Sala delle Asse, preparatory landscape drawing

Leonardo da Vinci1498 ca

Sforzesco Castle

Sforzesco Castle
Milan, Italy

In a letter dated 21st April 1498, the secretary Gualtiero da Bascapè informed the duke Ludovico maria Sforza called il Moro that Leonardo da Vinci had promised to complete by the following September the decoration of the Sala delle Asse, a large room in the north-east corner of the Castle, at the feet of the Falconiere tower. Leonardo’s decorative design, on which collaborators may have assisted, was for a great pergola of mulberries, starting from large trees painted along the walls that grew upwards to the vault in a close tangle of branches and golden cords, woven in complicated knots of great elegance. On the vault are cartouches bearing inscriptions that record, in chronological order, the marriage (1493-94) of Ludovico il Moro’s niece, Bianca Maria Sforza, to the Emperor Maximilian, the investiture of Ludovico as duke (1495) and, lastly, his journey (1496) with Beatrice to request help from Maximilian in the war against Charles VIII. The fourth cartouche, now illegible, recorded the victory of Louis XII, king of France, over Ludovico il Moro. In the centre is a shield quartered with the arms of the Sforza and Este families. On the room’s northern walls is a large area of preparatory drawing known as the Monochrome, depicting the powerful roots of a mulberry tree working their way into the ground and, with overwhelming strength, breaking up the square-shaped rocks and boulders. This illusionistic composition framed the mouth of the great fireplace that existed in the room in Ludovico il Moro’s day. When the French arrived and the dukedom of Milan was conquered in 1499, Leonardo had to flee the city, probably leaving this work unfinished.
The surprising choice of the mulberry tree, in Italian moro or, in Lombard dialect morone, to decorate Ludovico’s reception hall was a clear reference to his nickname of il Moro, and recalled his role in encouraging the plantation of mulberries, on which Lombardy’s flourishing silk production was based. Also, from a symbolical viewpoint, this tree, defined as sapientissima omnium arborum, was used to celebrate Ludovico’s wise policies and the stability of the dukedom under his governance.
A letter dated 1498 specified that “Lunedì si desarmerà la camera grande da le asse coè da la tore.”– that is to say that the wooden planks on the walls, often used at the time to insulate rooms against cold and damp, would be removed. Based on this element, architect Luca Beltrami, who supervised the complete restoration of Sforza Castle at the end of the nineteenth century and the discovery of Leonard’s decoration, rechristened it the "Sala delle Asse (Room of Planks)". In actual fact, in Ludovico’s time the room was known as la camera detta de’moroni (the mulberry room), as recorded in chapter 20 of Luca Pacioli’s Divina Proporzione (1509).
Over the years, the Sala delle Asse was put to a variety of uses and the decoration was covered over several times with white limewash, often used in the past to disinfect buildings. The polychrome decoration, together with some fragments of the monochrome one, was discovered in the late nineteenth century, during restoration work by Luca Beltrami, also thanks to the important research and stratigraphic investigations carried out by the art historian Paul Müller-Walde. Under Beltrami’s direction, between 1893 and 1902 the painter and restorer Ernesto Rusca completely redid the polychrome decoration of the vault and the lunettes, faithfully following the traces of paintwork found. During restoration work in the 1950s, the restorer Ottemi della Rotta did not entirely remove Rusca’s repainting, but just lightened it. In that period, the Monochrome was completely uncovered and, with its new layout designed by architects’ studio BBPR, was opened for public viewing.
For some time, the room’s decoration had been in a very poor state that not only threatened conservation of the artwork, but also made it difficult to decipher. From 2012 an important programme began to investigate and analyse the artwork with a view to better understanding and restoring it. This was completed in 2015. Diagnostic examinations revealed a portion of ancient plaster, still hidden under numerous layers of limewash and repainting, running continuously around the four walls of the room. The complex removal of these tenacious layers of limewash, selectively carried out using laser technique, brought to light the exceptional preparatory drawing of mighty mulberry trunks and some details, including the surprise find of the long outline of hills containing a small piece of landscape. This exceptional discovery enables us to see that the Sala delle Asse must have seemed a gigantic pergola of mulberries where, behind the tree trunks that grew from almost ground level, one glimpsed the lands of Ludovico il Moro, stretching towards the horizon as far as the eye could see, under a vast azure sky. In honour of the 5th centenary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, restoration work will be temporarily halted and from May 16th 2019 to January 12th 2020 the Sala delle Asse will be re-opened for the exhibition In the shadow of the Moro. The Sala delle Asse by Francesca Tasso and Michela Palazzo.  Visitors will be able to admire the Monochrome decoration and other exceptional traces of preparatory drawings emerged during restoration works. Study and restoration, particularly of the polychrome decoration, will begin again in 2020.


  • Title: Sala delle Asse, preparatory landscape drawing
  • Creator: Leonardo Da Vinci
  • Date Created: 1498 ca
  • Location: Milan, Sforza Castle, Museum of Ancient Art, Sala delle Asse
  • Type: Preparatory drawing on wall
  • Rights: Comune di Milano - Civiche Raccolte Artistiche, Castello Sforzesco, Milano
  • External Link: http://www.saladelleassecastello.it/
  • Medium: Charcoal, pigments based on ocher spread with a brush
  • Original title: Paesaggio

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