Pinacoteca Ambrosiana – Leonardo da Vinci and the secrets of the “Codex Atlanticus”

The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana is one of my favourite art galleries in the world and in fact, this is already my third time visiting it. Each time I could always discover something new. I’ve already dedicated three posts to it because it houses many masterpieces such as The Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio, the Preparatory Cartoon of the School of Athens by Raphael, The Holy Family with Sts. Anne and John by Bernardino Luini, The Portrait of a Musician by Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with a Pearl Hairnet by Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, The Nativity by Federico Barocci, and Vase of Flowers with Jewelry, Coins and Shells by Jan Brueghel the Elder, and in this post, I’ll focus on the temporary exhibition held in memory of the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death–”Leonardo da Vinci and the secrets of the Codex Atlanticus“.

It is worth mentioning that besides the many famous paintings by various masters, the gallery’s collections also include numerous precious drawings, etchings, prints and manuscripts, among which the greatest artistic and scientific treasure is Leonardo’s “Codex Atlanticus”. The codex is a twelve-volume, bound set of drawings and writings by Leonardo da Vinci, the largest of such sets. Its name comes from the large paper used to preserve the original da Vinci notebook pages, which was used for atlases. As I learnt from an info board on site, in the late 16th century, the sculptor Pompeo Leoni, son of Leone Leoni, by dismembering some of Leonardo’s notebooks, gathered more than 1,700 drawings and writings by the master in one big volume consisting of 402 pages. In 1637, Pompeo Leoni’s collection, together with 11 other manuscripts by Leonardo, was donated to the library, and the 12 volumes became today’s “Codex Atlanticus”. The codices have been preserved here ever since expect for the Napoleonic period when they were taken to Paris. Currently, the codex comprises 1,119 pages, covering Leonardo’s thoughts for a period of more than 40 years, from 1478 to 1519. With approximately 2,000 drawings and notes, it covers a great variety of subjects including engineering, hydraulics, mathematics, optics, anatomy, architecture, geometry, astronomy, botany, flight, weaponry, musical instruments and so on.

1. Why visit the exhibition?

2. The “Codex Atlanticus” is online now!

3. Practical information

3.1 Opening hours
3.2 Admission fees
3.3 5x Leonardo ticket
3.4 Other important information and tips

4. Leonardo da Vinci and the secrets of the “Codex Atlanticus”

4.1 Winches and double catapult (folio 148 r)
4.2 Large vertical catapult (folio 181 r)
4.3 Assault engine (folio 1084 r)
4.4 A man in the process of building a bridge (folio 55 r)
4.5 Multi-barrel machine gun (folio 16 r)
4.6 Methods for constructing bombards (folio 61 r)
4.7 Machine for drawing staves of metal (folio 10 r)
4.8 Methods for lifting water (folio 156 r)
4.9 Machines for raising water (folio 6 r)
4.10 Hydraulic pumps (folio 1069 r)
4.11 Hydraulic pumps (folio 26 r)
4.12 Hydraulic pump and fountain (folio 1099 r)
4.13 Excavating machine (folio 3 r)
4.14 Excavating machine (folio 4 r)
4.15 Automatic roasting spits (folio 21 r)
4.16 Stamping machine (folio 29 r)
4.17 Loom and oven (folio 994 v)
4.18 Stamping machine (folio 14 r)
4.19 Textile napping machine (folio 106 r)
4.20 Flying machine and map of Europe (folio 1006 v)
4.21 Workbench (folio 2 r)
4.22 Machine for manufacturing cords (folio 12 r)
4.23 Machine for producing cords (folio 13 r)

5. The preparatory cartoon of the School of Athens by Raphael

6. Lucrezia Borgia’s hair and the gloves Napoleon wore at Waterloo

1. Why visit the exhibition?

I admit that although now I’m in love with lots of artworks here, the “Codex Atlanticus” gave me the first motivation to visit the gallery. It contains 1119 pages but each time (I heard that important and interesting pages of the codex will take turns to be exhibited but I’m not sure how often and for how long) only around 20 are exhibited, which is both fortunate and unfortunate. I say it’s fortunate because firstly such drawings are normally kept under special conditions and are unaccessible to the public but here in this gallery we can see the originals, and secondly, we know that most of the pages are kept safe and will be available to our future generations. Nevertheless, unfortunately each time we can only see about 2% of the codex. When it comes to Leonardo’s works, how can we not be greedy and desire to see more?

