Castello Sforzesco, Piazza Castello, Milan
Castello Sforzesco was once a dark and forbidding building, particularly unsetting after dark as it was bereft of any exterior lighting. Its internal museums were distinctly old-fashioned, and as a whole it seemed to have been rather forgotten by the city. But in recent years it has been vastly improved, not least by an interesting lighting scheme that floods light down the walls and transforms the circular towers into something out of science fiction. The museums have been in part updated. Today, the Castle is an interesting and pleasurable visit. Its central nucleus dates to about 1350, and further additions were made over the following years, up to its finest period, from 1450 to 1500, when it was the palace used by the Sforza rulers.
Today, the museum ticket enables you to see all sorts of artworks, but above all, you can see the lovely frescoed rooms of what was once the Ducal residence. Don't miss the Sala delle Assi, on the ground floor, with an intricate decorative scheme of leaves and trees designed by Leonardo da Vinci and actually painted by his assistants. On the first floor, there is a fascinating furniture museum, and a good collection of musical instruments. In fact the Museum is never-ending: Egypt, prehistory, art gallery, sculpture... take your pick.
On some days (generally weekends) and at certain times, visits are arranged to see the battlements, the interior of one of the circular towers, and the underground passageways. In Renaissance times, tunnels led from the Castle to various other strategic locations in the city and the surrounding countryside.
The complex family politics that led to the flourishing of city-states (which in turn fuelled the Renaissance) and that eventually caused their downfall because of their inability to form lasting alliances, is illustrated by the tower that can be seen at the centre of the castle, right inside. In 1485, power in the Dukedom of Milan lay in the hands of Gian Galeazzo Sforza, who was then a boy of 16, and so effectively the state was controlled by his mother Bona di Savoia and her advisor, Cicco Simonetta. She and her retinue were ensconsed in the oldest part of the Castle, corresponding to the bleak windowless wall that you can see when you are in the main courtyard. The other part of the Castle was taken up by other members of the family, in particular by Ludovico Sforza, who, though only fourth in the succession, was by far the most ambitious of Francesco Sforza's sons. Bona suspected that Ludovico aimed at usurping power, and she had the tower built purely to keep an eye on what was going on elsewhere in the Castle. Ludovico waited, and waited, and one day played his hand in a lightning coup, kidnapping the boy, exiling Bona di Savoia, and beheading Cicco Simonetta. He became regent, and later, when the rightful heir very conveniently died (1494), was acclaimed by the populace as Duke of Milan.
Museum of Ancient Art: ground floor, Cortile Ducale
Antique Furniture and Art: first floor, Cortile Ducale
Applied Arts and Museum of Musical Instruments: first and second floors, Rocchetta
Prehistoric section of Archaeological Museum: basement floor, Cortile Ducale
Ancient Egyptian collection: basement floor, Cortile Ducale
Milan Iconography, Achille Bertarelli Print Collection: Rocchetta
The Castle grounds are open free of charge every day 7 a.m.-6 p.m. (winter), closing at 7 p.m. in summer
The Castle museums are open Tuesday-Sunday 9 a.m.-5.30 p.m. (tickets sold until 5 p.m.), €3
Info for Castle Museums: +39 02 8846 3700, www.milanocastello.it
Ad Artem is an association that runs visits to the battlements and the underground tunnels of the Castle. These are available:
Sat 2.30 p.m. and 4 p.m., €10
Sun 3 p.m., €13 (a more complete tour).
The tours have to be booked at +39 02 6596 937
See also www.adartem.it