Lots of Humilitas and a bit of Samsung

If a tourist from abroad comes across the name Borromeo, it will probably be for the ‘Isole Borromeo,’ islands on Lake Maggiore, Isola Bella and Isola Madre, famous for the classical villas containing priceless works of art, and lovely gardens populated by hundreds of botanical species as well as peacocks, pheasants and parrots.

The Borromeo family itself is still flourishing, and it continues to do what its ancestors did centuries ago: preserving and enhancing their massive heritage of art and culture. Many parts of this heritage are open to the public.

The Borromeos were initially bankers, and they reached Lombardy in 1370, acquiring importance in the Visconti court for their economic power. In the 15th century, they concentrated on the conversion of their capital into property, at the same time transforming what had previously been military fortifications into beautiful, palatial villas.

In the same period, Carlo Borromeo (1538-1584), probably the most famous member of the family, became archbishop of Milan, and, amidst the turmoil of the counter-Reformation, promoted a new morality in the diocese, as well as modernizing its structures. After his premature death, he was buried in a fine tomb in the crypt of Milan’s Cathedral, even before his canonization by the Pope.

Carlo’s cousin Federigo Borromeo (1564-1631) also set out on a career in the church, and became Cardinal at the age of just 23. Notwithstanding this success, he chose, as his personal motto, the word ‘Humilitas,’ humility, later adopted by all the Borromeos after him. After having been made archbishop of Milan, he dedicated much of his energy to one of his fields of interest, art and literature. He invested a lot of his own personal wealth (deriving principally from income generated by the family’s properties) to developing his collections, with an objective that at that time was new and unusual: to help the entire population increase their own level of culture.

Federigo began to form a library, dedicated to Saint Ambrose, patron saint of Milan, and started by depositing his own books. To find more, he took on eight experts and sent them to France, Spain, Germany, Flanders, Greece, Lebanon and Jerusalem, as well as to other Italian cities, instructing them to purchase every text that they could find. In this way, he collected about 14,000 manuscripts and 30,000 printed volumes. These include some valuable ‘incunables,’ which were the earliest printed books, those dating to before 1501. Even in his day they were rare. Forty-eight of these incunables are each the only known example in existence. Other priceless documents include the letter that Christopher Columbus wrote to the king and queen of Spain in 1493 after his return from the first voyage to the New World.

For the upkeep of his growing collection, in 1607 Federigo formed a ‘Council of Doctors.’ In 1618 he added the Quadreria Ambrosiana to the library, a collection of principally Counter-Reformation paintings and sculptures. From the start, this was an appreciable treasure, with about 250 works includinig pieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Luini, Titian, Caravaggio and Brueghel, as well as the large (8.04 x 2.85 metres) cartoon made by Raphael for the fresco ‘The School of Athens’ painted in the Vatican. Federigo’s objective with the new Gallery was to form an innovative Fine Arts Academy, and to inspire the appreciation of beauty as a positive life model.

The "Musico" by Leonardo da Vinci

The “Musico” by Leonardo da Vinci

Federigo was also buried in the Cathedral, in a simple tomb under the floor reflecting his doctrine of humility. But his heritage lives on in the form of his collections, which are still governed by the Collegio dei Dottori who supervise their conservation, and their growth through donations and bequests.

One of the most important donations came from Marquis Galeazzo Arconati, who gave the library – Biblioteca Ambrosiana – a codex by Leonardo da Vinci, the Codex Atlanticus, so-named for the large size of the volume. It is the largest collection of the artist’s drawings in the world, comprising 1,119 sheets dating from 1478 to 1519, with almost 2,000 drawings and notes, most of which are on technical and scientific themes.

Today, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana possesses 35,000 manuscripts, about a million printed books including 2,455 incunables, 25,000 prints, and Carlo Borromeo’s massive output of writings, over 40,000 letters.

Today, Federigo’s original goal of making culture available to all has been brought up to date, and this vast heritage is being replicated in digital format, the so-called Digital Ambrosiana on Internet (DAI). This makes it possible to view documents and print copies of them without actually touching them. A system has been developed by a digital technology consortium, CILEA, that ensures that the digital documents remain secure on the Biblioteca Ambrosiana’s server, without any risk of illicit modification.

The Codex Atlanticus can be seen in its original format, sheet by sheet, in two locations: the Federiciana hall in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, and the Sacrestia del Bramante at Santa Maria delle Grazie. Every three months, 44 sheets of Leonardo’s drawings are placed on show. The entire Codex will have been exhibited by June 2015.

The ‘Quadreria’ has become the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, with over 1,500 works spanning from the Middle Ages up to the 20th centuries. The College of Doctors has developed an international scientific community, with representatives in 97 universities and cultural institutions. The scholars develop research, and occasionally meet at conferences.

Another step in the modernization of the cultural heritage is the Ambrosiana’s cooperation with Samsung Italia. Visitors to the Pinacoteca and the Sacrestia del Bramante at Santa Maria delle Grazie can hire a Galaxy S III smartphone for €3, with which they can download texts in Italian and English, with videos, images and multimedia animations. You just have to bring the cellphone close to one of the 50 ‘tags’ installed alongside the most important works to be able to enjoy an interesting range of explanatory material.

You can savour this world of high-tech ‘Humilitas’ at the gallery, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, in Piazza Pio XI 2, Milan, Metro station Duomo, and at the Sacrestia, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Metro station Conciliazione.

Henry Neuteboom

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