Saturday, August 11, 2012

Castello Sforzesco (Milan, May, 2007)

Strolling through the middle of Milan, I still remember the non-linear path that took me to this street where I saw the red-stone castle--the Castello Sfrozesco, though I didn't know its name in advance--perched intriguingly at a distance. Everything seemed to lead toward it, so I decided to take a look around and find out what it was.

This castle, which seems to operate as one of Milan's major points of orientation, sits resplendent at the end of Via Dante if you're approaching from the direction of the Duomo. In front of it is a square where a snack wagon was parked, offering a bewildering array of sandwiches and drinks. Men who looked African were standing over rows of faux-designer handbags, hawking them to tourists in multiple languages.

The design of the top part of this striking central tower (below), which is visible from down the street, reminded me of the Signoria in Florence, which I got to see later that same week. This is called the Filarete tower (Torre de Filarete).

When first constructed in 1358 (and completed in 1368) by Galeazzo Il Visconti, the castle was the home of the Visconti family. Seen as a symbol of the Visconti, it was destroyed (and its stones used to renovate the city walls) in 1447 when Milan was proclaimed a republic, after the death of Filippo Maria Visconti. A reconstruction of the castle was begun by Francesco Sforza when he became duke of Milan in 1450.

From the outside, I didn't quite understand the architecture and layout of this castle because the round towers (designed by Bartolomeo Gadio) would not have been easy to defend from cannon fire; and cannon had been used in Europe since the 1000s. Additionally it looks like there are loopholes (arrow slits) in the towers--the little dark squares you can see in the walls.

Was the castle built for this kind of defence, or more as a place of residence? A bit of Internet research informs me that Castello Sforzesco used to be one of the largest citadels in Europe; the explanation for its current appearance seems to lie in the trail of its history.

As I described above, the castle began as a palace for the Dukes of Milan, and had at least two incarnations. After the fall of the dukes, during the Spanish occupation in the 1500s, the castle was converted into a military hub and developed into a large star fort with 12 bastions.

Cannon balls piled by the castle walls
In 1521 under French domination, the gunpowder warehouse in the Filarete Tower exploded when the tower was hit by lightning.

The Renaissance obsession with mathematical proportion shows up clearly in the beautiful Corte Ducale.
During the reign of Ludovico Il Moro (Sforza), Leonardo da Vinci lived in the castle, creating such works as the decorations in the famous Sala delle Asse ("room of the tower" or "room of wooden boards"--1495-97). Ludovico Sforza also commissioned Leonardo's "Last Supper".

Above: the Pietà Rondanini, Michelangelo's "last masterpiece" which was left incomplete when he died in 1564 at the age of 89. Unlike many of his other sculptures, it's a piece imbued with both gentleness and strength, and you walk in upon it as if upon a secret--at least that was my experience, since I didn't know it was there, and "discovered" it around a dark corner!

Beautiful window inside the castle.
Over the centuries, the castle has served as home to many "occupiers" incuding the French, the Austrians (1706) and the Spanish. At one point (1796) Milan was taken by Napoleon, who was urged to have the castle destroyed. Instead, he built a square in front of it. Over the 19th century Castello Sforzesco was left in a state of increasing disrepair, its beautifully frescoed rooms used for horse stalls and chicken hutches.

After the unification of Italy in 1861, the castle was restored under the direction of Luce Beltrami (between 1893 and 1904), and again after World War II when it had been seriously damaged by bombing.

More Renaissance proportions in a courtyard
Since its restoration around the turn of the last century, the Castello Sforzesco has been used to house the Musei Civici including the Museum of Ancient Art, the Furniture Museum, and the Musical Instrument Museum, the Archaeological Museum, and the Achille Bertarelli Print Museum.

The castle is also faced on its opposite side by the beautiful Parco Sempione, where I had the luck to run into a rather interesting sculpture during the same visit.