Born from the purchase of the prestigious collection of theatrical memorabilia of the antiquarian Jules Sambon, the Museum has preserved over the years the traces of the passage of immortal artists, great composers and conductors. For all of them, La Scala was a home.
The “Ridotto dei Palchi” is the first visible hall, once you enter the Museum. Here you can find marble and bronze busts of the main composers and conductors of the period following Verdi, from Toscanini to Puccini. The majestic hall adorned with marble columns is often used for exhibitions, conferences and workshops.
The first room:
Piermarini and Paisiello
The Museum building welcomes us and Music overwhelm us. The first room hosts an oil on canvas called “Musical Instruments” by Evaristo Baschenis from Bergamo. Baschenis was famous for his still lifes depicting musical instruments instead of the usual fruit or game. There are five instruments: a lute, a guitar, a violin and bow, a mandola and a spinet. A book is placed on the guitar: The Island, or fabulous adventures by Maiolino Bisaccioni, printed in Venice in 1648. This is one of the most precious paintings in our collection and deliberately acquired in 1912 by Ettore Modigliani who was among the founders of the Museum and the director of the Pinacoteca di Brera.
The window of original ancient musical instruments has been arranged by Pier Luigi Pizzi. Next to the wall there are the Erard harp, a virginal paintied by Honofrio Guaracino (1667) as well as austere fortepianos, including one by Mathias Sommer that belonged to Verdi.
The bronze bust of Giuseppe Verdi was made on the occasion of the centenary of his death. It is a replica, with variations, of an original in terracotta now in Villa Verdi, executed in 1872-73, when Verdi was in Naples to conduct the rehearsals and execution of Don Carlo and Aida at the San Carlo Theater. Above the bust of Verdi, a painting by the Austrian artist, Martin Knoller, portrairts the architect of La Scala, Giuseppe Piermarini, holding one of the tools of his trade: the compass. In his day (1775-1779), Piermarini was very active in Milan: he worked on the Royal Ducal Palace and the courtyard of the Brera Palace; he designed the Teatro alla Scala; he built what was later known as the Teatro Lirico, the Belgioioso Palace and the Villa Reale at Monza. In designing the new theatre, Piermarini was concerned with the notion of maximum functionality, rational allocation of space and backstage systems which used the most updated technical devices for the time.
And yet, not everyone liked the façade of La Scala. Pietro Verri wrote in a letter: “The façade of the new theatre is most beautiful on paper and it surprised me when I saw it before building began, but now I am almost sorry”. But, just a few years later, in 1816, Stendhal wrote: “I arrive exhausted at seven o’clock in the evening. I run to La Scala. My journey was justified” He goes on to describe the beauty of the architecture, the dazzling drapes and the spectacle on stage where not only “the costumes, but even the faces and the gestures speak of the countries in which the action takes place. I saw it all this evening”. The legend of La Scala was born.
Depicted while sitting in front of his instrument, Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) was one of the first composers to be performed at La Scala, worked for years in St Petersburg and was the favourite composer of Napoleon.
This portrait of the composer from 1791 is by the famous painter Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun. The score bears the inscription: “Rond. di piano/When my beloved comes/Music by Signor Giovanni Paisiello”. This is a reference to an aria from Nina, o sia la pazza per amore, very well known at the time.
The same room hosts a rectangular spinet, with the following inscription engraved on the lowest note: “[Hono]frio Guaracino fecit 1667”. The painting, which represents Judith showing the head of Holofernes to the Jews, is signed “AS 1669”
Angelo Monticelli (1778-1837) draw a sketch in tempera on canvas of La Scala’s second curtain. It was created to replace the first one which was the work of Donnino Riccardi and was by then completely worn out. The theme is mythological and features Apollo and the Muses.
Giovanni Francesco Antegnati, pentagonal spinet
Honofrio Guaracino, rectangular spinet
Steinway & Sons, piano belonged to the composer Franz Liszt
The second room:
the Commedia dell’Arte
The second room is dedicated to the Commedia dell’Arte, which is the popular form of mask theatre that established itself in Italy between the 16th and 18th centuries. At the time, the actors improvised and mixed acting with acrobatics and singing.
Two showcases on the wall host an admirable collection of fine China porcelains whose history is closely bound to La Scala.
In Europe, production of porcelain began in 1710 in Saxony in imitation of the wares that were imported from China and Japan by the various East India companies. Almost all of the pieces on display come from the Sambon collection. The main subject of inspiration is the Commedia dell’Arte, with masks, performing troupes, or musicians depicted with details of rare instruments or dance masks.
During the Renaissance, a genre destined to revolutionize the entertainment of powerful and common people made its way into the Italian squares: the Commedia dell’Arte . This drew its strength from the physicality of the actors, from their multifaceted ability to dance, act and sing.
The works of the engraver Jacques Callot make us relive this grotesque and irreverent atmosphere . In room 2 you can admire some pictorial reproductions of his prints, as well as ceramics and porcelains depicting Harlequin and other famous masks.
Hurdy-gurdy player, snake player, dancer, Frankenthal
Pair of dancing harlequins, Chelsea
Anonymous, Lucia and Trastullo, scene of the Commedia dell’Arte
Anonymous, Captain Babbeo and Cucuba, scene from the Commedia dell’Arte
The third room:
the belcanto divas.
The third room of the museum is the early-19th-century belcanto room. On the walls are the portraits of the primedonne who sang in the golden age of Milan and of La Scala.
Between the two windows hangs a portrait of Isabella Cobran, Rossini’s first wife, whom he married in 1822; she is depicted in the title role of “Saffo” by Giovanni Simone Mayr. On the opposite wall is Maria Malibran, who died prematurely from a fall from a horse; here, she is depicted as “Desdemona” in Rossini’s Otello.
