GAME OF THRONES
Discover the regal side of Milan, from its spectacular castle to its fascinating museums.
Intrigue, scandalous stories, life and death struggles for power. During the course of its long history, Milan has witnessed events that could rival any TV series. However stay calm; the only traces of its turbulent past are the beauty of its art and architecture.
Although everyone knows that Italy is a republic, Milan has never been the capital. So you'd be justified in thinking that there wouldn't be a single royal palace or a castle. But you'd be wrong! Milan has a Royal Palace, a Royal Villa and a magnificent castle, known as ‘Castello Sforzesco'. The city boasts an ancient history, intertwined with the multifaceted events that characterized not only the history of Milan, but all of Italy. Italy was only unified in 1861 and became a republic in 1946. It is therefore unsurprising that Milan's urban layout, architecture and art still have significant signs of the succession of kings and queens, both native and foreign, who shaped its history. PALAZZO REALE The Visconti family's rule over Milan began in 1277 when Ottone Visconti became its archbishop; a perfect example of the intermingling of religious and political roles that characterized much of Europe's history. Ottone wanted to settle his family near the archbishop's palace, and commissioned an opulent palace. Known to the Milanese and visitors as ‘Palazzo Reale', this magnificent palace is still located in its original position on the southern, right-hand side of the Duomo, facing the cathedral. It is now a cultural hub that hosts blockbuster exhibitions, and, in addition to changing its name several times over the past seven hundred years, the history of the palace has been interwoven with that of Milan and of the families who governed the city. Empowered by the nomination in 1395 of Gian Galeazzo Visconti as ‘viceroy of the emperor' of the Holy Roman Empire, the Visconti family ruled over Milan for almost the whole of the following century. During the reign of the Viscontis, the Royal Palace, now known as ‘Palazzo Reale', underwent a major expansion, while the interiors were decorated by a promising young Tuscan artist named Giotto. The beautiful red and white octagonal bell tower of San Gottardo in Corte, considered a major architectural feat at that time due to its mechanism that enabled the bells to be rung every hour, on the hour, is the only remaining element that bears witness to its former Gothic splendour. When Filippo Maria Visconti died in 1477 without a legitimate heir, Bianca Maria
Visconti's marriage to Francesco Sforza marked the beginning of a new dynasty. The Sforzas decided to move their residence to what is now called the ‘Castello Sforzesco'. The palace in Piazza del Duomo became the residence for loyal courtiers and important visitors, including Leonardo da Vinci, who spent twenty years in the employ of Ludovico Sforza, who was known as ‘Il Moro'. According to legend, and some historical documentation, Leonardo watched the progression of the construction of the Duomo from his window, feverishly jotting down ideas that would inspire his own work. It is said that he used the roof of Palazzo Reale to perform some of his famous flying experiments. Following the downfall of the Sforzas, the ‘Palazzo' became the seat of government for all of the city's subsequent rulers, including the Spaniards in the 17th century, the Austrians in the 18th century, the French in the 19th century and, finally the royal family of the House of Savoy, up until the Unification of Italy. Under the Hapsburgs, renowned Italian architect Giuseppe Piermarini renovated the Palace in Neo-classical style. During the Second World War, it was severely damaged by the bombings. To remind the public about the atrocities of war, visible traces of the destruction that was wrought in several of its rooms were left for all to see. Today, Palazzo Reale, with the adjacent Arengario, housing the Museo del Novecento, is a major museum focal point, as well as a building of significant architectural value. Milan's city council also offers the location as a venue for civil wedding
14 ceremonies, so don't be surprised if you happen to see a bride throwing her bouquet between a statue of Napoleon and a neon installation by Fontana.
