Sforza Castle (Italian: Castello Sforzesco) is in Milan, northern Italy. It was built in the 15th century by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, on the remnants of a 14th-century fortification. Later renovated and enlarged, in the 16th and 17th centuries it was one of the largest citadels in Europe. Extensively rebuilt by Luca Beltrami in 1891–1905, it now houses several of the city’s museums and art collections.
Greatly transformed and modified over the centuries, the Sforzesco Castle was, between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one of the main military citadels of Europe; restored in a historicist style by Luca Beltrami between 1890 and 1905, it is now home to cultural institutions and important museums. It is one of the largest castles in Europe and one of the main symbols of Milan and its history.
The construction of a fortification with purely defensive functions was started in the second half of the fourteenth century by the Visconti dynasty, which had held the lordship of Milan for almost a century, since in 1277 the archbishop Ottone Visconti had defeated in the battle of Desio and driven from Milan the previous Lord, Napoleon of the Tower. In 1354 the dying archbishop Giovanni Visconti left the duchy to the three nephews Matteo II, Galeazzo II and Bernabò.
Between 1360 and 1370 Galeazzo Visconti had a fortification, called Porta Giovia Castle, built at the Porta Giovia (or Zobia), at the Porta Giovia (or Zobia), from the name of Porta Giovia romana, an ancient entrance to the walls of Roman walls of Milan, which in turn owed its name to Giovio, nickname of the emperor Diocletian. In the Roman period, in the same area where the medieval Porta Giovia Castle was built, there was the Castrum Portae Jovis of the same name, one of the four defensive castles of Roman Milan.
The Castrum Portae Jovis began to cover, starting from 286, when Milan became the capital of the Western Roman Empire, also the function of Castra Praetoria, or of the praetorian barracks, a military department that performed the emperor ‘s body guard duties.. This area was therefore the “Campo Marzio” of Milan, or the area consecrated to Mars, god of war, which was used for military exercises.
The Visconti and the Sforza
The medieval Castle of Porta Giovia was enlarged by its successors: Gian Galeazzo Visconti, who became the first Duke of Milan, Giovanni Maria and Filippo Maria, who first moved the courtyard from the ducal palace that stood near the Cathedral (today’s Royal Palace). The result was a square-shaped castle, with 200 meters long sides, and four towers at the corners, the two of which facing the city particularly impressive, with 7 meter thick perimeter walls. The building thus became a permanent residence of the Visconti dynasty, to then be destroyed in 1447 by theAurea Repubblica Ambrosiana, formed by the Milanese nobles after the extinction of the Visconti dynasty to death without legitimate heirs of the duke Filippo Maria.
It was the mercenary captain Francesco Sforza, husband of Bianca Maria Visconti, who started the reconstruction in 1450 to make it his residence after having demolished the Republic and having thus seized Milan. Without a coat of arms, Sforza kept the Visconti viper as the emblem of his house. At that time he was only equal to Het Steen Castle in Antwerp.
In 1452 Filarete was hired by the duke for the construction and decoration of the median tower, which is still called Torre del Filarete; later he was succeeded by the military architect Bartolomeo Gadio. On the death of Francesco Sforza, he was succeeded by his son Galeazzo Maria who had the work continued by the architect Benedetto Ferrini. In these years a great campaign of frescoes was begun in the halls of the ducal court, entrusted to the painters of the duchy, of which the most valuable example is the ducal chapel where Bonifacio Bembo worked. In 1476, under the regency of Bona di Savoia, the tower of the same name was built.
In 1494 Ludovico il Moro came to power and the castle became the seat of one of the richest and most magnificent courts in Europe. The decoration of the rooms was called artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (who frescoed several rooms of the ducal apartment, together with Bernardino Zenale and Bernardino Butinone) and Bramante (perhaps for a little bridge to connect the castle to the so-called covered street), while many painters frescoed the Sala della Balla illustrating the exploits of Francesco Sforza. Di Leonardo’s painting in particular remainsPlant weaves with fruits and monochromes of roots and rocks in the Sala delle Asse, from 1498, while nothing remains of the colossal equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza, destroyed by the French soldiers before being completed.
