From the Sforzas to design

Six centuries of furniture history

The Coretto (little choir) of Torchiara The Coretto (little choir) of Torchiara (third quarter of the 15th century- 1494 approx.) by Anonymous Italian, Parma workshopSforzesco Castle

The Corretto di Torchiara (Torchiara Tribune)

A visit to the furniture collection of the Castello Sforzesco Museum of Decorative Arts begins with the Torchiara Tribune: a symbolic item that, in addition to being representative from a historical and artistic standpoint, also encapsulates the collection as a whole. The Torchiara Tribune is a decorative/architectural element taken from the chapel of a castle in the Parma region and built just over midway through the 15th century.

The decoration, with its alternating geometric motifs in skilfully combined bright colours using different techniques, is a perfect example of the tastes of the time period that remains eternally contemporary.

Chalice( known as Calice of Ludovico Sforza) (End of the 15th century, beginning of  the 16th century (within 1535)) by Anonymous Italian, Murano workshopSforzesco Castle

The Visconti-Sforza treasure trove

The opulence and richness of the Sforzas' collection at the close of the 15th century can be gleaned from the incredulous accounts of their contemporaries. Although inventories and descriptions do exist, identifying the works remains difficult. Among those which ended up in the Castello Sforzesco collection, several works of exceptional value can be attributed to the Sforzas, including the Murano glass goblet and the knives with niello decoration.

Trivulzio set of knives (12 knives with carving knife) Trivulzio set of knives (12 knives with carving knife), Anonymous Italian. Lombard workshop, End of the 15th century(last quarter), From the collection of: Sforzesco Castle
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Chest (known as Cassone dei Tre Duchi) (1494 approx.) by Anonymous Italian. Lombard workshopSforzesco Castle


As attested to by period paintings and the surviving pieces, Late Medieval and Renaissance houses were furnished very simply. The most typical item of furniture from the period is the chest: this low, long and narrow box was used to store clothes or crockery, but it also acted as a seat and as a supportive surface.

The front of 15th-century chests was often decorated with painted scenes. These were usually marriage scenes or depictions of knightly deeds, although religious figures were also fairly common. Later chests were decorated with ornamental motifs worked in plaster and drawn mostly from the world of architecture.

Dorsal taken from the choir of the Basilica of S. Ambrogio Dorsal taken from the choir of the Basilica of S. Ambrogio (1469/1471) by Lorenzo da Origgio, Giacomo da Torre and Giacomo del MainoSforzesco Castle

Wooden sculpture

Between the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, in an era when the hierarchy of the arts had not yet been established, wood carvers tried their hand indiscriminately at producing home furnishings, religious furniture and full-relief sculptures. The difference between art and craftsmanship, between a great artist and a simple cabinet maker, lay not in the genre but in the importance of the commission, the complexity and the quality of the piece. Similarly, even the most renowned painters were not averse to grappling with polychrome wood carvings: they decorated the fronts of chests and painted reliefs and full-relief sculptures.

Nativity (After 1481 - 1490 approx) by Master of Trognano (Giovanni Pietro and  Giovanni Ambrogio De Donati?)Sforzesco Castle

Unfortunately, a widespread prejudice against polychrome sculpture, mistakenly considered as lower-class, frequently resulted in the paint being drastically removed in the 19th and 20th centuries, permanently altering these works.

Dorsal taken from the choir of the Basilica of S. Ambrogio Dorsal taken from the choir of the Basilica of S. Ambrogio (1469/1471) by Lorenzo da Origgio, Giacomo da Torre and Giacomo del MainoSforzesco Castle

Automata (16th-17th century) by Anonymous Italian, Lombard workshopSforzesco Castle


Cabinets of wonder: this is how collections in the 16th and 17th centuries were known. During the Renaissance period, collecting took on a particular meaning: in addition to works of art, people collected scientific instruments, bizarre and exotic objects, and natural curios.

Casket with stories of the"La châtelaine de Vergi", Casket with stories of the"La châtelaine de Vergi", (14th century) by Anonymous French, French workshopSforzesco Castle

The collector's room thus became a compendium of the world in all its variety.

Automata (16th-17th century) by Anonymous Italian, Lombard workshopSforzesco Castle

While the most famous "Wunderkammer" were found in Germany, the canon Manfredo Settala built up a notable collection in Milan, filling his museum with all sorts of objects, with a particular penchant for themes related to nature. One of his most famous pieces, the "automa diabolico", or devilish automaton, remains in the Castello Sforzesco collection.

Tapestry, Liberal Arts: Rethoric Tapestry, Liberal Arts: Rethoric, Anonymous Flemish, made in Bruges, 1665/1670, From the collection of: Sforzesco Castle
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Stipo (cabinet, known as Stipo Doria Tursi) (1629 approx) by Anonymous Italian, Genoa workshopSforzesco Castle


As the most typical piece of Renaissance furniture, cabinets were distinguished by a large number of drawers of various sizes for documents and valuable objects, making them ideally suited to collectors.

