ludovico il Moro. Leonardo lived twenty years in Milan, during which he put all his skills at the disposal of the Sforza court, in mechanical and hydraulic engineering, military and civil architecture, painting, sculpture and the art of creating ephemeral equipment and special settings for parties. Milan was a very rich and densely populated city, ranking second in Europe after Paris for population. Also, in the last two decades of the 15th century, Milan was the leading European capital for cultural ferment. Many other artists, such as Bramante, Bramantino, Butinone, and Zenale, were drawn to Milan and got their training here. Leonardo talks with his pupil illustrating the Milan where he lived, as well as the city that Milan could have become thanks to his urban planning projects.

A multimedia path consisting of lights, sounds, and holograms lets visitors discover the places where Leonardo used to hang out: urban spaces, aristocratic mansions and churches all linked to Leonardo’s work in Milan. These places include San Francesco Grande, Borgo delle Grazie, Castello di Porta Giovia, the district of the ancient Porta Vercellina with Corso Nirone and the thoroughfare of current Corso Magenta-contrada dei Meravigli-Cordusio, up to the place where he used to live, not far from the Arengo court (now Palazzo Reale). This is the place where he was working on the grand equestrian monument in honour of Francesco Sforza, Ludovico il Moro's father. This virtual city tour shows again, five centuries later, not only the peculiar social fabric of these neighbourhoods, but also their appearance, with the façades of the palaces frescoed with episodes of ancient Roman history told through bold perspective views, terracotta men of arms covered with bronze patina, huge internal gardens inside the blocks where parties and tournaments used to be held.

The virtual visit is integrated and extended by a touchscreen displaying a geo-referenced visual map of the works-of-art and artefacts from late 15th century Milan currently kept in museums, churches and buildings in the area.

Intorno alla Sala delle Asse. Leonardo tra Natura, Arte e Scienza Documentary Exhibition Curated by Claudio Salsi
Milan, Castello Sforzesco, Sala dei Ducali 16th May 2019 through 18th August 2019

In 1982, the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci. Nature studies from the Royal Library in Windsor Castle was held in the Sala delle Asse at the Castello Sforzesco on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci's arrival in Milan. The exhibition, coordinated by Mercedes Garberi and Maria Teresa Fiorio, was backed up by a scientific committee composed of Kenneth Clark, Robin Mackworth-Young, Carlo Pedretti, and Jane Roberts. The exhibition focused on the theme of nature, looked at with a scientific eye and in all its various facets. Leonardo’s fifty drawings on display, generously loaned by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection comprised landscape views, including the series of Floods, studies of botany, orography and hydraulics.

Thirty-seven years later, on the occasion of the fifth centenary of Leonardo da Vinci's death, another exhibition of drawings is being set up in the Sala dei Ducali at the Castello Sforzesco, this time designed around the Sala delle Asse and the restoration works still in progress. On this occasion, the nature depicted by Leonardo in Ludovico il Moro’s stateroom is being focused upon, with its more recent iconographic interpretation resulting from the latest restoration works begun in 2013. Since then, diagnostic investigations, new studies, conservative restoration works on the Monochrome and, above all, the discovery of amazing, until now unknown, preparatory drawings have made it possible to look at the pictorial decoration in a new light. The exhibition therefore covers the room iconography starting from the eighteen mulberry trees, their intricate roots, as well as the recently discovered traces of preparatory drawings found on the walls of the room and hidden for centuries under layers of lime: shady trunks, shoots, leafy branches, sketches of understory, and a landscape.

In Leonardo's vast body of drawings, there are no real preparatory studies for the Sala delle Asse. However, in two sheets held at the Institut de France some authoritative scholars have identified some drawings which, for style and chronology, can be related to Leonardo’s work there. In the first of these drawings, Leonardo depicts well-lit and shaded areas along a branch under the sunshine. He does so through thin hatching, which gets gradually thicker in the less illuminated areas. In the second drawing, Leonardo investigated branching patterns in plants. In addition to these two drawings, a mulberry tree branch – a theme endlessly repeated on the ceiling of the Sala – is found in Codex Atlanticus.

The exhibition About the Sala delle Asse: Leonardo between Nature, Art and Science offers new visual suggestions about the graphic work by Leonardo, his school and other Renaissance artists in Italy and in Northern Europe, referred to the Monochrome, reinterpreted after the latest restoration works, and the recently discovered preparatory drawings. Without getting into the merit of their original sources, Leonardo’s sheets selected for this exhibition suggest several iconography and style similarities, that make the history of the greatest mural painting ever made by Leonardo and his large group of pupils even more intriguing. The sheets on display were loaned from important institutions, such as the British Royal Collection, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin, the Gallerie degli Uffizi in Florence.

The exhibition also offers an important opportunity to further promote Milan’s cultural heritage. During the investigations conducted for this exhibition, a small drawing, most probably made from life, was found in the extensive holdings of Castello Sforzesco’s Cabinet of Drawings. This drawing attributed to Francesco Melzi, a pupil of Leonardo, is exhibited here for the first time.

Sotto l’ombra del Moro. La Sala delle Asse Extraordinary reopening of the Sala delle Asse during restoration works and multimedia installation Curated by Francesca Tasso and Michela Palazzo Multimedia Project Culturanuova Srl – Massimo Chimenti
Milan, Castello Sforzesco, Sala delle Asse 16th May 2019 through 12th January 2020

The Sala delle Asse is a square room located on the ground floor of the north-west tower of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan. An intricate tangle of branches and leaves knotted by ropes is painted on the its umbrella vault and lunettes. The coat of arms of Ludovico il Moro and his wife Beatrice d'Este is right in the centre. On the sides, there are coats of arms with inscriptions that recall Il Moro’s exploits and his ties with the Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg. The name ‘Sala delle Asse’ was given by the first restorer of the Castle – architect Luca Beltrami – interpreting a document kept in the State Archives of Milan and dated April 1498. In this document, Gualtiero da Bascapè, secretary of Ludovico Maria Sforza, known as Il Moro, informed the Duke that the wooden planks (asse) that covered the room would soon be removed to allow Leonardo da Vinci to work on it.