To mark the celebration for the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana showcases its holdings of Leonardo’s works, which are among the most important in the world, as well as of the artists in his circle, with four exhibitions with an outstanding scholarly profile. The event opened on 18th December 2018 with two exhibitions, each lasting three months, which present a total of 46 sheets chosen from the most famous, important and fascinating of the “Codex Atlanticus”, the true Leonardo treasure at the Ambrosiana, retracing the career of the artist almost from beginning to end, from his early years in Florence until his last years in France in the service of King Francis I.

The first exhibition–from 18th December 2018 to 17th March 2019–opens with Leonardo’s drawings specifically related to the city of Milan, which include the famous plan of the city, a study for the Canal of San Cristoforo, the project for the equestrian monument in honour of Duke Francesco Sforza and studies for the dome of the cathedral. The exhibition continues with some perspective studies and designs of an architectural-military character, as well as some sheets with very fine drawings of weapons of war (crossbows, slings and mortars), studies for the construction of mechanical wings intended for stage production and the famous project known as “Leonardo car”.

The second exhibition–from 19th March to 16th June 2019–presents some projects for siege engines, but focuses in particular on civil engineering studies: hydraulic devices, rope-making machines, machines for manufacturing textiles, production of mechanical instruments, tools such as punches, and automatic spit-turning devices. This exhibition will be the focus of this post.

The event “2019, the Year of Leonardo” at the Ambrosiana will continue with the exhibition “Leonardo in France. Drawings in the Codex Atlanticus from the French period” (18th June – 15th September 2019) and will end with the exhibition “Leonardo and his Legacy: Artists and Techniques” (17th September 2018 – 12th January 2020), which will be dedicated to the drawings made by Leonardo and the artists in his circle.

By the way, after a four-year extensive restoration, Raphael’s fantastic Cartoon of the School of Athens is finally shown to the public again, which gives you one more reason to visit the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. Around 3.5 years ago I saw this drawing for the first time, which was displayed behind a glass wall far from the audience. Today, thanks to modern technology, visitors can take a really close look at it. Cardinal Federico Borromeo commented, “There are two large drawings by Raphael, which art enthusiasts should treasure because there’s no doubt as to their authenticity. Whereas the authorship of paintings attributed to Raphael is suspect, since he had many helpers lending a hand in their execution, it is generally agreed that these cartoons are by Raphael himself.”

2. The “Codex Atlanticus” is online now!

For Leonardo fans, the good news is from 2019, all the 1119 pages of the “Codex Atlanticus” are available online and are categorised into five groups according to their subjects, which are geometry and algebra, physics and natural sciences, tools and machines, architecture and applied arts, and human sciences. On the website, if you choose to show all the pages in chronological order, you can see which subjects Leonardo was most interested in in a specific time span. Now you must be wondering if we can see all the pages online why should we visit the Ambrosiana. For me, photos and actual drawings are after all different and seeing the original is more about the feeling and experience. What’s more, the individual explanation on site of each of the exhibited folios is very helpful in deepening our knowledge of the “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination” (Helen Gardner) of the universal genius.

3. Practical information

3.1 Opening hours

  • The second exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci and the secrets of the Codex Atlanticus” is held from 19th March to 16th June 2019.
  • The third exhibition “Leonardo in France. Drawings in the Codex Atlanticus from the French period” will be held from 18th June to 15th September 2019
  • The fourth and last exhibition “Leonardo and his Legacy: Artists and Techniques” will be held from 17th September 2018 to 12th January 2020.
  • The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 to 18:00.

Please note:

  • Last admission to the gallery is at 17:30 but normally you need at least one hour to see its highlights.
  • the gallery is closed on Mondays, 1st January, Easter Sunday (open on Easter Monday) and 25th December.

