Sforzesco Castle, Milan

Wow. Just wow.  I don’t know why I never paid a visit to this astounding place before now!






































































And, last, but certainly not least, you don’t see a lot of elephants in Italian art, but here is a big exception to the rule.


The Poldi Pezzoli Museum, Milan

Yikes! Nothing like being met by an army! The outstanding collection of armor below is just one of the many parts of the Poldi Pezzoli Museum that will amaze you in Milan.



The Poldi Pezzoli Museum is housed in the original 19th-century mansion built by Milanese aristocrat, Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli (1822-1879).  His parents and grandparents had already begun the family’s art collection and he built his palazzo in this tony section of Milan to house the collection it as he continued to enlarge it.  When he died, he left his collection and house to the Brera Academy. The Poldi Pezzoli Museum was opened to the public in 1881 on the occasion of the National Exposition in Milan and has since become an archetype for other famous collectors.

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The Poldi Pezzoli is one of the most important and famous house-museums in the world. Located near the landmark Teatro La Scala and the world-renowned fashion district, this house-museum is beloved by the Milanese and international public.

The Poldi Pezzoli is a member of the Circuit of Historic House Museums of Milan, a city network established in 2008 with the aim of promoting the Milanese cultural and artistic heritage.

During World War II, the museum was severely damaged and many paintings were completely destroyed. The palazzo itself was rebuilt and in 1951 it was reopened to the public.

Not all of the house was restored as it appeared during Poldi Pezzoli’s life, but it was instead fitted out as a museum. The grand entryway, with its fountain filled with koi and its spiral staircase are original, as are at least 2 of the piano nobile galleries.  You’ll recognize them right away in the pictures below.

The outstanding collection includes objects from the medieval period to the 19th century, with the famous armor, Old Master paintings, sculptures, carpets, lace and embroidery, jewels, porcelain, glass, furniture, sundials and clocks: over 5000 extraordinary pieces.

Let’s begin at the entry way.  What a greeting!




Below: the view of the fountain from atop the staircase:



I was a bit obsessed by the fountain; can you tell?



Allora, moving on:







Angels in the architecture:



Dragons on the pottery:







I love the way they display the ceramics: why not affix objets to the ceiling?  It is a wasted flat space otherwise.  Genius.





Moving on to the important objets: Piero del Pollaiuolo magnificent Portrait of a Young Lady.









Botticelli’s The Dead Christ Mourned:























Ah, the glass.  It gets me every time:

















The panel below made me laugh.  I love how the sculptor included the slippers at the side of the bed! In this dastardly scene of homicide, don’t forget the slippers!





























Since 2019 marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, the world is paying homage to the great artist with myriad exhibitions.  The Poldi Pezzoli joins them with a major painting, on loan from the Russian Hermitage Museum, just for the occasion. Leonardo painted this work during his time living in Milan.











Casa Martelli, Florence, part 1

Last month, I finally visited the Palazzo Martelli, which I’ve walked by for several years, always hoping to enter. It’s only open a few days of the week and only by guided tour, but it is so worth the visit!  I highly recommend!

For centuries–right up to the 1980s– the the Palazzo Martelli was the residence of one of Florence’s oldest noble families. A visit to this jewel of a museum takes the visitor into a suite of opulent period interiors, including the ground-floor stanze paese (landscape rooms), whose walls and ceilings are painted with trompe-l’œil scenes; an elegant grand staircase leading to the piano nobile; the spaces of the main floor, which include a chapel, a ballroom, fascinating picture galleries, and a great hall and other richly-decorated rooms.

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Palazzo Martelli underwent a series of renovations in the early 18th century, under the care of Niccolò Martelli and his son Giuseppe Maria, who was the archbishop of Florence. Although there had been Martelli family homes on this site from at least the 13th century, it was only in 1738 that the family’s residence was transformed into the palazzo we see today.  It was designed by architect Bernardino Ciurini, and decorated by the painters Vincenzo Meucci, Bernardo Minozzi and Niccolò Contestabile, and the stuccatore (stucco artisan) Giovan Martino Portogalli.  The exterior, as shown above, presents a sober, austere image to the outside world, with only the balcony to soften the hard edges. This hard exterior is the way Florentines presented themselves to the outer world. But, oh, what lies inside is quite the opposite!

