Castello Sforzesco ★★

The castle as seen from the air, Castello Sforzesco, Milan, Italy (Photo by Zheng Yan)
The castle as seen from the air

Milan's sprawling 15C castle is home to several excellent museums, of tapestries, archaeological artifacts, paintings by Bellini and Mantegna, and sculptures from medieval to neoclassical—including Michelangelo's final sculpture, the Rondanini Pietà

Though it's been clumsily restored many times, most recently at the end of the 19th century, this fortresslike castle continues to evoke Milan's two most powerful medieval and Renaissance families, the Visconti and the Sforza.

The Visconti built the castle in the 14th century and the Sforza, who married into the Visconti clan and eclipsed them in power, reconstructed it in 1450.

The most influential residents were Ludovico "il Moro" Sforza and his wife Beatrice d'Este (of the famous Este family of Ferrara). After ill-advisedly calling the French into Italy at the end of the 15th century, Ludovico died in the dungeons of a château in the Loire valley—but not before the couple made the Castello and Milan one of Italy's great centers of the Renaissance. It was they who commissioned the works by Bramante and Leonardo da Vinci, and these splendors can be viewed on a stroll through the miles of salons that surround the Castello's enormous courtyard.

The museums of Castello Sforzesco

The salons house a series of small city-administered museums known collectively as the Civici Musei Castello Sforzesco. They include rooms filled with Egyptian funerary objects and prehistoric finds from Lombardy dating from Paleolithic tribes (more than 10,000 years ago) all the way up to the late Iron Age and Italy's last Celtic peoples of the 1st century BC.

The Sala della Asse, or "Plank Hall," was decorated in 1498 by Leonardo da Vinci himself with a unique trompe-l'oeil arbour of geometrically intricate vines frescoed onto the vaulted ceiling that betray Leonardo's love of botany. Sadly, this was painted over many times, so the only bit we can be sure it original is a monochrome sketch on the wall between the two windows of a twisting root (it survived the centuries covered by tapestries). The room houses the Belgioioso collection of 17th and 18th century Flemish and Dutch paintings.

In a massive room lined with 18th and 19th century keyboard instruments, and where in the days of Dukes they played an early form of tennis, hang the dozen of marvelously detailed Trivulzio Tapestries. They are the Tapestries of the Twelve Months, designed by Bramantino in 1503, woven in the ducal workshop at Vigevano, and named for the man who commissioned them General Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, Marquis of Vigevano and Marshal of France.

Here are the three best of the Castle's museums.

The Pinacoteca

Among paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, Fililpo Lippi, Correggio, Antonello da Messina, and Bronzino, the top works in the castello's collection of paintings are:

  • Bellini's Portrait of Giulio Zandemaria or Poet Laureate - In the hundred-odd years this portrait has been in the collection, its attribution has wavered between Bellini and Antonella da Messina—little wonder, as it was painted in 1475 when both artists were exchanging artistic ideas Venice. There an almost Flemish attention to detail in the five o'clock shadow, chocolate curls in his shadowed hair, and highlights in the amber irises that follow you about.
  • Mantegna's Madonna in Glory (The Pala Trivulzio) - Bellini's famous brother-in-law painted this magnificent altarpiece for a Verona church in 1497, making it one of his final works, the harshness of his youthful style now tempered and softened by age and experience to yield this solid, highly naturalistic approach.
  • Bellini's Madonna & Child - This is an early Bellini, painted around 1468-70 with touching human detail. Mary wears a pearl-trimmed pink shawl for once, her gold-collared green tunic matching the one on baby Jesus, who gazes despondently at a lemon in his hand.
  • Archimboldo's Primavera - Archimboldo was a Milanese mannerist an a gimmick artist—but quite good at it—who developed the weird style of painting metaphoric "portraits" that were illusionistically composed of thematic collages—in this case, using fruits and flowers (strawberry lips and cheery eyeballs with tulip-bulb hair) to personify "Spring" as a human profile. It's quite differnet from his also-collaged Primavera paitings in the Louvre and in Madrid.
  • Leonardo da Vinci's Testa di Leda - Not a painting this time, but a drawing, in red chalk, from 1505 of the head of Leda, a study for a painting of Leda and the Swan. It was only identified as being a genuine Leonardo in 1980.

The Museo d'Arte Antica

My favorite among all the statues sculptures, paintings, and architectural oddments in the Ancient Art Museum? The Funerary Monument for Gaston de Foix, Duke of Nemours, Marshall of France, ruler of the French Milan Duchy, posthumous young hero of 1512's Battle of Ravenna, and nephew of Louis XII.

In 1510, King Francis I ordered a monumental tomb from Il Bambaia, who executed a brilliant effigy of the warrior lying in state and beautiful, delicate, deeply carved high relief panels and figures. But when the French pulled out of Milanese affairs in 1522, the tomb was left unfinished.

The pieces were installed in a local church but soon sold off and dispersed, evetually winding up here, in the Ambrosiana, at Turin, and in the V&A in London. Even an early sketch for the tomb preserved at the V&A can't show us how to reconstruct it properly, so the luminous white marble works are merely displayed side-by-side under glass.