3.2 Admission fees

Admission to the temporary exhibition is included in the admission to the art gallery.

  • Full price : € 15
  • Reduced price (under 18 or over 65 years old & university students): € 10
  • Reduced price (visitors with a full Duomo Pass or full Duomo Fast-track): € 13
  • Free admission: children under 14 accompanied by a paying adult (max. 5 children per adult); licensed tourist guides; journalists (only for professional reasons and with advance authorization from the museum, e-mail: contatti@ambrosiana.it)
  • For more information about reduced and free admission please click here.

Please note, it’s also possible to reserve and book the ticket online but a booking fee of € 1.5 per ticket will be applied. In my opinion, if you are traveling by yourself or in a small group (less than 10 people), you can just buy the ticket on site, but you are in a large group of more than 10 people, it is compulsory to make a reservation. For more information about booking for groups (either social or school groups) please click here.

3.3 5x Leonardo ticket

Good news! From 16th May, the day of the extraordinary reopening to the public of the Sala delle Asse at the Sforza Castle, until 12th January 2020, the closing day of the “Milan and Leonardo 500” event, visitors will be able to follow Leonardo’s footsteps through the city with just one ticket, available at a very special price. The ticket will be valid for 30 days from the date of the visit at the Last Supper Museum, and within the 30 days, the ticket holder will be able to visit all the museums involved: the Last Supper Museum, the Castello Sforzesco Museums and Sala delle Asse, the Pinacoteca di Brera, the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana and the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci. The “5x Leonardo” ticket must be stamped at the ticket office of each museum to collect an individual entrance ticket.

Please note, purchasing of the “5xLeonardo” ticket is subject to the booking of a viewing of the Last Supper. The ticket will be available for purchase from 18th April 2019 through the call centre (+39 02 92800360) and from 16th May also directly at the Cenacolo Vinciano ticket office (ticket office of the Last Supper Museum), only for the same day.

Prices:

  • Full price: € 38,00
  • Reduced price (people between 19 – 25 years old and over 65 years old): € 25,50
  • Children and teenagers (between 5 – 18 years old): € 4,50
  • Children (up to 4 years old): free
  • For tickets purchased at the call centre, an advance booking fee of € 2,00 will be applied.

If you are a fan of Leonardo da Vinci, you can’t miss the Last Supper, one of his most renowned works. Unfortunately, due to preservation reasons, viewing of the masterpiece is very limited and normally you need to book the ticket online at least three months in advance. This year, thanks to the “Milan and Leonardo 500” event, extra viewing is allowed for holders of the “5xLeonardo” ticket. Please note, the amount of the ticket is still very limited and if you don’t wanna miss the opportunity, I recommend you to visit the ticket office early in the morning when it just opens. For me, I arrived at the ticket office at noon and there were only a couple of tickets left. It’s almost impossible to buy a normal ticket (instead of the “5xLeonardo” ticket) on site for a viewing of the same day unless you’re very lucky. If you want to know how to reserve a normal ticket, please click here to read my post particularly dedicated to the Last Supper.

3.4 Other important information and tips

  • The gallery is located in the center of Milan and only 5 mins away by foot from the Duomo. I suggest you take public transport to the Duomo and then walk directly from there.
  • Photography for personal use is allowed in all exhibition spaces strictly without flash.
  • Audioguide service is available in the gallery for € 3.
  • The second exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci and the secrets of the Codex Atlanticus” is housed in both Rooms 2 and 3 and Sala Federiciana.
  • Ideally, I recommend leaving 1.5 – 2 hours for your visit. If you don’t have much time, please click here to see the gallery map and the masterpieces that you shouldn’t miss.
  • Once you are inside the gallery, an official itinerary will guide you to visit all the exhibition spaces. Remember to follow the signposts all the time.
  • As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, besides the “Codex Atlanticus”, the gallery houses many other treasures. Make full use of your ticket here and see as much as you can. If you want to know what the masterpieces are, please type “Pinacoteca & Biblioteca Ambrosiana” in the search bar on my website front page and my three posts will give you an idea.

