Milan: Museo Poldi Pezzoli

Portrait of a young woman – Piero del Pollaiolo.

Portrait of a young woman – Piero del Pollaiuolo.

What a wonderful museum! We had not planned to visit the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, but ended up there by chance. Originally we wanted to go and see the famous Chiaravalle Abbey on the outskirts of Milan. However, the abbey was quite far away and since it was our last day in Milan and we had to be at the airport on time, we decided to opt for an attraction closer to our hotel. Since we had already visited the Ambrosiana and Brera museums, we chose to spend some time at the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, a private museum not far from the Teatro alla Scala.

The founder

Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli was Milanese nobleman who was born in 1822. His father was Giuseppe Poldi Pezzoli and his mother Rosa Trivulzio, from the influential Trivulzio family (see Milan: San Nazaro in Brolo). His maternal grandfather was a great art collector and once an adult, Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli became an avid collector himself. In his will he stipulated that:

“I desire that my house and all the works of art which will be found there at the time of my death should constitute an Artistic Foundation for public use and benefit in perpetuity in accordance with the current rules of the Brera gallery”.

Collection of medieval armour.

Collection of medieval armour.

Poldi Pezzoli died in 1879 at the relatively young age of 57. He had no heirs. His will was executed to the letter and his private house was converted into a public museum. Already in 1881, the Museo Poldi Pezzoli opened its doors to the general public, on the occasion of the Milan National Exhibition. The museum immediately drew plenty of visitors, who were curious to find out more about the nobleman’s fine collection of arms, paintings, jewellery, clocks and glass items, to name just a few things. The building was badly damaged by allied bombardments in 1943, but subsequently restored. Although most of the original interior was destroyed, the place has kept much of its charm and it is certainly special to walk around in the private residence of a nineteenth century Milanese nobleman.

The collections

Madonna of the Book - Botticelli.

Madonna of the Book – Botticelli.

The museum is not very large, comprising about twenty rooms. The most interesting room on the ground floor – for me at least – is the armoury. Here one can admire Poldi Pezzoli’s impressive collection of weapons and armour, dating from the fourth century BCE (a Chalcidian helmet from Apulia) to the nineteenth century CE (a double-barrelled shotgun). The collection of medieval war gear is especially excellent, with many different suits of armour, helmets, shields and edged weapons. Poldi Pezzoli somehow managed to acquire more exotic objects as well, such as a barāki, head armour for a horse from Persia.

However, the main reason to visit the museum is its collection of paintings. On the first floor, the Lombard Rooms have several works by Lombard painters on display, such as a Virgin and Child by Vicenzo Foppa (ca. 1427-1515), a Mystical Wedding of Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Bernardino Luini (ca. 1480-1532) and three works by Bernardo Zenale (ca. 1464-1526).

But these are not the museum’s best works. Among its 30 masterpieces, it has two works by the famous Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1445-1510). The first is a Madonna and Child known as the Madonna of the Book (“Madonna del Libro” in Italian). Botticelli painted the work when he was in his mid-thirties and it can be dated to 1480 or 1481. The book in the painting has been identified as the “Horae Beatae Mariae”, Blessed Mary’s Book of Hours, which is a book of prayers for laymen.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ - Botticelli

Lamentation over the Dead Christ – Botticelli

The second Botticelli is something completely different. Here we see a Lamentation over the Dead Christ. It was executed around the year 1495, when the Medici family had been expelled from Florence and many in the city were under the spell of a charismatic Dominican preacher named Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola preached against extravagance and moral depravity and complained that the Florentines lacked religious devotion. Many agreed, among them Botticelli, who from now on almost exclusively painted religious works.

His Lamentation is one of these works. Highly dramatic, the painting features a dead Christ with Mary Magdalene at his feet and another woman – certainly one mentioned as being present at the crucifixion in one of the Synoptic Gospels – holding his head. The disciple John is comforting Mary, mother of Christ, who seems to have fainted. The man rising high above the “pile” of people is Joseph of Arimathea. He is holding up the nails and the crown of thorns.

Nicholas of Tolentino - Piero della Francesca.

Nicholas of Tolentino – Piero della Francesca.

Another highlight of the museum is the Portrait of young woman, which has become part of the museum’s logo (see the image above). It is attributed to the Florentine painter Piero del Pollaiuolo (1443-1496) and was painted around the year 1470. The museum has close to 300 paintings and it would be both impossible and – if possible – quite tedious to discuss them all. So I will conclude this post by mentioning four more of them, my personal favorites:

Saint Nicholas of Tolentino by the enigmatic Piero della Francesca (ca. 1415-1492) from Sansepolcro. This panel was originally part of a polyptych showing Saint Augustine, Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Michael the Archangel as well. The other panels can be found in museums in Lisbon, New York and London. Saint Nicholas of Tolentino was an Augustinian friar who lived in the second half of the thirteenth century. Della Francesca painted the polyptych just a few years after Nicholas had been canonised by pope Eugenius IV in 1446.

Imago Pietatis - Giovanni Bellini.

Imago Pietatis – Giovanni Bellini.

Imago Pietatis by the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430-1516), showing a very pale Christ. It was painted between 1460 and 1470.

Saint Anthony Abbot by Luca Giordano (1634-1705), a Baroque painter from Napoli. Anthony was an Egyptian saint and hermit, and is considered to be the father of monastic life. He is supposed to have died in 356 aged 105. A good picture of the painting can be found here.

– a self-portrait by the Romantic painter Francesco Hayez (1791-1882), in which he is surrounded by friends (painters, writers and poets). For a good picture of the painting, click here.

Further reading: website of the museum. For Botticelli’s work I recommend Barbara Deimling’s short biography of the painter.


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