Today, Casa Martelli houses the last Florentine example, in public hands, of a well-known art collection formed largely during the 17th and 18th centuries. A visit proceeds through the rooms of the ground floor and the piano nobile, updated according to the tastes of the period, where visitors can enjoy the picture gallery—rich with masterpieces such as Piero di Cosimo’s Adorazione del Bambino, two wedding panels (pannelli nuziali) by Beccafumi, and magnificent paintings by Luca Giordano and Salvator Rosa—as well as the antique furniture, tapestries, and various decorations and objects dispersed throughout the home.

Casa Martelli remained in the Martelli family’s possession until the death of Francesca Martelli in 1986. For a brief period, the residence passed into the hands of the Florentine Curia, to whom Francesca had bequeathed the palazzo in her will, before eventually becoming property of the Italian State.

Two of the most outstanding art works that the Martelli family possessed have now been removed from the palazzo and are in the Bargello and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Both are attributed to Donatello. The monumental coat-of-arms that Donatello created for Roberto Martelli is now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello collection.  Today a copy hangs in the place of honor. You see it below, on the far wall with a red background.

Likewise, a statue of David also attributed to Donatello (see below) once stood in this hall; today the statue is in Washington, D.C.

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Currently the museum is only open to visits a couple of days of the week, and then only with a guided tour.  If you get the chance, you should definitely visit the casa, or palazzo.  It is wonderful.

But, if you can’t wait or can’t get to Florence, you can fortunately take a virtual tour of the museum here: http://www.polomuseale.firenze.it/musei/visita/casamartelli/tour.html

Even accounting for the loss and dispersal of items, the collection remains impressive, including works by Piero di Cosimo, Francesco Francia, Francesco Morandini, Salvator Rosa, Giordano, Beccafumi, Sustermans, Michael Sweerts, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Orazio Borgianni, Francesco Curradi, and collections of small bronzes, including some by Soldani Benzi. The works are displayed in the crowded arrangement typical of the period.

When you visit the casa today, you enter through large wooden doors and an iron gate, both dating to 1799.  Inside the building, at the far end of a short interior courtyard, is a mural painting with an illusory effect, done in 1802 by Gaspero Bargioni.

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One enters a door to the grand staircase from this cortile:






The original ironwood of this staircase is fabulous!



Where you see the neoclassical sculpture of Psyche, imagine a statue of David by Donatello standing there.  That’s the work of art the Martelli family displayed in this place of honor.  The Donatello statue is today in Washington, D.C.

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Below is the copy of the Donatello coat of arts made for the Martelli family.  The original is in the Bargello.







Entering the first gallery off the entrance, you begin to enjoy the art collections for which the Martelli family was renowned, including the many outstanding ceiling frescoes they commissioned over the centuries for this opulent family home.



















In the painting below, we catch a glimpse of members of the Martelli family in the 17th century. A servant offers them a tray bearing cups of the hot chocolate which were a la mode at the time. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall!


Many of the doors throughout these galleries are embellished with these gilt decorations, every door with a different combination of items:








The artist signed his name on the ceiling mural, as you can see below:



I was interested in these little pops of passamaneria (trimmings) found covering the nailheads that these paintings are hung on.  I’m a huge fan of all things passamaneria, and I’ve never seen anything like these before.  I love it when I experience something completely new!



















Now we enter the 2nd gallery, with its own wonderful ceiling mural.  I was enchanted by these 2 little boys in the mural.  They are busily talking pageboys,  holding the lady’s train.  What were they discussing, I need to know!











The door knobs in some of these galleries were fabulous! Butterflies!