Michelangelo's Rondanini Pietà

The last work of 89-year-old Michelangelo, his unfinished Rondanini Pietà, is now house in its own little museum inside the castle's previously-closed-to-the-public 16C Spanish Hospital.

Michelangelo's career really took off with a Pietà he carved at age 23 (the one now in Rome's St. Peter's). During a lifetime in which he became the foremost artist of his age, acknowledged as a genius in painting, fresco, architecture, and engineering, he never lost his love for marble and chisel.

At age 89, he was working yet again on one of his favorite subjects, this Pietà. It may be unfinished—in fact, Michelangelo was in the midst of changing it wholesale, reordering the figures and twisting the composition around (resulting in the disembodied right arm still attached to it)—but this tall, languid representation of Mary and Nicodemus bearing the body of Christ remains one of Michelangelo's most remarkable works.

At the end of his life, Michelangelo had grown so advanced in his thinking and artistic aesthetics that this remarkable, minimalist work (the sculptor had early on developed a rough style dubbed nonfinito, or "unfinished") looks eerily as if it were chiseled in the 1950s rather than 1560s.

According to his friends and colleagues, he had been working feverishly on it, and nothing else, for weeks. Michelangelo was in his Roman studio chiseling away on the statue when, on February 12, 1564, he was struck with a fever and took to bed.

Michelangelo died 6 days later.

Photo gallery
  • The castle as seen from the air, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Zheng Yan)
  • Testa di Leda (Head of Leda) (1505) by Leonardo da Vinci, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Pietà Rondanini (1552–64) by Michelangelo, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Ugodiamante)
  • Madonna in Gloria with Saints John the Baptist, Gregory the Great, Benedict and Jerome (1497) by Andrea Mantegna, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • A detail of the effigy from the Tomb of Gaston de Foix (1510–22) by Agostino il Bambaja, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Il Poeta Laureato (1490–1500) by Giovanni Bellini, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • The main facade, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Manuela Vitale)
  • The Filarete tower, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Riccardo Ortelli)
  • Looking through the archways from the northern entrance, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Daniel Case)
  • The Filarete tower seen from the main courtyard, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Andrea Conti)
  • One of the moats, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Yorick39)
  • The main courtyard, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Faris knight)
  • Argo by Bramante and Bramantino in the Sala del Tesoro, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The Salle delle Asse, frescoed by Leonardo da Vinci, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo © Reid Bramblett)
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • St. John the Evangelist (1470) by Antonello da Messina, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Primavera by Archimboldo, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Madonna Trivulzio (1430–32) by Filippo Lippi, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Portrait of Lorenzo Lenzi (1537–28) by Bronzino, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Madonna Bolognini (1514–19) by Antonio da Correggio, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Madonna col Bambino (1460–65) by Giovanni Bellini, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Portrait of the Ambassador Gabriel de Luetz d
  • St. Benedict (1470) by Antonello da Messina, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Portrait of Procurator Jacopo Soranzo (1550) by Tintoretto, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Deposition (1476–91) from Santa Maria del Monte a Velate by Maestro di Trognano, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Holy Hermit (St. Jerome?) (1650) attributed to Giuseppe di Ribera, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Comunione of Santa Lucia (1748) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • 14C sculptures in room 2 of the Museo d
  • Monument to Bernabo Visconti (14C), Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo © Reid Bramblett)
  • The effigy from the Tomb of Gaston de Foix (1510–22) by Agostino il Bambaja, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Statuettes from the Tomb of Gaston de Foix (1510–22) by Agostino il Bambaja, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Carlo Dell
  • A statuette from the Tomb of Gaston de Foix (1510–22) by Agostino il Bambaja, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Panel from the Tomb of Gaston de Foix (1510–22) by Agostino il Bambaja, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Panel from the Tomb of Gaston de Foix (1510–22) by Agostino il Bambaja, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Panel from the Tomb of Gaston de Foix (1510–22) by Agostino il Bambaja, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Panel from the Tomb of Gaston de Foix (1510–22) by Agostino il Bambaja, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Carlo Dell
  • Pietà Rondanini (1552–64) by Michelangelo, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Gaulish iron helmet (4C BC) in the Museo della Preistoria, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Bronze helmet and shin guards. Part of the contents of the "Sesto Calende grave", dating from the 7th century BC, and belonging to the Golaseca culture in the Museum of Pre-history, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Giovanni Dall
  • Sarcofagi in the Museo Egizio, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Stefano Stabile)
  • Fragments from a Ptolemaic-era Book of the Dead in the Museo Egizio, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Giovanni Dall
  • Violins in the Museo Strumenti Musicali, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Stefano Stabile)
  • A fancy scroll in the Museum of Musical Instruments, Castello Sforzesco, Italy (Photo by Giovanni Dall
  • Maestro del Roman de la Rose, Libro d
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Free or reduced admission with a sightseeing card

Get into Castello Sforzesco for free (and skip the line at the ticket booth) with:

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How long does Castello Sforzesco take?

It really depends on how much interest you have in the various museums. Anywhere from 30 min to 2 hours.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).