Stipo ( cabinet- known as Stipo Passalacqua) Stipo ( cabinet- known as Stipo Passalacqua) (1613) by Anonymous Italian. Lombard workshopSforzesco Castle

The Passalacqua cabinet

In 1613, Quintilio Lucini Passalacqua, a devout and religious intellectual, decided to have a desk built, basing it on a detailed iconographic plan that he had developed himself. He selected the artists and personally monitored their work.

For Passalacqua, the cabinet had to be both a distillation of the arts and a compendium of morality.

Armchair (Roman workshop) (First half of the 18th century) by Anonymous Italian, Roman workshopSforzesco Castle

Baroque tastes from Rome to Genoa

In central Italy and much of Europe between the 17th and 18th centuries, mansions and their furnishings underwent renovation.

Console table (Genoa workshop) (End of the 17th century) by Anonymous Italian, Genoa workshopSforzesco Castle

16th-century furniture was enriched with decorative elements based on plants, animals and monsters, mascarons and fantastic figures.

Armchair (Roman workshop) (First half of the 18th century) by Anonymous Italian, Roman workshopSforzesco Castle

Design constituted a tool for creative execution on a global scale.

Drop-down dresser (Third quarter of the 18th century) by Anonymous Italian, Lombard workshopSforzesco Castle

Carved furniture from Lombardy

Armchair Armchair (Mid of the 18th century) by Anonymous Italian, Lombard workshopSforzesco Castle

The collections of noble Milanese families

The Civic Museums of the Castello Sforzesco are home to some of the most significant collections once belonging to families who enriched the history of Milanese art.

The Durini collection is a valuable set collected by a wealthy family of merchants from Moltrasio, who became part of the nobility in 1648 when they purchased the county of Monza.

Mirror (Third quarter of the 18th century) by Anonymous Italian, Lombard workshopSforzesco Castle

Rococo furniture

From the 17th century to the mid-18th century, the demand for furniture among aristocratic families centred on pieces intended for state rooms: a transition from cabinets and chests to seats, armchairs, dressing tables and consoles therefore followed.

The sober and austere furniture of the past was thus replaced by Baroque-inspired pieces with richer decoration.

Gilding was frequently used, mainly with the gold leaf technique.

Dresser Dresser (1790) by Giuseppe MaggioliniSforzesco Castle

Giuseppe Maggiolini

The cabinet maker Giuseppe Maggiolini (1738-1814) founded a thriving workshop where pieces of exceptional build quality were produced. Drawing on the French model and certain Oriental examples, he developed a highly personal style that revolved around the art of inlaying and the use of an extraordinary variety of both local and exotic woods.

From a stylistic point of view, he made the significant transition from rococo-style furniture, which was affected and ornate, to a structure with sharper and simpler forms.

Table top (1865) by Giobbe Brothers for Salviati & C.Sforzesco Castle

The mosaic for Tuscan use

The Renaissance fashion for furniture with pietra dura inlay work came back around in Italy in the mid-19th century, expressed through original experimental pieces that attempted to reclaim the past.

In this sense, the work of the company Salviati & Co. was priceless. The firm, established in Murano in 1859 and in Venice in 1866, specialised in mosaics. They created a type of well-crafted product known as the "mosaico a uso toscano" ("mosaic for Tuscan use"). The fusion of different kinds of glass was intended to imitate the visual effect of semi-precious stone mosaics, originally created by combining different types of marble. Initially, the "mosaic for Tuscan use" was not a big hit with the Italian public, although it was very successful in English-speaking countries.

Dining room Dining room (Last quarter of the 19th century) by Ludovico PogliaghiSforzesco Castle

Historicist furniture

As the idea of a universally accepted concept of "beauty" began to wane in the first half of the 19th century, a fashion for reclaiming the styles of past eras emerged.

The revival of medieval forms represented a recourse to the historical values ​​of the homeland and freedom, which still had relevance when viewed in opposition to the repressive foreign rule of the 19th century.

Each style from a past era therefore had dignity thanks to its "historical" value.

Eagle Eagle (By 1921) by Alessandro MazzucotelliSforzesco Castle

Decorative arts in the 19th and 20th centuries

Art exhibitions at the turn of the 20th century offered visibility and theoretical support to research carried out by brilliant artists and craftsmen in their workshops. These were real hotbeds of innovation where different techniques with complementary functions were trialled alongside the main work of furniture making, while design took on the task of transmitting and transferring inventions easily from one art to another.

