Cleaning up Leonardo’s fancy room

The Castello Sforzesco’s walls have been hiding a secret for over five hundred years. It’s hard to believe that underneath up to thirteen layers of whitewash (in some places), lies a lost work of art by Leonardo Da Vinci. Finally, five hundred years later, the great master’s biggest Milanese project after the Last Supper will see the light of day.

The first question that springs to mind is, how did this happen? Leonardo himself reportedly said “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” And then lost and painted over, it would seem. It all started out well. Documents show that in 1498, Leonardo was commissioned by his Milanese patron, Ludovico “il Moro” Sforza – Duke of Milan from 1494 to 1498 – to decorate the room now known as the “Sala delle Asse” (the room of the planks).

The Sala, an imposing square hall with large windows overlooking the garden, was to be decorated using a kind of trompe d’oeil illusion to enlarge the indoor space by painting it to look like a natural botanical outdoor space, to flaunt the duchy’s magnificence to visiting dignitaries.

Leonardo’s genius went far beyond simply painting a fake pergola. To laud Ludovico’s pomp and splendour he chose to paint the Morus species, a deliberate reference to the Duke’s nickname “Moro”, and through the tangled branches across the ceiling and around the family’s coat of arms, he added some cords in gold. This was done to emphasise the duchy’s important economic position achieved by the development of a modern silk industry in the Lombardy region, using mulberry leaves to feed silk worms.

Unfortunately, it is very probable that Leonardo never finished the ambitious interior design project. In 1499, less than a year after the painting had started, Milan was conquered by the French, who seized the castle and chose to use it as a military base.

The castle passed from the French to the Spanish, when to add insult to injury, the pretty Sala was employed as a horse stable. It is documented that the mural was visible till the 1600’s and then covered by a layer of white plaster, removing all trace of Leonardo’s elaborate decorating job.

When it was finally reclaimed with the unification of Italy in 1861, the castle became the property of the Municipalità di Milano who launched a big renovation project to restore the castle to its former glory. During the restoration, Leonardo’s work was uncovered. One would assume this was the beginning of the rediscovery of the lost artwork, but alas no, some artists were called to repaint the ceiling mural but the charcoal sketched walls were deemed not original and therefore covered. It was only in 1954 following a post second world war restoration project that the small monochrome section was revealed and finally attributed to Leonardo.

Today’s sophisticated restoration project has exposed the charcoal section on one of the Sala’s walls which appears to depict a huge tree root embedded in a rock, confirming that the ornate ceiling decoration actually continued down on to the walls.


To discover whether more of Leonardo’s work is hiding, the ambitious assignment will remove the layers of whitewash and other residue which has accumulated over the years in order to reveal what really lies behind the Sala’s walls. So far, only a small section has been uncovered by hand with scalpels and hammers. The bulk of the project will be carried out using state of the art ultrasonic scaling machinery, laser equipment and chemicals with the hope of finding further sections of the monochrome.

Restauro-LeonardoThe complex operation is scheduled to last 18 months meaning the Sala will be closed to the public until May 2015. But after 500 years in hiding, the walls won’t be hidden away completely. Hand in hand with the technologically advanced restoration is an equally high tech reportage of the exciting process. The HOC-LAB website was set up and is managed by Milan’s Politecnico University. Everyone curious to see what’s going on at the castle can log on to the site and follow the latest developments. The website also has links to interviews with the protagonists of the restoration as well as pictures and other interesting information which will be updated on a monthly basis.

The estimated reveal date is May 2015, just in time for when Milan opens its doors for the Expo. The discovery couldn’t have come at a better time as Leonardo is the star of the artistic icon of the Expo. Two exhibition sites will be dedicated to his fascinating life and work; one at the Palazzo Reale and the other at the Castle itself so it’s essential that the Sala’s secret is ready not just for Milan, but for the whole world to see.

In an interesting twist, the walls of the Sala delle Asse are actually the second “lost” Leonardo work to be discovered. Earlier this year, another of Leonardo’s paintings was found in the private vault belonging to an Italian family in Switzerland. So next time you clear out your attic or give the lounge a lick of paint, have an extra special look, you never know what you might find!

For up to date news on the restoration project visit:

Samantha Candeggi

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