In the following years the castle was in fact damaged by the continuous attacks that French, Milanese and Germanic troops exchanged; an elongated bulwark called “tenaglia” was added, which gives its name to the nearby gate and perhaps designed by Cesare Cesariano, but in 1521 the Torre del Filarete collapsed because a French soldier by mistake exploded a bomb after the tower was used as an armory. Returning to power and to the castle, Francesco II Sforza restructured and enlarged the fortress, giving it a sumptuous part of his wife Cristina of Denmark.
Under the Spaniards and the Habsburgs
Passed under Spanish rule, the castle in 1535 (governor Antonio de Leyva) lost its role as a noble residence, which passed to the Ducal Palace, and became the fulcrum of the new citadel, the seat of the Iberian military troops: the garrison was one of the largest of Europe, ranging from 1000 to 3000 men, headed by a Spanish castellan.
In 1550 work began for the strengthening of the fortifications, with the help of Vincenzo Seregni: a new defensive system was built, first pentagonal and then hexagonal (typical of the modern fortification)): a six-pointed star then brought to 12 with the addition of special crescents. The external defenses thus reached the total length of 3 km, and covered an area of approximately 25.9 hectares. The ancient frescoed halls were used as joinery and pantries, while in the courtyards masonry coops were built.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century the work was completed with ditches, which completely separated the castle from the city, and the “covered road”.
When Lombardy passed from Spain to the Habsburgs of Austria, at the hands of the great general Eugene of Savoy, the castle retained its military destination. The only artistic note of Austrian rule is the statue of St. John of Nepomuk, protector of the Austrian army, placed in the courtyard of the Piazza d’armi.
The Napoleonic modifications
With the arrival in Italy of Napoleon, the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria left the city on 9 May 1796, leaving a garrison of 2,000 soldiers at the Castle, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Lamy, with 152 cannons and good supplies of dust, rifles and forages. Rejected a first, unrealistic attack by a group of pro-Jacobin Milanese, it suffered the French siege, which lasted from May 15th to the end of June. At first Napoleon ordered to restore its defenses, to house a garrison of 4,000 men. In April 1799 it had to suffer the siege of the re-entering Austro-Russian troops but, already a year later, the day after Marengo, the French rule was re-established.
Already in 1796 a first popular petition was presented which required the demolition of the castle intended as a symbol of the “ancient tyranny”. With a decree dated June 23, 1800, Napoleon effectively ordered its total demolition. It was built starting from 1801, only partly for the side towers and totally for the Spanish bastions outside the Sforza palace, facing an exultant population.
In 1801 the architect Antolini presented a project for the reworking of the castle in conspicuously neo-classical forms, with a twelve-column atrium and surrounded by the first project by Foro Buonaparte: a circular square of about 570 meters in diameter, surrounded by a endless series of monumental public buildings (the Baths, the Pantheon, the National Museum, the Stock Exchange, the Theater, the Customs House), connected by arcades on which warehouses, shops and private buildings would have opened. The project was rejected by Napoleon, on July 13 of the same year, because it was too expensive and, in fact, disproportionate for a city of about 150,000 inhabitants.
A second project was then considered, presented by the Canonica, which limited the intervention to the only part facing the current Via Dante (which still bears the name of the ambitious project: Foro Bonaparte) while the vast area behind it was used as a piazza d’armi, crowned, years later, by the Arco della Pace, by Cagnola, at that time dedicated to Napoleon.
A few years later, in 1815, Milan and the Lombard-Veneto Kingdom were annexed to the Austrian Empire, under the rule of the Austrians of Bellegarde and the castle, enriched with curtains, passages, prisons and ditches, became sadly famous because during the revolt of the Milanese in 1848 (the so-called Five days of Milan), Marshal Radetzky will give orders to bomb the city with his own cannons. During the tragic events of the Italian wars of independence, the Austrians withdrew for some time and the Milanese took the opportunity to dismantle part of the defenses facing the city. When in 1859Milan is definitely Savoy and since 1861 part of the Kingdom of Italy, the population invades the castle plundering it as a sign of revenge.