The inlaid commesso fiorentino furniture was outstanding as well:




Next we enter the 3rd gallery, with a ceiling fresco treating the subject of Donatello as sculptor to the Martelli family.  The connection was real and it is very entertaining to see its history play out on the ceiling!



That’s Donatello in the yellow smock:


Oops, another shot of my latest obsession.





Below: my other obsession.













Also notable in this room are the very old and very elegant draperies, also with very elegant trim or passamaneria.




And, of course, this family would own some fine Manifattura Richard Ginori ceramics:


The next gallery, with another fine frescoed ceiling:


In this room, I love the way the 2 drapery rods meet in the middle in a laurel wreath.  The message is clear, the Martelli family was crowned with laurel:














That, of course, is Dante in the red, accompanied by Petrarch and Boccacio. Naturally they are crowned with laurel wreaths and the putto is sailing in with an extra, just in case:




In the next room, a private chapel was built for the last Martelli owner of the home.  It is really quite something in terms of casework.





I don’t remember ever seeing a painting of a swaddled Christchild before.  Another something new.




I’ve still got more to show you, but this post is already too long.  I’ll finish it tomorrow…stay tuned!

The church and convent della Calza, with a Last Supper by Franciabigio

Just inside the ancient gate of Porta Romano, lies a simple church and attached convent (in Italy, convent can mean monastery or convent or both) dating to the 13th century. An almost unknown (relatively speaking, at least, to the hordes of tourists who descend on Florence every year) masterpiece of  Renaissance paintings is housed here: a beautiful cenacolo, or a painting of The Last Supper. Florence is so fortunately rich in these frescoed depictions of that fateful dinner.

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The church dedicated to San Giovanni Battista, in Piazza della Calza, was founded as a hospital in 1362.  There were once many oratories, hospitals and shelters for pilgrims and travelers along the present via Senese and via Romana. These were major roads leading to Florence.

At the end of the 14th century, the convent was established by the Gerosolimitan nuns. They commissioned Franciabigio to paint The Last Supper in 1514 in their refectory. Unfortunately, the sisters soon had to leave the hospital, during the 1529 siege of Florence.

The nuns were replaced in 1531 by Jesuati friars (not Jesuits) who changed the dedication of the church from Hospital of Saint John the Baptist  to San Giusto. They  used the hospital as a charity for children, an ecclesiastic boarding-house, and eventually as a seminary. The church and the convent became known by the name “della calza” (sock) which was a name derived from the long white hoods that the monks wore over their left shoulders. The hood was shaped like a sock and the name stuck.

The picture below is not authentically one of the della calza habits, but it shows the shape of the hood and how it was worn.

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From this nickname of “the sock” came the name of the church, the convent, and even the square.

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The true hidden gem kept inside is the Cenacolo by Franciabigio, still preserved in the ancient refectory.


Mother Superior Antonia de’ Medici entrusted Francesco di Cristofano, called Franciabigio (1482-1525), to portray a specific scene, during the Last Supper, just after Christ says: “Truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

Franciabigio thus knowing, deep sadness in the countenance of Christ. Judas, the only figure on the outer side of the table, reacts strongly to the words of Jesus: his sudden movement causes his wooden stool to tip over. All around the table, the expressions of the Apostles register various states of confusion.





One can notice each reaction and recognize each Apostle because the artist added their names, painted along the strip which runs above their heads. The painter added here the date A(nno) S(alutis) MDXIIII (A.D. 1514) and his signature, through a twisted shortened monogram (FRAC).


On the painted floor, you can even distinguish the name of the Mother Superior Antonia (SVORA AN), marked on the lower left side, under the table, between the second and third Apostle.

Franciabigio carefully fashioned magnificient details; along the fine linen tablecloth you see ceramic jugs, breadrolls, glasses with red wine, and sliced watermelon. Some of the jugs feature the typical Medici coat-of-arms (the one with the red spheres) referring to Mother Superior Antonia and the Red Cross of the Order of Knights of Malta to whom the nuns originally belonged.