4. Leonardo da Vinci and the secrets of the “Codex Atlanticus”

Display case for the “Codex Atlanticus”. Inside: facsimile of the ancient binding

First of all, I’d like to share with you some interesting facts that I read on an info board on site about the “Codex Atlanticus”.

  • A big part of the codex–402 pages–was put together in the late 16th century by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni, who with great difficulty managed to obtain some of Leonardo’s studies from the heirs of Francesco Melzi, the faithful pupil to whom the great master had entrusted his writings just before he died.
  • It was the support folios, the large sheets of paper on which Pompeo mounted Leonardo’s studies, instead of the content of Leonardo’s sheets that gave the codex its name.
  • The codex covers Leonardo’s thoughts for a period of more than 40 years, from 1478 to 1519. With approximately 2,000 drawings and notes, it covers a great variety of subjects including engineering, hydraulics, mathematics, optics, anatomy, architecture, geometry, astronomy, botany, flight, weaponry, musical instruments and so on.
  • In 1796, the precious collection was requisitioned and taken to Paris following the conquest of Milan by Napoleon. It remained in the Louvre for 17 years, until the Congress of Vienna decreed in 1815 that all the artworks pillaged by Napoleon Bonaparte should be returned to their legitimate countries of origin. A curious anecdote recounts that the emissary nominated by the House of Austria for the return of the artworks was unable to read Leonardo’s mirror-image handwriting and mistook the precious codex for a manuscript in Chinese script (Leonardo normally wrote from right to left). It was only thanks to the providential intervention of the pope’s emissary, the famous sculptor Antonio Canova, who discovered the mistake, that the “Codex Atlanticus” was included in the list of works to be returned to the Ambrosiana.

Now, I’ll introduce to you each of the 23 folios exhibited in the second of the four exhibitions held by the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in memory of the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death.

4.1 Winches and double catapult

On the upper folio, Leonardo sketches several winches that are probably used to activate crossbows or catapults: the toothed wheels allow inserting opportune blocking devices, charging tension, and sudden releasing of the wheels, so as to give the necessary force for a launch. The three captions accompanying the drawings explain these operations in detail.

On the lower folio, we find an accurate drawing depicting an enormous catapult designed for launching two projectiles nearly simultaneously.

4.2 Large vertical catapult

Beautiful drawing of a large vertical catapult: it has been calculated that it can be as high as 7 meters. A complex system of winches, gears and cords is used to set in position–curved and under tension–a vertical beam upon which a flat horizontal plank is mounted. The whole is kept locked in position by the toothed wheel above. At the top of the vertical pole, fitted with rungs to allow a soldier to climb up, we see a platform, upon which eight arrows are arranged. Once the toothed wheel is unlocked, the beam under tension would move violently in such a manner that the horizontal board would result in violently striking the eight arrows, forming a shower of arrows.

4.3 Assault engine

Machinery for siege and assault: it is composed of a mobile carriage equipped with a ladder and a horizontal covered bridge allowing one to invade the enemy fortress in complete safety. The poles supporting the bridge are prolonged and anchored with stay wires to ensure the stability and equilibrium of the entire war engine, which otherwise would be unbalanced for its excessive forward weight. We can also note two realistic details, which impart dynamism to the project. First, inside of the carriage we can see two oxen drawing the carriage forward; also, the water of the moat is hatched with extreme accuracy, showing the wavy motion of the water.

4.4 A man in the process of building a bridge

This sheet illustrates a method of building a trestle bridge and can be related to the easily buildable bridges which Leonardo mentions in the letter to Ludovico il Moro. Interestingly, Leonardo uses here various illustrative techniques. The two meticulous drawings of the bridge are executed with preliminary incised lines which contrast with the fluid and spontaneous pen sketches indicating the banks of the river. For the river, Leonardo uses parallel hatching, a technique he employed repeatedly for representing flowing water. The man is delineated by quick pen strokes.

