The Decoration of the Sala delle Asse

The great tree-lined room by Leonardo da Vinci

Sala delle Asse, detail of the vault decoration (1498 ca) by Leonardo da VinciSforzesco Castle

One of the very first examples of illusionist decoration

Pietro Marani says, "When you enter the Sala della Asse, the spectacular vault decorated with a twine of branches and knots truly stands out. A continuous rope interlaced with plants binds all these branches together. It's a fantastic and unusual design, particularly if you consider that it was created in 1498."

Plan of the north corner of Sforza Castle (1893) by Luca BeltramiSforzesco Castle

The Sala delle Asse is a large square-plan room located on the ground floor of the northern tower, also known as the Falconer Tower, of Sforza Castle.

Leonardo da Vinci created a gigantic pergola of mulberry trees which, starting from the large trees painted along the walls, covers the entire vault in a dense tangle of branches and golden ropes, weaved in complicated, elegant knots. It is one of the first examples of illusionistic decoration: transforming an interior into an exterior by means of an enormous trompe l'oeil.

Sala delle Asse, detail of the vault decoration (1498 ca) by Leonardo da VinciSforzesco Castle

The flattering decoration of the Sala delle Asse alludes to the figure of Ludovico Maria Sforza, known as il Moro (the Moor), the Duke of Milan who commissioned the work.

The current name of the room derives from the wooden planks that, before Leonardo's intervention, covered the walls to protect the environment from cold and humidity. We do know, however, that at the beginning of the 16th century the Sala delle Asse was called the "Sala dei Moroni", alluding to the large pergola of mulberry trees painted by Leonardo.

Sala delle Asse, detail of decoration of the lunettes (1498 ca) by Leonardo da VinciSforzesco Castle

The choice of mulberry trees, known in Italian as “moro” or “morone,” to decorate the Duke’s stateroom is a clear reference to Ludovico’s nickname. It also reminds us of his role in the development of mulberry plantations which were responsible for Lombardy’s flourishing silk production. It also acknowledged the political wisdom of il Moro and the stability the duchy enjoyed under his rule.

Sala delle Asse, detail of the vault decoration (1498 ca) by Leonardo da VinciSforzesco Castle

Four commemorative plaques with a blue background recall, in chronological order, the marriage of il Moro’s niece, Bianca Maria Sforza, to Emperor Maximilian (1493–94);

Ludovico il Moro's ducal investiture (1495);

… and finally, the journey with Beatrice to ask Maximillian for help in the war with Charles VIII of France (1496).

The fourth, now illegible, recalls the victory of the King of France, Louis XII, over Ludovico il Moro.

Sala delle Asse, detail of the coat of arms in the center of the vault (1498 ca) by Leonardo da VinciSforzesco Castle

In the central oculus of the vault, the shield framed with the coats of arms of the Sforza and Este families can be found.

Sala delle Asse, detail of the decoration (1498 ca) by Leonardo da VinciSforzesco Castle

The thinnest branches intertwine, helped by the elegant knots of a continuous rope that crosses the pergola—perhaps also a subtle reminder of the duchy’s silk production.

Sala delle Asse, graphic survey of the vault (2012) by Massimo Chimenti, Culturanuova S.r.lSforzesco Castle

Francesca Tasso highlights that, “The intertwining of ropes in very complex knots is a theme that characterizes da Vinci’s work during the 20 years he spent in Milan. The theme recurs both in his notes and in some of his writings. Da Vinci brilliantly combines art, mathematics, and science."

Sala delle Asse, detail of Monochrome during the restoration (2012-2015) (1498 ca) by Leonardo da VinciSforzesco Castle

An Unfinished Work

Da Vinci never finished the project, probably due to the fall of the duchy in 1499 and the arrival of French troops. On the walls of the northern corner of the room, there is a large section of Monochrome preparatory drawing which shows how the mulberry trunks would have been inserted into the naturalistic undergrowth with sturdy roots anchored in the ground.

Sala delle Asse, ongoing restoration (2019) (1498 ca) by Leonardo da VinciSforzesco Castle

From 1499, with the succession of foreign dominations, Sforza Castle was increasingly used for military purposes and the iconographic and documentary significance of da Vinci's work was soon whitewashed.

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