Giorgio Vasari describes (Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects) how Franciabigio “was very keen on studies of perspective” and human anatomy. We see that throughout and especially in the accurate position of the wooden shutters painted along the wall.






A fascinating contrast is given by the dark green wall and the light of the crystal clear sky in the background, where the painter depicted the old Florentine town walls (the destroyed gate of San Pier Gattolino).

For the Jubilee in 2000, the fresco was restored.

Just a quick word about the Church of San Giovanni Battista della Calza:

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My quick walk through the church introduced me to this arresting sculpture near the entrance to the small church.

I was alone in the church and had free rein to poke around.  In a small room off the church itself I noticed an amazing della Robbia fountain.  You never know what treasures you will happen upon in this fascinating city.

And, finally, I can’t leave this post without mentioning that, depict the austerity of this church, some major paintings were once a part of the church.  They are now in the Uffizi:

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Andrea del Sarto, Fresco cycle at the Chiostro dello Scalzo, Firenze; Part 1

Once upon a time in Florence, there was a small oratory (church) dedicated to the Compagnia dei Disciplinati di San Giovanni Battista (Confraternity of St. John the Baptist), a group founded in 1376.

The tiny facade of the Cloister of the Scalzo in Florence, on present day Via Cavour, was built as the entrance to that now-destroyed church. Buildings that served the Confraternity were called “dello Scalzo” because the cross-bearers in the Confraternity’s processions walked with bare feet as a sign of humility, and scalzo means barefoot.



The brothers belonging to the Confraternita dressed in long, simple, black robes with a cowl. Their garb is depicted in the della Robbia style glazed-terracotta lunette above the entrance portal to the chiostro.





The emblem of the confraternity is the bust of Saint John the Baptist wearing a garment of camel hair with a leather belt around his waist. He is depicted with a halo and holds a golden cross. In the lunette over the entrance, the saint is in the center, with 2 brothers, one on either side. The saint was intentionally represented in a larger scale than the brothers, as a sign of of his relative importance.

The brotherhood lasted until 1786, when the property was sold. The small oratory was destroyed in the 19th century, to make way for the modern Via Cavour.

Fortunately for posterity and lovers of art in particular, the Chiostro was saved. The Accademia delle Belle Arti used it for a while, but it was opened to the public in 1891.

While the small cortile, designed by Giuliano da Sangallo, is a lovely little piece of Florentine Renaissance architecture in and of itself, with its harmonious proportions and lovely use of pietra serena, it is the fresco cycle on the four walls of the cloister that make it a must-see for any art lover.

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This fresco cycle was painted by Andrea Del Sarto (Andrea Vannucchi, 1486-1530), and shows episodes from the Life of St. John the Baptist. With the 12 main scenes presented in large, horizontal frames, subdivided by grotesque style motifs, the beautiful cycle is complete. Unlike the more famous places in Florence, such as the Uffizi and the Accademia, one can visit the chiostro in a quiet and relaxed manner, and often have the entire venue to yourself. I highly recommend a visit to this exquisite, almost secret, gem.




Here, in all its quiet glory, is the cloister interior:





















It is believed that Andrea del Sarto painted the entire cycle, including the paintings in the decorative bands, with one exception which will be discussed below.

In addition to the large panels depicting the saint’s life, four tall, vertical paintings represent the Virtues on the sides of the 2 main axes: Charity (1513), Faith (1523), Justice (1525) and Hope (1523).

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The 12 distinct moments from life of Saint John include his birth,  the famous dance of Salomè, and the beheading of the saint. The scenes also include the baptism of Jesus and the preaching in the desert. Curiously, the sequence of the scenes is not presented in chronological order on the walls.


We know that the paintings were created over a relatively long period, from 1509-26.  This is a bonus for the world of art history, for the stylistic evolution of Andrea del Sarto can be followed, starting with the Baptism of Christ, c. 1509-10. This painting bears the clear influence of the quattrocento Florentine masters.

