The tour of Casa degli Atellani and Leonardo’s Vineyard is divided into seven sections and each visitor is provided with an audio guide available in ten languages.
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CHRONICLE OF A PROJECT - Piero Portaluppi and the Atellani houses
Not far from Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and in front of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the Casa degli Atellani is, albeit modified over the centuries, the only building on Corso Magenta that still retains its Renaissance aspect. But who were the Atellanis? The Atellanis were a family of courtiers and diplomats, originally from Basilicata in the south of Italy. They travelled north during the fifteenth century, in the service of the Dukes of Milan, Ludovico Sforza and the Sforza family. And it was Ludovico who in 1490 gave the family two neighbouring courtyard houses with gardens located in Borgo delle Grazie, today’s Corso Magenta. One of the houses was at number 67, which no longer exists, and the other, which was probably rebuilt in the early sixteenth century, was on the site of the current entrance at number 65. The descendants of the Atellanis lived here until the seventeenth century.
In 1919, Senator Ettore Conti became the new owner and entrusted the architect Piero Portaluppi, his son-in-law, with the task of turning the properties into his new home. Portaluppi knocked down the wall that separated the two houses and made a single house, joining the two existing courtyards with a new entrance porch, under which the entrance to the main apartment was located. The plan for the new house was organised around an unusual perspectival axis that extended to the inner garden. At the end of the first courtyard, the architect uncovered three walls of frescoes, which were probably painted in 1533 on the occasion of the marriage of Francesco Sforza the Second and Christina of Denmark. Other details dating from the same period, such as the arches and overhang on the first floor, were revealed along the walls of the second courtyard.
Around the gateway on Corso Magenta, Portaluppi designed triangular lobed windows and the gate, which bears the motif of the oriflamme, or standard. The part of the building and façade overlooking the road today were rebuilt by the architect after the war, to repair damage caused by bombing in August 1943. Portaluppi lived in the apartment on the ground floor, right at the bottom of the second courtyard, where even today, the little house, the symbol of his studio, still hangs.
THE ZODIAC HALL - Faire sans dire
In the Middle Ages, it was common for religious buildings to be decorated with astrological images. And from the end of the thirteenth century, the practice became widespread in civic buildings too. The Zodiac Hall in the Atellani house is documented as early as 1544. The hall is named after the signs of the zodiac painted in the lunettes, while on the vaults are the carriages of the planets, and on the walls, a map of Italy, the Rose of the winds and some figures representing the seasons.
Today there are fourteen lunettes facing the twelve zodiac signs. In 1922, Portaluppi expanded the room by knocking down a slanted wall with windows that bordered it. He then decorated the additional space with the astrolabes he was so fond of and he designed two new lunettes, recognizable by his own motto faire sans dire (do without speaking) and the initials H and J, which stood for Hector and Joanna, the names of Ettore Conti and his wife, Giannina Casati. For the floor mosaic, Portaluppi redesigned planets and signs of the zodiac, complimenting the frescoes on the wall, and where the two columns rest, he diagonally traced the area of the wall that had been knocked down - the wall that had separated the two old houses.
Piero Portaluppi was one of the most important architects working in Milan in the twentieth century. Many of the works in the city are his designs, including the building with the arch and planetarium on Corso Venezia, the Banca Commerciale building on Largo Mattioli and Villa Necchi Campiglio on Via Mozart. The Zodiac Hall is one of Portaluppi’s masterpieces in the art of concealment, showing his ability to mix the real and ancient with falsified history. The western wall is essentially highly manipulated, but the walls to the east, restored by the architect and Conti in 1922, are authentic. The creator of these frescoes is unknown - a guess is that they may be the work of Avogadro di Tradate, who belonged to a family of painters active in the sixteenth century.
THE LUINI HALL - A case of courtly devotion
The Atellani family was extremely devoted to the Sforzas, the dynasty to which they remained consistently faithful and for which, during the Italian wars of the early sixteenth century, they carried out several diplomatic assignments. A sign of this devotion is certainly the Hall of Portraits, the room on the ground floor of the house where, in a vaulted ceiling of lunettes completely frescoed with arabesques and floral motifs, fourteen tondi were painted with the features of men and women from the Sforza dynasty.
To identify the members of the Sforza family, you need to decipher the inscription that accompanies each portrait. Missing from the fourteen portraits is Christina of Denmark, the wife of Francesco the Second: an absence that reasonably dates the painting of the portraits to after 1522, the year of the second Sforza restoration, but to no later than 1533, the year of Francesco and Christina’s marriage.
The fourteen figures portrayed are: directly above the entrance, Muzio Attendolo Sforza, father of Francesco the First and founder of the dynasty; to his left Francesco the Second, the last duke, and to his right, his brother Massimiliano, the penultimate duke. On the two long sides, four pairs face each other, males facing males, females facing females. To the left of the entrance we see, in order, Bianca Maria Visconti and her husband Francesco the First; Ludovico Sforza and his wife Beatrice d'Este; and to the right, in order, Bona di Savoia and Galeazzo Maria, successor to Francesco the First; and Gian Galeazzo Maria and Isabella of Aragon, the couple that tried to reign unsuccessfully, forever opposed by Ludovico. On the short side opposite, the Cardinal Ascanio, brother of Ludovico, is surrounded by Bianca Maria, daughter of Galeazzo Maria, and her husband Massimiliano the First of Habsburg, the only intruder in the group.