About twenty years later the castle was the subject of debate: many Milanese proposed to demolish it to forget the centuries of military yoke and above all to build a residential neighborhood. However the historical culture prevailed and the architect Luca Beltrami subjected the Castle to a widespread restoration, almost a reconstruction, which had as its purpose to make it return to the forms of the Sforza lordship. The restoration was completed in 1905, with the inauguration of the Torre del Filarete, rebuilt on the basis of 16th century drawings and dedicated to King Umberto I assassinated a few years earlier. The tower also constitutes the perspective backdrop of the new Via Dante.
In the old parade ground, hundreds of plants of the new city green lung are planted, the Parco del Sempione, an English-style landscape garden. The Foro Bonaparte is rebuilt for residential purposes before the castle.
During the 20th century the castle was damaged and restructured after the Second World War; in the nineties a large fountain was built in piazza castello inspired by one previously installed on the site that was dismantled in the sixties during the works for the construction of the first subway line and no longer put back after the end of the works.
Following the restoration, it has become the seat of numerous cultural institutions. In the past it has hosted:
the modern art gallery (from 1903 to 1920)
the Sforzesco Castle High School of Applied Arts (1906 to 1999)
Currently the complex houses:
Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco: a rich collection of paintings, including works by Filippo Lippi, Antonello da Messina, Andrea Mantegna, Canaletto, Correggio, Tiepolo
Archaeological Museum, in the two sections ː Museum of Prehistory and Egyptian Museum
Museum of ancient art
Pietà Rondanini Museum – Michelangelo
Museum of Musical Instruments
Museum of Furniture and Wooden Sculptures
Civic Collections of Applied Art
Civic Historical Archive and Trivulziana Library, which also contains the Trivulziano Code by Leonardo da Vinci
Civic Archive of Milan
Civic collection of Achille Bertarelli prints
Civic Cabinet of Drawings
CASVA (Center for Higher Studies in Visual Arts)
as well as numerous temporary exhibitions.
In 2005 the last restoration of the courtyards and halls was completed.
Demolished, as we said, during the nineteenth century, the outer fortification wall, called “Ghirlanda”, what we see today of the castle is the oldest part, built in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This structure has a square plan, with sides two hundred meters long. The four corners consist of towers, each oriented according to one of the cardinal points. The South and East towers, which frame the main façade towards the cathedral, have a cylindrical shape, while the other two, which frame the façade towards the park, have a square plan and are called “Falconiera” the North and “Castellana” the West. The entire perimeter of the castle is still surrounded by the ancient moat, today no longer flooded.
The façade facing the city center was built in the mid-fifteenth century during the reconstruction commissioned by the Duke Francesco. Of this period the two lateral towers with their round plan, covered with diamond-point ashlar, which were used over the centuries as prisons, and from the end of the nineteenth century are home to aqueduct tanks. Inside they still preserve traces of the dungeons where the patriots were imprisoned during the Risorgimento period. The medieval battlements are the result of nineteenth-century restoration; they had in fact been demolished to make way for the large cannons and other artillery that were hoisted on the towers, aimed at threatening the city in the centuries in which the castle housed the Austrian garrison, as can be seen from the paintings of the time.
The tower Filarete
The central tower, the tallest of the castle, which is the main entrance, is called the Tower of Filarete, the Tuscan architect’s name called on to design it by the Duke Francesco I. Destroyed by an explosion in the early 16th century, it was rebuilt in the early 1900s on the site of the original disappearance. The reconstruction was entrusted to the architect Luca Beltrami, and took place on the basis of ancient depictions which were found in the background of a Madonna and Child of the Leonardo school now kept inside the Castle, and of an ancient fresco in the Cascina Pozzobonelli, as well as on theof Vigevano.