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The later scenes, painted when he had achieved his maturity as an artist, reveal the  increasingly dynamic sculptural clarity of Andrea’s figures, which he borrowed from Michelangelo and which has the manneristic foreshadowings for which Andrea is noted. In The Capture of the Baptist painted in 1517, we see a more dynamic composition, probably inspired by the work of  the very popular Michelangelo and other peers like Andrea’s friend, Franciabigio.

The frescoes painted in the decade of 1520 were made during Andrea del Sarto’s maturity, and we notice the much more solemn and majestic figures. Their heroic proportions run parallel with the era’s then dominant michelangiolismo.

The Baptism of the Multitudes, painted in a sumptuous almost Mannerist style, is both harmonious and complex: it is full of moving figures, many nude, and filled with pictorial virtuosity. This would inspire the entire next generation of artists.

Interestingly enough, Andrea del Sarto himself was a member of the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist and practiced a lifestyle based on the sober and spiritual edicts of the group. He was thus a direct messenger of the spiritual values of simplicity shared by his brothers, which is why, perhaps, this spartan approach of monochromatic frescoes were chosen. Certainly, these paintings were less expensive to paint than fresco decorations with gold leaf and precious color mineral pigments.  I don’t know why the chiaroscuro palette was chosen; perhaps it was a combination of the two influences.



Not only was Andrea del Sarto a member of this confraternity, but he lived nearby of the current Via Gino Capponi and Via Giusti.  You can see his house pinned in red on the map below.  Note how close the Chiostro is, located on the upper left side of the map. They are about a 6 minute walk from each other.


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The plaque below marks the former home of Andrea Del Sarto.




The coat-of-arms on the corner of the house in which Andrea lived tells us clearly that this section of town was part of Medici territory.  It makes sense, the house and Chiostro are very near San Marco.







The photo below shows how close Andrea lived to the Duomo of Florence.  He lived, like so many Renaissance artists,  in its shadow.



Andrea reached extraordinary stylistic and technical skill and is important, as well, because he played an important role in the complex artistic events of Florence at the beginning of the 16th century. He also played a critical role now recognized as fundamental to the development of Mannerism.

Two of the scenes, the Departure of John the Baptist for the Desert, and the Blessing of the  Baptist, were actually painted by the artist’s friend and collaborator, a man known as Franciabigio (Francesco di Cristofano, 1482-1525). Franciabigio was asked to paint these 2 panels because in 1518 Andrea was absent from Florence.

In fact, Andrea had been summoned by King François I to the French court at Fontainebleau. The king personally invited Andrea join the Fontainebleau school, for his fame of being the “faultless painter” (as Vasari would say) had gone beyond the borders of the Italian peninsula. The elegance and balance of Andrea’s figures were considered to have no match among any living painters.

However, Andrea returned to Florence a year or so later and finished the Cloister’s fresco cycle himself.

Admired by Michelangelo, Del Sarto was also teacher to Giorgio Vasari, who later became his biographer, describing him as the faultless painter or “painter without errors.” Del Sarto played an important role now acknowledged as fundamental to the development of Mannerism. Sarto’s style is marked throughout his career by an interest in the effects of color and atmosphere and by a sophisticated informality and natural expression of emotion.

Incidentally, the terracotta bust in the cloister represents bishop Saint Antonino Pierozzi who, as archbishop, sanctioned (in 1455) the birth of the Compagnia dello Scalzo. The Confraternity became increasingly more popular in Florence, as witnessed by an official document in 1631. The chronicles refer to a large community of brothers composed of a Governor, a council held by two elder brothers, an accountant, a copyist, six nurses, a dozen of specialized clerks, a priest, a doctor, and a servant.

The frescoes in the cloister were exposed to weather and thus deterioration for centuries. In the early 1960s, the frescoes were detached from the walls for restoration and were finally returned to the cloister to be reopened for public viewing in 2000.

Andrea del Sarto’s fresco cycle is certainly among the most important of Florentine painting of the early 16th century.  Many experts consider this cycle to be his masterpiece.