4.5 Multi-barrel machine gun

No weapon like the one drawn on this folio appears to have been conceived or designed before Leonardo. The heart of this ingenious invention is constituted by a toothed rotating structure equipped with eight rows of nine firearms each; the movable level at the rear part of the weapon is raised and lowered to progressively advance the toothed wheel, bringing the various rows of firearms into position for shooting one after the other. In this manner one could ensure multiple shots in a short span of time.

4.6 Methods for constructing bombards

This folio is probably the continuation of a longer treatment on the method of manufacturing canons, the beginning of which was probably on a folio now lost. The five drawings positioned in succession present the last five phases of the process of production, indicated with the letters g, h, i, k and l, which were written by Leonardo with his usual inverse handwriting along the right margin.

4.7 Machine for drawing staves of metal

Executed with great accuracy, the drawing presents an ingenious machine studied for automating to the greatest degree possible the drawing of metal staves, that is, iron bars that could then be used in the manufacture of cannons. The entire device is driven by the horizontally positioned propeller wheel on the lower left, evidently driven by water power.

4.8 Methods for lifting water (folio 156 r)

On the upper right corner there is a crank-operated winch, activating a long pole that raises a large strip leather (or waterproof material) immersed in water. Such a device probably was to be used during military operations to empty fortress moats during sieges. Below there is a drawing of a pump wheel, while the two along the left margin depict a method for threading screws.

4.9 Machines for raising water (folio 6 r)

Above to the left, a mill paddlewheel is driven by the current, causing the rotation of a long helical tube that scoops up water and transports it to the top of a tower serving as reservoir. The divice to the right is driven by human force, by means of a crank, to turn the wheel; below there is a bellows-operated pump. Further down, a series of gears drive the turning of a chain to which small receptacles are attached; in their turning, the receptacles scoop up water and transport it upwards, pouring it in the reservoir.

4.10 Hydraulic pumps (folio 1069 r)

On this folio, Leonardo depicts several devices to raise water. The most interesting is the one on the upper right: a mill wheel turned by the current of a river drives the movement of a water screw, which scoops up water and transports it to the top of a tower. By means of a series of gears, the water is intercepted at the top of the first tower by a second water screw, which transports it to the second, higher tower. The sketch halfway down the left margin is quite curious: it depicts a man using an underwater breathing device equipped with a float.

4.11 Hydraulic pumps (folio 26 r)

The sheet depicts various hydraulic machines operated with different methods (among which bellows devices and toothed wheels). Along the left and upper margins are three curious sketches: the first shows a man breathing under water with a special device; the second depicts a man with “swim goggles” (a bag inflated with air which would enable the man to breathe when submerged); the third represents a man walking on water through a system of floats and two trekking poles.

4.12 Hydraulic pump and fountain (folio 1099 r)

The folio shows two drawings of a pump-powered fountain: below, the hydraulic device itself; above, the elaborate structure for housing the fountain. As we can see clearly from the drawing on the lower part of the folio, a mill wheel moved by water current drives two pumps that lift water. On the upper part, the fountain is enclosed within a very elegant building. Through a portico of Corinthian columns we can glimpse the basin fountain surmounted by a statue. Under the building we see the two pumps, which are activated by the wheel.

4.13 Excavating machine (folio 3 r)

This spectacular drawing offers the detailed design of a machine of colossal dimensions to excavate canals. Within great support scaffolding, an enormous wooden wheel moves a series cranes and gears, which by means of ropes raise and transport crates of earth from the centre of the canal where workmen are digging to the edges of the canal, where the earth is accumulated.

4.14 Excavating machine (folio 4 r)

This drawing is to be placed in parallel with the preceding one, since the two originally formed a single folio on which the two machines were compared. In fact, the former depicts a traditional working system that Leonardo considered slow and outdated; in contrast, this machine was explicitly designed by him to automate the excavation of a canal, reducing the time and effort.

4.15 Automatic roasting spits (folio 21 r)

This is the real way to cook roasts.” states Leonardo in the caption on the lower part of the folio. In fact, on this folio are two drawings of roasting spits that should turn automatically. Leonardo has also noted in the caption that, on the basis of the intensity of fire, “the roast will turn slowly or quickly”, that is to say, the speed of rotation of the roasting spit is regulated automatically by the intensity of the flame.

