Milan: Castello Sforzesco

Castello Sforzesco, with the Torre del Filarete.

The Castello Sforzesco is a huge castle in the centre of Milan, measuring some 190 by 190 metres. Behind it is the Parco Sempione, one of the largest public parks of the city. The Castello houses a handful of a museums that together are called the Musei Civici. You can visit them all with a single ticket, but some sections of the museums were closed because of restorations when I visited the Castello in August 2016. If I understand correctly, attempts are underway to integrate and harmonise the several different museums. A visit to the Pinacoteca and the several rooms of the Museo d’Arte Antica is highly recommended.

History of the Castello

The original Castello was constructed as a fortress by Galeazzo II Visconti (ca. 1320-1378), ruler of Milan, who completed it around the year 1368. The fortress became known as the Castello di Porta Giova. In the previous century, the Visconti family had vied for power with other families in Milan, emerging triumphant in 1277 after a victory over the Della Torre family at Desio. From then on, the Viscontis were the sole rulers of Milan. Galeazzo’s son Gian Galeazzo (1351-1402) became the first Duke of Milan in 1395. The Duke was a fierce enemy of especially Florence and can be seen in one of the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in that city. Under the Viscontis, the Castello was expanded and beautified and became not just a military stronghold, but also a castle fit for accommodating the Ducal family.

Torre del Filarete, seen from inside the Castello.

In 1447, the last male member of the House of Visconti, Filippo Maria Visconti, died. After his death, the citizens of Milan declared the Ambrosian Republic, which was to be short-lived. Filippo Maria had a daughter, Bianca Maria (1425-1468), who was married to the powerful mercenary captain (condottiero) Francesco Sforza (1401-1466). Sforza – from Italian sforzare, ‘to force’ – was a skilful politician and soldier and over the course of three years managed to subjugate and disband the Republic, claiming the title of Duke of Milan for himself. The Castello di Porta Giova had been damaged by the Republicans, and it was now restored by Sforza and renamed the Castello Sforzesco, the name by which it is known today. The architect Filarete (ca. 1400-1469) – real name: Antonio di Pietro Averlino – was commissioned to build the main tower of the Castello, which is named the Torre del Filarete after him.

Francesco’s second son Ludovico Sforza, nicknamed “Il Moro” (1452-1508), hired famous artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Bramante to decorate the Castello, which once again became the stately residence of the Dukes of Milan. Ludovico was a great patron of the arts, but his foreign policy was not successful. In 1499, he was driven from Milan by the French King Louis XII. His son Massimiliano Sforza (1493-1530) was Grand Duke between 1512 and 1515, when the Swiss Cantons and their Milanese allies – under the nominal command of Massimiliano – were defeated by King Francis I of France at Marignano. Francis went on to capture Milan and proclaimed himself the new Grand Duke.

Former ravelin, protecting one of the gates.

Milan was recaptured by a Spanish army in 1521 and became a permanent part of the Spanish Empire after the death of the last Grand Duke, Francesco II Sforza, in 1535. In the meantime, the Torre del Filarete, used for storing gunpowder, had been destroyed by an accidental explosion in 1521. The Spanish turned the Castello Sforzesco into a citadel, the military governor living elsewhere in the city. They also constructed new city walls in Milan, the so-called “Spanish Walls”.

The citadel was demilitarised after the unification of Italy and the abovementioned Parco Sempione was created in 1888 to the northwest of the Castello. Between 1891 and 1905, the architect Luca Beltrami (1854-1933) worked on the Castello and, among other things, restored the Torre del Filarete. The Castello Sforzesco was damaged by allied bombardments in World War II, like so many other buildings in Milan. It was restored after the war and the restoration process continues until the present day. When I visited the complex in August of this year, the famous Sala delle Asse, with frescoes by Leonardo, was “in restauro” for instance, which was a pity.

Inside the Castello.

Museo d’Arte Antica

The three Magi.

The three Magi.

I bought my ticket at the Museo d’Arte Antica and started exploring the various rooms. The first rooms still have traces of fourteenth century frescoes on the walls, but they are mainly devoted to sculpture. Here we find, for instance, the remnants of a frieze with the three Magi, from the school of Benedetto Antelami (ca. 1150-1230), a Romanesque sculptor. But the highlight is definitely the huge tomb of Bernabò Visconti, who was deposed as ruler of Milan in 1385 by his nephew, the Gian Galeazzo mentioned above. Bernabò was imprisoned and murdered that same year. The tomb had already been made in 1363 by the sculptor Bonino da Campione. It is very impressive, with an equestrian statue of the ruler of Milan on top. The sarcophagus is decorated with scenes from the Passion of Christ. We see the Crucifixion, Christ Entombed and a Coronation of the Virgin.