In fact, in the structure it follows the elements of the latter, although it is built with different proportions that give it a more massive appearance. The powerful male that forms its base, with a square plan, is surmounted by a high band of battlements projecting on stone shelves, which support the dovetail battlements. On this body, covered by a roof, rises a second, narrower, always ending in Ghibelline battlements, on which Beltrami designed a clock with the so-called viscontean “race” in the center, the radiant sun that constitutes the enterprise of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, first duke of Milan. A third body follows, again with a quadrangular base, with a
To crown it all, an octagonal loggia holds up a roundish dome. A decoration of the tower was placed, immediately above the entrance arch, a bas-relief in marble of Candoglia with King Umberto I on horseback, the sovereign murdered at the palace of Monza in 1900, to whom the tower was dedicated to his inauguration of three years later. Above it is instead a statue of Saint Ambrose in its traditional iconography with the archiepiscopal vestments and the whip, flanked by the coats of arms of the six Dukes of Milan of the Sforza dynasty: Francesco I, Galeazzo Maria, Gian Galeazzo, Ludovico il Moro, Massimiliano andFrancesco II.
The front and rear “Ponticella of Ludovico il Moro”
The rear façade is the oldest, being in correspondence with the buildings of the fourteenth century built by Galeazzo Visconti. It is divided into two by the Porta del Barco, as was the wooded area located in the area of the current Corso Sempione, used as a hunting reserve.
On the right side of the Castle there is the Porta dei Carmini, while further back is the so-called Ponticella by Ludovico il Moro, a bridge structure that connected the ducal apartments to the outer walls that have disappeared today. Its external lines, of geometric purity and Renaissance grace, come off clearly from the rest of the building. His project is in fact attributed, although without certain results, to Donato Bramante, which was at the court of the Moor from the late seventies of the fifteenth century. Its main front is made up of a long loggia that occupies its entire length, with a high entablature supported by slender smooth stone columns. In the rooms of this bridge, the chronicles of the time narrate, Ludovico was shut up for the mourning of his beloved wife Beatrice d’Este, then called for this reason “Salette Nere”.
On the left side, beyond the Porta di Santo Spirito, there are the remains of a ravelin that belonged to the fortifications of Ghirlanda, whose remains are partly visible also on the side facing the Sempione Park.
The parade ground
The current quadrilateral of the castle contains three distinct courts: the large parade ground, so called because it was intended to house the troops stationed in the castle, the courtyard of the rocchetta and the ducal court, which constituted the actual residence of the dukes before, and then of the governors. The two courts are separated from the parade ground by the dead moat, part of the ancient medieval moat where the foundations of the castle of Porta Giovia are located.
The left side of the parade ground is occupied by the so-called Spanish Hospital, house built in 1576 for the shelter of castellans infected by plague, restored in the course of 2015 in order to transfer the Rondanini Pieta of Michelangelo. The right side of the square is instead used as an exposition of Renaissance finds from Milan. In particular, the elevations of two fifteenth-century buildings demolished at the beginning of the twentieth century have been reassembled here. The façade to the right of the door of the carmini, with a portico with columns and two overlying floors with arched windows, comes from the Malastalla, as the ancient Milanese prisons were, above all destined to the insolvent ones, placed in Via Orefici, suppressed in 1787 when the prisoners were transferred to the Palace of the Captain of Justice. The façade with its original terracotta decorations was transferred here in the 1930s following the demolition of the ancient prison building. The side façade instead belonged to a fifteenth-century residence in Via Bassano Porrone, destroyed in 1902 with the reorganization of the Cordusio.
At the center of the parade ground is the baroque statue of Saint John of Nepomuk, commissioned by the last lord of the fortress, Annibale Visconti di Brignano, in 1729.
Near the statue of San Giovanni Nepomuceno (from the Milanese populace called San Giovanni neither more nor less), a door leads to the courtyard of the Ducal Court, rectangular in shape and with a portico on three sides.