4.16 Stamping machine (folio 29 r)

This machine, by means of a system of weights, counterweights and gears, moves a vertical stamping tip that beats upon a slab of metal. The device has been interpreted in various manners: some have seen it as a simple gold-beating machine (i.e. the machine that reduces a sheet of gold to a very thin leaf), while others as a stamping press for the production of gold coins or plaquettes made of precious metals to be used as decorative elements for sumptuous Renaissance garments.

4.17 Loom and oven (folio 994 v)

On the right we see a complicated vertical loom,. The caption says literally “Loom for making caparisons of cotton wool”, meaning a loom for producing wrappings made of soft fabric. At the right bottom corner, we can see the sketch of an oven, probably for domestic use. Between the loom and the oven, we see an assailant soldier climbing up a wall by means of a ladder and wearing a curious pyramidal protection for his head and shoulders.

4.18 Stamping machine (folio 14 r)

This design also depicts a stamping machine, most likely for the production of small gold plaquettes with a central hole to be applied to precious Renaissance garments.

4.19 Textile napping machine (folio 106 r)

This folio shows a machine used to raise the nap of fabric.

4.20 Flying machine and map of Europe (folio 1006 v)

Above, near the left edge, Leonardo sketches a flying machine on top of a ladder. Scattered on the folio are sketches depicting a pilot in various positions. At the lower part, we find sketches of crank-operated devices. This folio is also well-known for its map of Europe, with indications of various geographic regions. Italy stands out with its name legible inside the “boot” in capital letters.

4.21 Workbench (folio 2 r)

On the upper right corner, Leonardo writes in his usual inverse handwriting “saw for sawing stones”, which means “workbench for sawing stones”. The drawing depicts a workbench shown with perfect perspective. At the centre, there’s a framing device holding in fixed position a large block of stone, while a long saw manoeuvred by means of a handlebar is already in the process of cutting the block of stone.

4.22 Machine for manufacturing cords (folio 12 r)

This machine is composed of a series of bobbins arranged in a semicircle around a drum made to rotate by a crank: the strands, meaning the elementary fibres from which the rope will be manufactured, are intertwined so as the form the final product, the rope.

4.23 Machine for producing cords (folio 13 r)

Like the proceeding machine, this one was probably designed during Leonardo’s stay in Rome at the Vatican. Here Leonardo paid great attention to the aesthetic presentation of the machine. The bolt at the top (probably having the function of tensioner) has the form of a diamond ring. This might be a tribute to Giuliano de’ Medici, Leonardo’s patron during his Roman years.

5. The preparatory cartoon of the School of Athens by Raphael

Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo are the three most outstanding artists of the Italian Renaissance and Raphael’s most renowned work is probably the “School of Athens“, painted between 1509 and 1511 as a part of the artist’s commission to decorate the rooms now known as the Stanze di Raffaello, in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. Its cartoon, which is part of the collection of the Ambrosian Art Gallery, played a vital role in helping the artist realize the fresco and making it one of the best examples of High Renaissance art. As you can see in the pictures above, room 5 is entirely dedicated to the huge cartoon. I took the second picture above 3.5 years ago right before the preparatory drawing was taken away for restoration, which took almost four years. This year since March it is finally shown to the public again! Before, it was displayed behind a glass wall far from the audience and there were only a few chair in front of you to sit on, but today, thanks to high technology, visitors can not only take a really close look at it, but also learn much about both the cartoon and the fresco from a multimedia installation and books on site. Cardinal Federico Borromeo commented, “There are two large drawings by Raphael, which art enthusiasts should treasure because there’s no doubt as to their authenticity. Whereas the authorship of paintings attributed to Raphael is suspect, since he had many helpers lending a hand in their execution, it is generally agreed that these cartoons are by Raphael himself.”

In order to better understand this drawing and its connection to the fresco in the Vatican Museums, I listened to the audio guide on mywowo.net and read a very well-written article called “Insights to Art – Raphael’s School of Athens (cartoon)” by Nigel J. Ross. If you wanna know more about the cartoon after reading my post, please click the link and check it out.