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Unchaste woman.

Unchaste woman.

One of the strangest objects in the museum is a relief of a woman lifting up her dress and cutting her pubic hair with a pair of shears. The sculpture is dateable to the twelfth century and is described by the museum as the image of an “unchaste woman” (the term used is impudica). It was originally part of a now demolished city gate, the Porta Tosa. Since the caption in the museum did not offer any further information, I decided to google the image. Apparently, there is a theory that the woman represents the emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s wife. Frederick sacked Milan in 1162, so the Milanese had every reason to hate him and insult his wife. Nevertheless, the story may just be an urban legend.

The museum also has a collection of tapestries. One of them shows the story of Elijah, as told in the Old Testament. In the sky, we see the prophet Elijah in his chariot of fire. On the ground, Elisha has “the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan” (2 Kings 2:13). A similar scene can be seen in the San Lorenzo Maggiore in Milan, although it cannot be established whether the fragmentary mosaic there truly represents Elijah in his chariot.

Il Gonfalone di Milano.

In this part of the museum, we also find Il Gonfalone di Milano, the banner of the city of Milan. It was designed by Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Giuseppe Meda and created by Scipione Delfinone and Camillo da Posterla. The banner was commissioned in 1565 and completed a year later. On 8 September 1566, it was formally blessed by Carlo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan. The banner, of course, features Saint Ambrosius. He has a whip in his right hand, the traditional symbol of his expulsion of the Arian heretics from Milan.

The Museo d’Arte Antica has another tomb, that of the young Gaston de Foix, Duke of Nemours (1489-1512). De Foix was a brilliant young commander who ably commanded the French army during the so-called War of the League of Cambrai (1508-1516). He smashed a combined Spanish and Papal States army at Ravenna in 1512, but managed to get himself killed during the final stages of the battle. The tomb was made by the workshop of Agostino Busti, nicknamed Il Bambaia (ca. 1483-1548), but it was never completed, nor assembled. This had everything to do with the French being chased out of Milan again by a Spanish army in 1521 (see above). The various elements of the monument are very impressive, especially the lifelike effigy of the young commander, which is quite moving.

Effigy of Gaston de Foix.

Effigy of Gaston de Foix.

Cappella Ducale.

The Cappella Ducale – Chapel of the Duke – has some nice frescoes by the fifteenth century painters Stefano de’ Fedeli and Bonifacio Bembo. They were executed in 1472 for Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-1476), the man who was depicted in the Cappella dei Magi in Florence. Included in this post is an impressive Resurrection of Christ, painted on the ceiling of the chapel.


After inspecting the collection of arms and armour, I continued towards the Pinacoteca. On display here are not just paintings, but also wooden sculptures. A good example of the latter is a sculpture showing The Miracle of Saint Dominic, carved out of wood and then painted and gilded. The saint manages to resurrect a boy, Napoleone Orsini, who has been trampled by a horse. The miracle can be seen on the left, the accident with the horse on the right. The work is attributed to the Fratelli De Donati and can be dated to 1495-1500.

The Miracle of Saint Dominic.

The Miracle of Saint Dominic.

I cannot discuss all the paintings in the gallery, so I will just mention – and show – a few of my favourites. In chronological order, I especially liked:

– a very colourful Adoration of the Magi by an unknown painter (probably 14th century);

– a Resurrection (ca. 1371) by Lorenzo Veneziano, a Venetian painter;

– the Madonna of Humility (ca. 1430) by Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469). The painting was originally in the Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, where Lippi was a Carmelite friar. It was painted on wood, but later transferred to canvas;

– a painting known as The Pier towards Riva degli Schiavoni with the Column of Saint Mark, by the Venetian painter Canaletto (1697-1768). The museum has another Canaletto as well.

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There is much more to see at the Musei Civici. Due to a lack of time, I for instance missed the Trivulzio tapestries by Bramantino (nickname of Bartolomeo Suardi; ca. 1465-1530), which are in a different wing of the Castello Sforzesco. I also did not see the famous Rondanini Pietà by Michelangelo, which has its own museum. The visitor can easily enjoy himself all day in the Castello. A ticket costs a mere five euros. Excellent value for money!



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