On the opposite side is the Rocchetta, the part of the most impregnable castle in which the Sforza took refuge in an emergency. It consists of a square courtyard, with four sides of the height of five floors. Originally it had only one entrance, consisting of a drawbridge that crosses the dead ditch allowing access from the parade ground. The narrow passage to the ducal court was only opened later. The four sides of the court are neither uniform in style and decoration, nor by construction period. The first two curtains to rise were those towards the outside of the castle, and present a homogeneous elevation. A large porch runs at ground level supported by stone columns supporting round arches, while above are three orders of windows: a first band of small rectangular openings, followed by a band of large ogival lancet windows and a smaller one on a smaller scale, both with terracotta frames. The last two wings, added at the time of the Moor, present different elevations: the side towards the ducal court is also a portico, has a fourth order of openings, while the side towards the parade ground, not arcaded, is characterized from a band of small arches supported by stone shelves.
The recent restorations have brought to light the original graffiti-like decorations of the plastering of the facades, and the frescoed frames of the openings that simulate terracotta decorations. Of particular beauty are the frescoes with decorative motifs on the vaults, and the stone capitals.
Among the Renaissance decorations are some coats of arms with the various companies of the Visconti and Sforza families, including:
The dove with the motto “A bon droit” (rightly so), attributed to Francesco Petrarca, who was ambassador of Gian Galeazzo, as a wish for peace and legality for the duchy.
The Morso with the motto “Ich vergies nicht” (I do not forget), a warning to curb impulsiveness and arrogance.
the ducal crown crossed by two intertwined branches of palm and olive, symbols of peace and humility, the undertaking of Filippo Maria Visconti.
the Veltro bound by a divine hand to a tree, an enterprise by Francesco Sforza.
The rocchetta is defended by two towers: the tower of Bona di Savoia, between the rocchetta and the piazza d’armi, and the tower of the treasure or of the Castellana, on the west corner of the castle.
The so-called Bona tower was built in 1477, during the regency of the widowed Piedmontese duchess following the murder of her husband Galeazzo Maria on 26 December of the previous year, as is mentioned on the large marble emblem affixed to the tower. It belongs to the defense works built during the period of political uncertainty coinciding with the government of Cicco Simonetta and the duchess Bona, on behalf of his son Gian Galeazzo, who was only seven years old.
At the opposite corner, the Castellana tower. This tower was also known as the Treasury as the treasure of the duchy, consisting of coins and precious metals, jewelery and jewels described by the ambassadors of the time who were admitted to the visit were guarded in the halls on the ground floor. To guard the room is a fresco with the figure of Argo, mythological guardian who never slept, closing only two of his hundred eyes at a time. The Renaissance work, which unfortunately lost its head during a reconstruction of the vault of the hall, dates back to the end of the fifteenth century and has been variously attributed to Bramante or his pupil Bramantino.
The Ducal Court
The apartments of the Dukes and the fulcrum of court life during the Renaissance were located in what is now called Corte Ducale.
The court is U-shaped and occupies the north area of the castle. It was built and decorated in the second half of the fifteenth century mainly by Galeazzo Maria Sforza, who came to reside here from his marriage with Bona in 1468 until his death, and Ludovico il Moro who resided there during the entire twenty years of his duchy.
Although damaged and altered in the following four centuries in which it was transformed into barracks, the nineteenth-century restorations have reconstructed its Renaissance appearance and decorations.
The two longer sides of the courtyard are covered with a light plaster with scratch decorations, which open onto the two ogive planes with decorated terracotta frames, restored on the basis of the best preserved frames of the frames.
The bottom side consists of the so-called Portico dell’Elefante, a harmonious portico supported by stone columns that houses a faded fresco depicting exotic animals including a lion and, precisely, an elephant. Under the portico is today placed the tombstone, in Latin characters, which stood in front of the “infamous Column” in today’s Piazza Vetra. The column had been erected in 1630 on the site of the house of Gian Giacomo Mora, unjustly accused of having spread the plague as an “antor”, and for this tortured and executed, as narrated by Alessandro Manzoni in his History of the infamous column; the column was demolished in 1778.