Now, let’s come back to the cartoon. First of all, what is a cartoon? A cartoon is a preparatory drawing of a planned fresco and it’s usually made for two reasons. Firstly, they could demonstrate the composition of the work to the commissioner and secondly, they function as a point of reference for the actual work. Unlike “The Last Supper”, which was painted by da Vinci on a dry wall (it was an innovative technique at that time), normal frescoes were painted into wet plaster and had to be completed before it dried. Therefore, planning in advance is necessary. If you take a close look at the cartoon, you will notice the pin-prick holes, which suggest that Raphael used this piece of drawing to copy the outlines onto the wall where the fresco still remains nowadays. As I learnt from Ross’ article, this was done by pricking the cartoon, placing a section on the wet plaster and dusting it with charcoal dust. In this way, when Raphael removed the section of drawing, he could see the marks of the pin-prick holes, and therefore, the key outlines.

What’s special about the “School of Athens” cartoon? Firstly, there is no other model for frescoes as large as this one. Normally, artists didn’t prepare such full-scale cartoons for their frescoes and when necessary, they only sketched the more important sections. However, for Raphael, he was focusing on his new ideas of composition, which required a broad view of the complete work. Secondly, as an artist’s tool, the preparatory drawings were usually abandoned and thrown away. No other compositional studies of the “School of Athens” survived but here, we see a complete one. As commented by Nigel J. Ross, this is the first large-size cartoon that survives and the only full-scale Renaissance cartoon in existence, which provides a unique insight into one of Raphael’s most famous works. As I learnt from the audio guide, Cardinal Federico Borromeo had been trying for more than 15 years before he finally included this masterpiece in his collection in 1625. Its previous owner refused to sell it, and it was only after his death that the Cardinal finally managed to acquire it, with an incredible price of 600 liras.

Since we are talking about the preparatory work of the great “School of Athens”, why not take this opportunity to take a look at the actual, finished work in the Vatican Museums? Though the figures represent Greek philosophers, can you recognize whose portraits they are? Let me give you a hint. Besides Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael himself are also in the scene. Can you find them?

In 1509 Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II to fresco his personal library, the room known at that time as the Stanza della Segnatura since it was there that Pope signed acts of grace. Nowadays, it is one of the Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), which, as we can tell by the name, are decorated by Raphael, in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican City. The Stanza della Segnatura was the first of the rooms to be decorated, and “The School of Athens” was probably the third painting to be finished there. Originally, Pope Julius II wanted to decorate his library with portraits of great writers and thinkers. Instead of painting simple sets of portraits, Raphael contemplated on this idea and came up with four large frescoes representing Theology, Philosophy, Literature and Law. “The School of Athens” brings together the most famous Greek philosophers from different ages in an imaginary academy of philosophy.

Particularly eye-catching in the fresco are the two figures in the middle, at the vanishing point of the architecture. On the left is Plato while on the right is his student, Aristotle. Both figures hold bound copies of their books in their left hands, while gesturing with their right. Plato, depicted as an old and wise-looking man, holds his Timaeus and Aristotle, depicted as a handsome mature man, holds his Nicomachean Ethics. Their gestures are rather curious because Plato seems to point to the sky (which also appears in many of Leonardo’s masterpieces), an indication of his Theory of Forms which refers to the belief that the material world as it seems to us is not the real world, but only an “image” or “copy” of the real world, while Aristotle, with his palm facing the ground, seems to say that natural science forms the basis of knowledge and all theories and hypothesis must be tested against observations of the natural world. The two philosophers’ concepts contradict with each other but they influenced the two main schools of thinking in the Renaissance. As I learnt from Ross’ article, the rest of the philosophers are arranged either on Plato’s or Aristotle’s side, depending on whose ideas are closer to their own. When Raphael painted this fresco, he was only 26 – 28 years old and how did he have all the detailed knowledge about the ancient Greek philosophers? As suggested on Wikipedia, he might have had guidance from people such as Bramante, or maybe a detailed plan was told directly by his patron, Pope Julius II.

