Here’s my guide to Leonardo da Vinci’s Sala delle Asse fresco. It’s housed in the magnificent Castello Sforzesco in Milan Italy.
The fresco is one of Leonardo’s lesser know works. But it’s his largest painting. The fresco is just as magnificent as Leonardo’s other masterpieces. And even more unique in its decorative program.
Sforza Castle is one of Milan’s most historic landmarks and a must see attraction in Milan. It’s a splendid example of Renaissance architecture, a redesigned product of the mercenary-turned-politician Francesco Sforza. It was the former seat of the Dukes of Milan.
Today, the castle houses various museums: the Pieta Rondanini Museum, the Art Gallery, the Archaeological Museum, and the Museum of Decorative Arts.
Though the castle itself is free, there’s a small fee for the museums. It’s also possible to book a guided tour of the castle battlements and dungeons.
The most important and interesting masterpiece inside the castle (I think) is a massive fresco painted by Leonardo da Vinci. His patron, the Sforza family, commissioned Leonardo to paint the elaborate fresco in the great hall, the Sala delle Asse (Room of the Planks).
Sala delle Asse
The Sala delle Asse is on the first floor of Castle Sforza in the northeast corner. The room was formerly called the Room of the Planks because planks once adorned the walls.
The room itself is Gothic in design, with semi-ribbed vaults and lunettes. The entirety of the room is covered in Leonardo decorations.
Leonardo was hired by Ludovico Sforza to decorate the room, as he was painting The Last Supper. He painted the Sala delle Asse fresco between 1482-99. These are the only two known frescos of Leonardo to survive. Though some art historians think another frescos is hidden in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
The Castle Sforza fresco is extraordinary. It’s a type of decoration you don’t normally see. The frescos are an ingenious composition, essentially a rare example of illusionistic arboreal architecture.
The fresco depicts a jumble-y garden with trees bound together by a golden rope. At the base of the fresco are massive tree trunks of 16 Mulberry trees, painted around the walls at regular intervals.
The trees symbolize wisdom and prudence. They break through the earth and rise to the top of the vault. The effect is to suggest an airy garden pergola.
Above the interwoven basket like branches is a vivid blue sky, reinforcing the suggestion of an outdoor space. At the center is a single unbroken strand of golden rope that joins together the branches in a knotted canopy pattern. At the highest point is a heraldic image of Ludovico Sforza’s coat of arms.
The resulting fresco was something unique to the history of art, something springing forth from Leonardo’s fertile imagination. The theme was wild nature tamed into architecture.
The fresco may be a reference to groves built by the ancient Greeks. It certainly reveals Leonardo’s talents as a scientist, botanist, and scholar of optics. Though Leonardo likely got an assist from Donato Bramante, then an architect in the Sforza court.
For many centuries the frescos were hidden under a thick layer of whitewash. They were only discovered 1893-94. After restoration, the hall was reopened to public.
But the restorers misinterpreted Leonardo’s initial design, adding excessive details. Hence, in 1954, a second restoration took place. All the non-Leonardo additions were removed. And Leonardo’s gnarly tree roots were revealed.
As with The Last Supper, painted in seco fresco, the Sala delle Asse is in a state of disrepair and conservation is ongoing. Seco fresco doesn’t bind the paint to the wall properly. And some of Leonardo’s brush strokes flaked off.
In 2006, another restoration was launched. The fresco was restored and cleaned.
Perhaps more importantly, with the help of technology, Leonardo’s fresco has been reborn in its full glory. You can watch an ultra-high definition digital imaging video that lasts 10 minutes. It gives you a light show, revealing what the fresco originally looked like and explaining its history.
Another Leonardo in Castle Sforza
The Sforza Castle houses another important Leonardo work, the Trivulziana Codex. The codex contains Leonardo’s studies on military and religious architecture, including some sketches of the Duomo.
It’s housed in the Trivulziana Library, where you can examine ancient documents dating from the 8th to the 18th century.
Leonardo’s codex is generally not on public display. But, via a digital reproduction, visitors can leaf through the codex, page by page, magnifying the original drawing up to 20 times.
Practical Information for Visiting Sforza Castle
Address: Piazza Castello, Milan, in Sempione Park
Entry fee: The Castle courtyards are free. Entry to the museums is € 5.
Hours: The museums are open from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm Tuesday through Sunday. Final admission is at 5:00 pm.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to Leonardo’s masterpiece in Milan. You may enjoy these other Milan travel guides and resources:
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