A large staircase located next to the Barco door gives access to the second floor. Composed of low steps, so that it can also be traveled on horseback, it leads to the Loggia of Galeazzo Maria, an elegant environment supported by thin columns, open on the court. The architecture of the loggia, of Renaissance style, is attributed to the Tuscan-trained architect Benedetto Ferrini (? – Sasso Corvaro, 1479), who worked for the Duke Galeazzo Maria in the 1550s.
On the wall that divides the ducal court from the Rocchetta, is a small fountain of Renaissance style decorated with the Sforza and Viscontee enterprises. Another fountain, with a double basin, in terracotta, is found in the homonymous courtyard, carved on the model of acollegiate church of Bellinzona.
As well as consolidating the structural integrity of the Sforza Castle, the complex restoration process that started in 2010 aimed to harmonise the preceding restorations, from those of Beltrami at the end of the 1800s to those carried out by BBPR (Banfi, Belgiojoso, Peressutti, Rogers) studio in the 1950s. The recent works also brought to light and cleaned 19th century painted stuccoes and graffitos on the walls of the Ducal Court and on the façade of the building that houses the “Achille Bertarelli” Print and Photographic Archive facing the Courtyard of Arms.
Reconstructed by Luca Beltrami and inaugurated in 1905, the Tower has been recently consolidated and cleaned. During the restoration works, around the octagonal dome, the names of the winds (SEPTENTRIO, EURUS, CHAURUS, FAVONIUS, APHRICUS, AUSTER, SOLANUS, AQUILO) were found. This discovery suggests that Beltrami conceived the building as a Torre dei Venti (Tower of Winds).
The restoration has led to the cleaning of marbles and painted decorations, chosen by Beltrami to adorn the tower. Among the Sforza coats of arms flanking the statue of St. Ambrose, with the painted initials of the Lords of Milan, is one with the initial of Beatrice d’Este (BE) next to those of Ludovico il Moro (LU). Since Beatrice is the only Sforza wife commemorated on the tower, it is hypothesized that Luca Beltrami wanted to leave his own signature on the Castle (Luca Beltrami: LU BE).
When the decision was taken in 2012 to move the Pietà Rondanini, Michelangelo’s last masterpiece, to another location, the choice fell on the Spanish Hospital. Structural work and restoration of the historic building and its 16th century frescoes started in 2013. Vast sections of decorations including coats of arms, faux beams decorated with garlands carrying the names of the apostles as well as parchments with the inscription of the apostle’s creed were brought to light. In addition, traces of the altar on which the religious functions of the hospital were celebrated were also found.
During work on the vaults of the Rocchetta’s porticoes in 2012, decorations commissioned by Luca Beltrami during the restoration of the late 1800s emerged. A series of radiant suns, popular with the Viscontis and Sforzas, were uncovered. The architect had entrusted the work to skilled artisans who used fresco and semi-fresco techniques to carry out the decorations. In addition, the restoration led to the recuperating of graffitos on the external walls and the distinction of the original 15th century work from Beltrami’s additions. Traces of two more frescoes were revealed in the portico, one of a faux architrave with a Renaissance style grotesque decoration and another of a coat of arms datable to the spanish occupation.
Sala delle Asse
In 1893, following a long and difficult period for the castle, decorations painted by Leonardo da Vinci in 1498 depicting a bower of intertwined mulberry trees supported by imposing trunks and thick roots were rediscovered. The room underwent a comprehensive restoration, directly supervised by Beltrami and executed by the artist, Ernesto Rusca. The monochrome section of decoration located in the northern corner of the room and considered to date to the Spanish period, was covered over during the works of the late 19th century. Between 1954 and 1956, at the time of the post-war reconstruction, this monochrome section was attributed to Leonardo. BBPR studio (Banfi, Belgiojoso, Peressutti, Rogers), which headed the project decided that it should be left visible. A unanimous denunciation by art historians of Beltrami’s heavy-handed restoration of the work, marked by the use of the vivid colours in vogue in the early 1900s led to the decision to partially undo his intervention. An in-depth analysis on the state of conservation of the paintings in 2006 initiated a complex restoration process in 2013 that, two years later, revealed new monochrome fragments.