CASTELLO SFORZESCO The crenels and drawbridges, fortified towers and secret passages, treasure rooms and winglets for canons of the Castello Sforzesco, will fire the imagination of visitors. The castle is situated one kilometer northwest of the Duomo, between the Cathedral and the Triennale Design Museum, and is a venue steeped in legend, anecdotes and curiosities. Its silhouette is a familiar everyday sight, and the Milanese come here to stroll through its extensive gardens, known as Parco Sempione, one of the city's favourite green spaces. But it is the interior of the castle that boasts major surprises. The building, an interesting attraction in its own right, featuring a succession of courtyards, porticoes and turrets, houses an amazing collection of treasures including a room frescoed by Leonardo da Vinci, a Pietà sculpted by Michelangelo, a painting by Andrea Mantegna and a cycle of tapestries by Bramantino. A fountain known as the ‘Bagni Misteriosi', the largest sculptural work created by 20th century artist Giorgio De Chirico, dominates one of its courtyards. Particularly noteworthy among the artworks
in the museum is an unusual bas-relief known as ‘La Tusa' (the word for girl in Milanese dialect). The canvas shows a young girl wearing ornate garments brazenly combing her pubic hair. This gesture, generally associated with prostitutes, and in stark contrast to her regal attire, has been interpreted in different ways. According to some, its purpose was to insult the wife of invader Federico Barbarossa, while according to others, it was painted as a tribute to a prostitute who had distinguished herself for heroic acts of patriotism. What we do know is that for a period of time, the painting was displayed in a highly visible position on the walls of the city, until it was declared indecent and was removed by 16th century cardinal Carlo Borromeo, who was later sanctified by the Catholic church. However, the Milanese did not destroy the painting, preferring instead to hide it in the castle. From an architectural perspective, the so-called ‘Ponticella', or ‘little bridge' - an airy construction, consisting of a portico and three rooms spanning the moat, is one of Castello Sforzesco's most unusual features. Commissioned by Ludovico il Moro, and believed to have been designed by Bramante, according to historical documentation, following the premature death of his wife Beatrice d'Este in 1497, Ludovico took refuge in one of these rooms, which had been prepared for mourning. Over the centuries, the personal vicissitudes of this dynasty created a canvas in which love, lust, death and betrayal fired the imagination of the population. According to legend, the hapless Beatrice d'Este, who died in childbirth, is one of the female ghosts who inhabit the castle. Other spectres, who are believed to haunt the castle because they cannot find peace, include Bianca Maria Visconti Sforza – an able politician and the link between the two dynasties, thought to have been poisoned by her own son; Bona di Savoia, the mother and regent of Gian Galeazzo Maria, defeated by history and the tragic death of her heir; Isabella d'Aragona, a beautiful but unhappy bride, suspected of attempting to poison her husband's family, as well as several other princesses, whose deaths are shrouded in mystery. However, the most frightening presence is that of the ‘veiled lady', who most believe to be the ghost of Bianca Maria Scapardone, better known as the Countess of Challant. Twice married and twice widowed, she was charged with immoral behaviour, accused of having commissioned the murder of two lovers and subsequently beheaded. In the 19th century, almost three centuries after the countess's death, several disturbing incidents were reported to have occurred in the vicinity of the castle. These repeated sightings were so sinister that the local authorities were called on to intervene. Numerous men said that a beautiful veiled woman had approached them. The woman led them into the thick of the park, to a mysterious villa that no-one had ever seen before where, after dancing wildly with them she asked them to ‘bed' down with her. After having sex with her, the lady allowed the men to remove the veil from her face,
revealing a bloodcurdling, empty-eyed skull. Following the fall of the Sforzas, the castle ceased to be a palatial residence and was used as an army barracks. At the end of the 19th century, when the idea of demolishing the castle - the symbol of numerous foreign dominions – was planned, the Milanese rebelled and appealed to the authorities to reinstate it. Following in-depth renovations, Castello Sforzesco and its beautiful park became a heritage site of the city.
VILLA REALE Finally, you can visit Villa Reale, behind the Public Gardens. The headquarters of Milan's prestigious Gallery of Modern Art (GAM) since 1921, the villa was built in the spring of 1790 as the residence of diplomat Ludovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso. Spread over three floors, this elegant building is flanked by two side wings forming a large court of honour. Following the arrival of the French in Milan in 1796, the government of the Cisalpine Republic requisitioned the villa. It was originally commandeered for Napoleon's mother – who never lived there – and subsequently inhabited by Gioachino Murat, and later by viceroy Eugenio di Beauharnais. Work on the villa was conducted by several leading architects and artists of the era, who created a sophisticated, ultra-modern nucleus, which, following its transformation in the 20th century, became an ideal backdrop for important works of art. The typically Romanesque-style garden is also worth a visit, but, here too, there is a surprise. Adults can only enter the gardens when accompanied by a child; a role reversal that has now become a tradition of which the Milanese are proud. If you want to stroll along the picturesque, tree-lined paths of Villa Reale, or admire its small, lily-covered lake, you should be a parent. After all, everyone knows that as far as the Italians are concerned every mother is a queen.
Ten years after the bombings of 1943, the Sala delle Cariatidi hosted a historic event: Pablo Picasso asked the Metropolitan Museum of New York to temporarily relocate ‘Guernica', a symbolic painting depicting the ‘horrors of war', to the Milanese...
Palazzo Reale, Sala delle Cariatidi (before 1943)
San Gottardo in Corte church Palazzo Parigi Spa
Overlooking the Indro Montanelli public gardens, Milan's Villa Reale is a prime example of Milanese Neo-classical architecture.