Among the composers portrayed in the Museum’s collection, the Sicilian Vincenzo Bellini is depicted in an anonymous portrait. He owes his European acclaim to Milan even though his most famous opera, Norma, was booed at La Scala during a protest caused by artistic rivalries.
At the centre of the lunette is Franz Liszt’s piano. The Hungarian composer received this instrument as a gift from Steinway & Sons. In a letter he wrote to the makers in 1883, he expressed his enthusiasm: “a glorious masterpiece in power, sonority, singing quality and perfect harmonic effects”. The piano was then given to his granddaughter, Daniela von Bülow, who brought it to Villa Cargnacco on lake Garda.
When the Italian state seized the villa and presented it to Gabriele D’Annunzio with the new name of Vittoriale, the instrument went with it. Only after a long legal wrangle and the death of D’Annunzio, Daniela von Bülow regained possession of the piano. She presented it to the museum where it is still on display, looking splendid after its recent restoration.
Room 3, also called Esedra room, is the empyrean of belcanto. From the paintings on the walls the first women of the nineteenth-century La Scala season appear . Wrapped in classic heroine costumes, Giuditta Pasta , Isabella Colbran , Maria Malibran stare at the visitor: rigid or dreamy, gloomy or sensual.
At their side we find the composers Rossini , Bellini , Donizetti , as well as the great male protagonists of singing, such as Nicola Tacchinardi, immortalized by Antonio Canova .
Antonio Canova, bust of Nicola Tacchinardi
Vincenzo Camuccini, portrait of Gioachino Rossini
Luigi Pedrazzi, portrait of Maria Malibran
Jean-François Millet, portrait of Vincenzo Bellini
Heinrich Schmidt, portrait of Isabella Angela Colbran
Gioacchino Serangeli, portrait of Giuditta Pasta
Anonymous, portrait of Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis
Anonymous, portrait of Domenico Barbaja
The fourth room:
Verdi and la Scala in XIX Century
In the fourth room of the Museum, there are paintings by 19th-century artists, all with a connection to La Scala. In the centre is the famous work by Angelo Inganni with the sunlit theatre looking out onto a narrow street. In fact, it was painted in 1852 and the square in front of La Scala was only laid out in 1858 when the modest houses crowded around the Theatre were demolished. Initially called “Piazza del Teatro”, over time it became “Piazza della Scala”.
The painting by Inganni shows, more than any other La Scala as it was seen by the great opera composers of the nineteenth century: Rossini, Donizetti (another portrait of him hangs in the fifth room) , Bellini and a young Verdi. The painting, donated to the Museum by Lorenzo Lorenzetti, is actually the second version of a previous one, exhibited in Brera in 1851, which was subsequently lost.
The wall on the right is dedicated entirely to Verdi. A portrait of the composer painted by Achille Scalese pairs with one of Giuseppina Strepponi; Bartolomeo Merelli, also portraited here, was the impresario who offered Verdi the libretto of Nabucco, and gave him the chance to stage it at La Scala. Merelli took all precautions to prevent a possible failure to have repercussions on his business.
Therefore the scenery was recycled from previous productions and above all that the opera was the last to be performed during Carnival. However, the opera was an immediate, extraordinary and unquestioned success, although the most recent critical thinking says a pretended special significance linked to the Risorgimento is completely false.
The central showcase contains stage jewellery and props, as well as some princely gifts, such as Napoleon’s dress-sword, given to Giuditta Pasta in Paris in 1823. The singer was of course the immortal protagonist of Tancredi and the autographed score of this opera is conserved in the museum’s vault.
Giuseppe Verdi’s long career began at the Teatro alla Scala . Here he made his debut with Oberto, count of San Bonifacio , in 1839. He also revealed his compositional grandeur to the world with Nabucco , from 1842.
The relationship between Verdi and La Scala is testified by the many portraits present in the museum, in particular in room 4. Among these stands out the severe Verdi portrayed by Achille Scalese. On both sides the large female figures who have been at his side: Margherita Barezzi and Giuseppina Strepponi .
Achille Scalese, portrait of Giuseppe Verdi
Anonymous, portrait of Bartolomeo Merelli
Anonymous, portrait of Giuseppina Strepponi
Federico Gariboldi, Portrait of Teresa Stolz
Version for solo chorus of thought from Nabucco, autograph
Teatro alla Scala Museum
The Museum is actually located between via Filodrammatici and Piazza della Scala, in a lateral wing of the historic building designed by Giuseppe Piermarini.
The current construction, dating back to 1831, was designed by Giacomo Tazzini and replaced the so-called “Casino dei Nobili”, built according to Piermarini’s design at the same time as La Scala. This complex is still known today as “Casino Ricordi”. Indeed, the famous music publishing house was located here for many years.
The first nucleus of the museum was established in 1911 with the purchase at a Parisian auction of the private collection of the Parisian antiquarian Giulio Sambon , a great fan of theater . The purchase was made possible thanks to a public subscription and a government allocation. The subscription fee was 5,000 lire at the time, a considerable figure, which is close to 15,000 euros today. The collection was intended to document the history of the show from antiquity to modernity, initially without a relationship with the specific activity of the Teatro alla Scala. The museum was officially inaugurated on March 8, 1913.
In the following years many donations and acquisitions were added to the initial nucleus of the collection. During the Second World War the collections were moved to safe places for safekeeping and at the end of the war, after the reconstruction, the museum was rearranged by Fernanda Wittgens . The exhibition area of the museum consists of fourteen rooms and exhibits marble busts and portraits of numerous composers , conductors and artists of the European musical field of the last two centuries, ancient musical instruments. Some paintings depict the Teatro alla Scala.