Besides Plato and Aristotle, who are the other philosophers? I recommend you checking out the picture on Wikipedia because all the identifiable figures are marked with numbers and their names. In brief, the most famous ones for me from left to right are:

  • Epicurus with a laurel on his head.
  • Pythagoras, who is sitting and with a pen and an ink pot in his hands, noting down his ideas from the diagram on the slate in front of him. He is credited with many mathematical and scientific discoveries, including the Pythagorean theorem.
  • Alexander the Great, depicted as a young man with his right hand resting on his waist and his left holding a sword.
  • Hypatia, the first female mathematician whose life is reasonably well recorded.
  • Socrates, who is in green cloak and with his gesture, seems to be arguing.
  • Heraclitus, who is in the foreground thinking, leaning against a table with a pen in his hand. It was him who said that “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”
  • Diogenes, who is lying on the steps with a bowl next to him. He was one of the founders of Cynic philosophy, which emphasizes returning to nature and advocates simple life free from all possessions. I once read a story between Diogenes and Alexander the Great and I’d like to share it here. While Diogenes was relaxing in the morning sunlight, Alexander, thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, asked if he could do anything for him. Diogenes replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.” Alexander then declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.” In another version of the conversation, Alexander found the philosopher looking closely at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained, “I am searching for the bones of your father but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.”
  • Archimedes, who is leaning down at the right bottom corner of the fresco and measuring a geometric figure with a compass. As the greatest mathematician of antiquity and one of the greatest of all time, he not only rigorously prove a range of geometrical theorems, including the area of a circle, the surface area and volume of a sphere, but also derived an accurate approximation of pi.
  • Zoroaster and Ptolemy, who are holding the globes. The latter developed the geocentric model.
  • Raphael. Who does he represent? He represents himself, implying that artists are about to enter the Palace of Wisdom.

In certain figures, Raphael modeled their faces on ancient Greek busts of the philosophers themselves. However, in most cases, it was difficult to find their specific facial features. Therefore, like what Michelangelo did while decorating the Sistine Chapel, Raphael “attached” the faces of his contemporaries to a number of figures in the fresco. For example, Plato is believed to be portrayed as Leonardo da VinciArchimedes resembles the architect, painter and topographer BramanteHypatia is reminiscent of Raphael’s mistress Margarita Luti, and as I mentioned above, Heraclitus is portrayed as Michelangelo and Raphael’s self-portrait can also be found in the fresco.

If you are interested in Italian Renaissance art, how can you miss Raphael’s works? If you are a fan of Raphael, how can you miss his “School of Athens”? I have to say it was an amazing experience looking into the mind of the great artist when he was making the preparatory work and making a comparison between the actual fresco and its cartoon. If you come to Milan, don’t miss the drawing and if you go to the Vatican City, don’t miss the fresco.

6. Lucrezia Borgia’s hair and the gloves Napoleon wore at Waterloo

Room 8 is called the “Hall of the Medusa” because of the fountain carved by Giannino Castiglioni, and together with Room 9 (Hall of the Columns), it was acquired by the Ambrosiana in 1928. Their particular decorative atmosphere dates back to the Perfect Giovanni Galbiati, who between 1929 and 1931 appointed the commission to the architect Alessandro Minali. The rooms, which were closed after the Second World War, have been recovered and have kept as much of their original taste as possible. In the display cases between the two rooms, the most important collections of objects in the Ambrosiana are kept. For example, we can see the armillary spheres from the Settala Collection and a case that keeps a lock of Lucrezia Borgia’s hair, which is described by Lord Byron as “the prettiest and fairest imaginable.” Lucrezia Borgia was an Italian noblewoman of the House of Borgia and the daughter of Pope Alexander VI and Vannozza dei Cattanei. She reigned as the Governor of Spoleto, a position usually held by cardinals, in her own right. Next to her hair you can see the gloves Napoleon wore at Waterloo.

Pinacoteca Ambrosiana – Leonardo da Vinci and the secrets of the “Codex Atlanticus” was last modified: June 26th, 2019 by Dong

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