The second day in Milan contained two destinations: Pinacoteca Ambrosian and Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco. Oh joy! And two entirely different experiences.
The Pinacoteca Ambrosian is off the beaten path – small and quiet and intense. The Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco IS the Beaten Path – large and loud and a kaleidoscope of activity.
So why these two extremes? Think library versus castle – and there lies the difference.
The Pinacoteca Ambrosian (aka Ambrosian art gallery) is part of the Biblioteca Ambrosian – a historic library founded by Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564–1631), who searched Western Europe, Greece, and Syria for books and manuscripts. Perhaps the most exciting acquisition was twelve manuscripts of Leonardo DaVinci, including the Codex Atlantic’s – covering subjects from mechanics to hydraulics, from sketches for paintings to mathematics and astronomy, from philosophical meditations to fables, including curious inventions such as parachutes, war machineries and hydraulic pumps – all written in DaVinci’s curious code. But I was not there for DaVinci – no, it is always about Judith. And the Pinacoteca Ambrosian contains two: Andrea Fabrizi Parmigiana’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes,16th century (from Judith in a stew) and Giuseppe Vermiglio’s Judith and Holofernes, 1623-25 (from Judith is cleansed). Alas, no cameras allowed, but both paintings are much more engaging than their photographs.
The path to the Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco was no less historic but more well-known. Castello Sforzesco (aka Sforza Castle) was built in the 15th century by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, on the foundation of a 14th-century fort. The most prolific owner was Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508), the patron of many artists including Leonardo DaVinci and the man who commissioned The Last Supper – as well as Lady with an Ermine to portray his mistress, Cecilia Gallerani. My goal here was Giulio Cesare Procaccini’s “Judith and Holofernes” (c.1620) – a dramatic, Mannerist depiction of the psychological struggle within Judith and physical struggle between Judith and her prey. This time: photography is allowed – but it does not do the painting justice.
But the ultimate prize of Castello Sforzescoi is Michelangelo’s last incomplete work, the Pietà Rondanini
the Pietà is a meditation on death and the salvation of the soul. In this work the sculptor discards the perfection of the human body and its heroic beauty and transforms the dead Christ into an emblem of suffering. The physical arrangement of Mary and Jesus, the mother’s head above that of the son, is suggestive of various moments of the life of Christ: the deposition from the cross; the burial and even the resurrection: in the dissolution of Christ’s body in the mother’s embrace. Left incomplete due to the death of Michelangelo, the Pietà is a testament to the last period of the great master’s creative genius. (1)
Exhibited alone in a quiet room secluded from everything else, there is a sense of being in a chapel where viewing the sculpture is an act of worship. The unfinished state of the work is raw, and the feeling of Mary’s grief is visceral as she supports the body of her crucified son. For a Michelangelo scholar, I imagine this sculpture provides insights in how he worked. But to my untrained eye, it evokes thoughts about what might have been – had he lived, had it been finished. Then again – perhaps it is just as it was meant to be to provoke our thoughts.
(1) The Pietà Rondinini, Castello Sfornisco website