Armchair or circular seat Armchair or circular seat (End of 19th century) by Carlo BugattiSforzesco Castle

Carlo Bugatti

The auspicious artistic age sparked by the brilliance of Carlo Bugatti, an expert furniture maker, marked Italy's transition from the decoration of the late 19th century to the modern design of the 20th.

Desk Desk (1900 approx) by Alberto IsselSforzesco Castle

Starting in the 20th century, decoration took on an increasingly autonomous role with more freedom of expression, as would later happen with design. Carlo Bugatti was the most skilful exponent of this transition: the combination of different furniture production techniques, along with the use of exotic materials, was the hallmark of his style.

Armchair or circular seat Armchair or circular seat (End of 19th century) by Carlo BugattiSforzesco Castle

Bugatti expressed his creativity through the use of parchment, copper applications, inlays in ebony, metal and ivory, and leather and silk inserts, achieving a harmonious fusion and meticulous balance between them.

Woman bust (1922) by Giò Ponti for Richard GinoriSforzesco Castle

Ponti and Richard Ginori

The Richard Ginori Ceramics Company, which began operating at the end of the 19th century, was created by a merger between the factories owned by the Tuscan Marquess Carlo Ginori and those belonging to the Milanese industrialist Giulio Richard. Between 1923 and 1938, Gio Ponti (1897-1979) took over as art director, and it was his leadership that helped clearly define the relationship between art and industry that has now characterised the world of manufacturing for some time.

Coffee set (1930) by Giò Ponti for Richard Ginori (Made in Doccia)Sforzesco Castle

Dining Room " Domus Nova" Dining Room " Domus Nova" (1927) by Gio Ponti, Emilio LanciaSforzesco Castle

The Domus Nova

The Domus Nova room is a section of a larger project divided into four spaces consisting of a family room, a dining room, a double bedroom and a single bedroom. The collaboration between Gio Ponti and architect Emilio Lancia aimed to modernise the concept of middle-class housing, offering furnishing accessories that combined good build quality with affordable prices.

Towards the end of the 1920s, with this aim in mind, a new type of retail emerged that was available to large swathes of the public. It was entrusted to the Domus Nova production brand, created by Ponti himself, and to the La Rinascente department store in Milan.

Dining room " Domus Nova"- Table (1927) by Gio Ponti, Emilio LanciaSforzesco Castle

“The most elegant styles are achieved through simplicity.” Gio Ponti

Cavour desk Cavour desk (First project 1949, Zanotta production 2003) by Carlo MollinoSforzesco Castle

Carlo Mollino's Turinese Baroque

Carlo Mollino was one of the most active architects of the interwar period. He dabbled in photography, set design, essay writing and modern industrial experimentation.

For example, he took the technique for the cold-bending of wood from the world of aeronautics and used it to create furniture with darting lines, deemed worthy of the term "baroque" by the American magazine, "Interiors".

Mollino's research remains so experimental and modern that several companies have undertaken to bring his historic pieces back into production.

Superleggera chair (Cassina Edition, 2002) by Giò Ponti for CassinaSforzesco Castle

Gio Ponti: design

Gio Ponti (1897-1979) should be considered revolutionary with respect to the usual concept that shapes our traditional understanding of architects; for the first time, he was able to handle design aspects and relationships with manufacturers. His versatility led him to design buildings, interiors, furnishings, design objects and ceramics.

Not only did he conceive the idea for an object, he also monitored all the subsequent design phases. In his case, the distinction between the artist-craftsman and the designer fades to almost nothing.

Casablanca library (Memphis Edition 2003) by Ettore Sottsass junior for MemphisSforzesco Castle


The architect Ettore Sottsass (1917) founded the company Memphis with Barbara Radice and Michele De Lucchi in 1981. It aimed to go beyond experimental prototypes, putting them into production and creating unique and exclusive pieces. An international group of designers contributed to this experience. The style that emerged was ironically renamed "The New International Style".

Memphis was very favourably received by the public, so much so that many objects designed there are now featured in the permanent collections of museums around the world.

Proust armchair (Cappellini Edition 2003) by Alessandro Mendini with AlchimiaSforzesco Castle

The Proust Armchair

The first version of the "Proust Armchair" was built in 1978 and used as a piece of furniture in the Sala del Secolo at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara. The room was then exhibited at the Venice Biennale, and other versions of the armchair followed.

Alessandro Mendini initially wanted to recreate the armchair on which Proust once sat, but having found no parts, he created a neo-Baroque armchair instead.

He then concentrated on the fabric, choosing to enlarge a detail taken from a painting by the pointillist, Paul Signac.

The "Proust Armchair" is one of Italian design's most ironic and provocative pieces, with a playful side that aims to bring back "sensory pleasantness", even to everyday objects, free from any industrial limitations.

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