Monday, 18 January 2016

La Sala delle Asse

Milan Monday

La Sala delle Asse ('the wainscotted room') is a first floor room with a vaulted ceiling in a corner tower of the Castello Sforzesco. Its name comes from the lower part of the walls having been wainscotted at some stage, a standard technique to protect against the dampness of the stone. The room is currently the subject of a major restoration, as usual much of which is to sort out earlier restorations. The focus of the restoration is the once highly decorative ceiling and upper walls, painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Sadly its current condition is a murky mess.

Because Leonardo couldn't paint true frescoes, which requires that the artist finish a small section of paint on wet plaster every day, the room was painted in tempura on dry plaster (like the Last Supper, also in Milan). Leonardo worked and reworked paintings endlessly, so true fresco was a technique he never mastered. As a result the condition of the painting deteriorated relatively quickly.

The painted ceiling of la sala delle asse.
The subject matter is thirteen mulberry trees rising up the walls and intertwining with a golden cord amongst the 'lunettes' formed by the ceiling vaults. The trees emerge from a rocky monochrome landscape on the walls, once thought to be a later addition, but now realised to be the work of Leonardo too. The idea is obviously to create an illusion of being outdoors and the room would have been used to entertain important visitors. It is one of the earliest examples of this style of bringing the outdoors inside. The choice of mulberries probably refers to Duke Ludovico Sforza, who was known as Il Moro. The nickname means 'the Moor', on account of his dark complexion, but the Italian for mulberry is also 'moro'.

The work can be dated to around 1498 because of correspondence at the time of its creation which discusses the decoration of the room and that Leonardo promised to have it finished by September of that year. It's odds on that he didn't, although there is no further surviving correspondence to tell us one way or the other. Some historians suspect it was in typical Leonardo fashion never finished, despite Leonardo probably having at least one assistant for the job. In any event, in 1499, Ludovico fled the city and Louis XII of France took over. (Ludovico was subsequently captured and imprisoned in the chateau of Loches, where he died.) At some point the painting was plastered over.

No action on the conservation front. 
It was August when we visited and all the conservators were on holiday.
In the 18th century under the Austrians the Castello was turned into a barracks. The room, which connected to the city of Milan via a bridge over the moat, was used as a stable. In the late 19th century when the Castello was handed over to the municipality of Milan the curator lifted some flaking plaster and discovered the paintings underneath. In 1901-2 the painting was 'restored' (essentially repainted, with a great many additions to the original design, which results in the busy jumbled image you see today). This particular restoration was done in really garish colours. People hated it and in 1954 it was restored again, primarily to tone the colours down, but also to remove much of the additional 'interpretation' which was not part of the original design.

In 2006 an inspection of the paintings was carried out, revealing significant deterioration. The current restoration is dedicated to establishing the causes of the deterioration and rectifying them so the painting will be stable. They are also taking to opportunity to establish exactly what has been done to the painting in the past. Then the paintings will be cleaned to enhance their legibility.

A detail showing how the design flows in and out of the lunettes.
You can follow the restoration step by step with a series of interviews and short presentations on the Castello's website. The museum has also uploaded a series of short videos on the technical aspects of the restoration which are very informative if you are interested in the current state of wall paintings conservation.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderfull,greeting from Belgium
    bonjour belge.