When the Sforza family was ruling Milan, the Sala delle Asse belonged to the Duke's apartments. Ludovico il Moro used it as a proper stateroom, where the most important meetings would take place. It is no coincidence that Ludovico il Moro asked Leonardo – the most gifted of all artists living in Milan at the time – to paint this room. In 1499, following the arrival of the French troops, and the flight of il Moro from Milan, the castle was gradually abandoned as aristocratic residence and turned into barracks by the various rulers of Milan in the following years. Some rooms, such as the Sala delle Asse, were turned into stables, and all the pictorial decorations were covered with layers of plaster. Only at the end of the 19th century did the whole Castle, now owned by the Municipality of Milan, undergo major restoration works led by architect Luca Beltrami, who, among other things, is also to be credited with the discovery made in the Sala delle Asse.

In 1898, under several layers of white lime (called scialbo), Beltrami found Leonardo’s decorations, helped by Paul Mueller Walde, a German historian. In the subsequent restoration, carried out according to the standards of that time, the painter-restorer Ernesto Rusca mostly repainted the room. In 1954-1955, during a post-war restoration of the Castle, the restorer Ottemi della Rotta partially removed Rusca’s painting, trying to find Leonardo’s original one. However, the most important outcome of these mid-1950s restoration works was the discovery of the so-called Monochrome, painted on the firebox opening. It had already been found by Beltrami, who, however, had thought it dated back to the 17th century. Conversely, in 1954, the Monochrome was finally recognised as Leonardo’s work. The drawing depicts a large root that splits the rock and strongly changes the perception of the room, which was then set up by the architectural firm BBPR with a wooden panelling covering the walls, thus recalling the planks after which the room had been called.

More than 50 years later, the preservation conditions of the Monochrome led the Management of the Castle – together with the Ministry of Heritage and Culture and Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence – to begin, in 2013, another round of restoration works of the whole Sala.

Along with the restoration works, a series of scientific tests and studies of historical, artistic and iconographic nature were conducted, designed to better understand its iconography. It was during these studies that archivist Carlo Capturini discovered that after Leonardo's intervention the room was called Camera dei Moroni, which means Mulberry Tree Room. Leonardo therefore created a very refined decoration to honour Ludovico Maria Sforza, known as il Moro, from the Latin Morus, which means mulberry tree. In Milan this tree was synonymous with wealth, because it was used in the then flourishing silk industry.

The restoration of the Monochrome was completed for EXPO Milano 2015, while restoration works to the rest of the room stopped to allow the Sala delle Asse to be used during the event. The Sala delle Asse was made accessible by partially dismantling the scaffolding. Over 450,000 people were thus able to visit the room. In order to welcome visitors in the best possible way, an innovative multimedia system created by Culturanuova srl was installed. Through projections, holograms, and light spots, it told the story of the Sala delle Asse, Leonardo da Vinci’s role, and the restoration works still in progress.

However, the key discovery made by the latest restoration works is a whole segment along the walls, never investigated before, where the original late 15th century plaster was found under several layers of white lime. Through special tests, monochrome paintings on all sides of the room were found to be still present in this 15th century plaster. Leonardo's original decoration, therefore, was more extensive and not just limited to the portion taken up by the Monochrome and the vault, but it used to cover all the room walls, at least from a certain level upwards.

After EXPO, restoration works were resumed again with the installation of impressive scaffolding, cleaning tests and new diagnostic tests. Since then, all the old layers of lime in that, until then unexplored, portion of wall have been removed by laser. The drawings found are amazing, in terms of style and execution technique. In some cases, they are the continuation of the tree trunks on the vault. In other cases, smaller branches are painted, perhaps depicting a forest understory. But the greatest surprise of all is the discovery of a landscape. Leonardo did not intend to represent only an arboreal pavilion: the gaze of those who entered the stateroom of Ludovico Maria Sforza was meant to wander far beyond it, to the countryside ruled by the Duke.

The Sala delle Asse is the iconic place for Milan 2019 celebrations. In order to make it available during the celebrations of the 5th centenary of Leonardo da Vinci's death, all restoration scaffolds have been completely removed. The room is now presented to the public again after yet another round of restoration works, revealing a pergola of eighteen mulberry trees designed as a giant trompe l'oeil to turn the large room at the base of the tower into a stateroom for the Duke. For the first time, visitors will be able to closely view the Monochrome from a specially designed vantage point. An engaging multimedia installation guides visitors to the discovery of the room and its importance in Renaissance time, but also of the extraordinary drawing portions recently discovered on its walls. No one, apart from insiders, had yet been able to see the knotty trunks, landscapes, branches and leaves that keep on resurfacing, thus progressively changing the room perception. Thanks to the spectacular multimedia installation Sotto l'ombra del Moro. Sala delle Asse, curated by Francesca Tasso and Michela Palazzo and designed by Culturanuova srl di Massimo Chimenti, visitors are guided through a better understanding of the whole room. They will be invited to look at the vault, which has been severely damaged by previous restorations and will undergo specific restoration in 2020. Visitors’ attention will then be drawn to the side walls, to learn more about the idea of imitation of nature developed here by Leonardo.

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