The Hall of Portraits is today attributed with certainty to Bernardino Luini and his workshop, in other words, Bernardino Luini and his four children. Only the floral designs on the ceiling and vaults, however, are original. In 1902, in order to prevent the repeated threat of the portraits being sold abroad, they were purchased by the City of Milan and transferred to the museum of Castello Sforzesco, where they can still be seen today. The frescoes now in the room are copies made in the 1920s, at the time of Portaluppi’s project.
THE STAIRCASE HALL - From the Atellani family onwards
The staircase of the Atellani house gives us a glimpse of the rest of this building’s history. Between the Atellani family and Ettore Conti, the houses had three different owners over four centuries. In the seventeenth century, Barbara, the last Atellani, married Count Cesare Taverna, a direct descendant of Francesco Taverna and a member of one of the most important Milanese families of the time. With the death of Barbara, the houses were bequeathed to Taverna, who never lived in them.
In 1778, he sold them to the Pianca family. Don Angelo Pianca was the first to make any changes when in 1823 the building was given neoclassical features by the architect Carlo Aspari and his father, the engraver Domenico. The houses changed owners again less than thirty years later, thanks to the marriage of the only Pianca heir to Count Martini di Cigala. In 1919, the Martini di Cigala family, Turin nobility, sold the houses to Ettore Conti. Portaluppi’s first project, from 1922 onwards, redesigned the courtyards and garden, as well as the structure and interior of the house. But it left Aspari’s neoclassical façade on Corso Magenta intact. This façade was later removed in the postwar period. In 1922, this staircase, designed by Portaluppi, led to the enfilade of large halls on the first floor, which were destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. The rooms included the so-called Omnibus room, the vestibule, the billiard room and the hall of mirrors, as well as the dining room, the only room preserved in that section. The floral friezes near the ceiling adorned the façade overlooking the garden. They are some of the many traces and relics from the time of the Atellani family, which the architect rediscovered and repositioned during the construction process. These pieces include the crucifixion and the fifteenth-century Lombard throne of grace that can be found on the walls next to entrance. Piero Portaluppi granted military honours to the Taverna, Pianca and Martini families, setting their coats of arms into the staircase’s balustrade. On the walls are an eighteenth-century plan of the house, then owned by Count Taverna, and a contemporary copy by Veronese.
ETTORE CONTI’S STUDIO – From the Notebook of a Gentleman
The senator and engineer Ettore Conti was the first real Italian magnate in the electricity industry. In the early twentieth century, he built a number of hydroelectric power plants in the Alpine valleys, often designed by Portaluppi, becoming one of the most important industrialists of the Fascist twenties. As First Chairman of Agip and Chairman of Confindustria, responsible for economic delegations abroad, and Chairman of the Banca Commerciale for fifteen years, Conti was one of the few Italians who Mussolini couldn’t intimidate.
Above the fireplace in Conti’s studio is the crest of alliance designed for the wedding of Christina of Denmark and Francesco the Second Sforza, which was probably commissioned by Atellani to remedy the fact that Christina wasn’t included in the group of fourteen Sforza portraits in the Luini Hall. The crest contains the insignia of all those involved in the marriage. The quarters on the left, the eagle of the Empire and the snake granted by the Visconti, apply to Francesco the Second; the quarters on the right are for Christina. The three lions represent Denmark, the three crowns Sweden, the golden lion Norway, the golden dragon the Kingdom of the Wends, on the Baltic Sea; in the square, two lions represent Schleswig, the nettle leaf Holstein, the swan County Storman and the two red bands the Oldenburg.
The library and walls of the studio, complete with caryatids, are lined with seventeenth-century wood panelling produced by the Valtellina School. The four portraits of dogs are attributed to the German Baroque painter Rosa da Tivoli, while on the opposite wall hangs a Tower of Babel by Marten van Valckenborch, a late sixteenth-century Flemish painter.
In 1946 Ettore Conti published Dal taccuino di un borghese - From the Notebook of a Gentleman - his pre-war memoir. He died in 1972 at the age of 101. He’s buried with his wife in the fourth chapel on the left of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the basilica whose restoration he financed twice, once before and once after the war.
In another chapel of delle Grazie, the sixth on the right, rest the members of the Atellani family.
THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS – The novellas of Matteo Bandello
The Atellani house experienced its golden age in the period between 1490, the year in which Ludovico Sforza gave the property to the Atellani family, and 1535, the year in which, after many vicissitudes, Francesco the Second Sforza died and the Duchy of Milan fell into foreign hands. It was in these years that Matteo Bandello, a Dominican friar at the Basilica delle Grazie, a courtier and a man of letters, and close friend of the Atellani family, set most of his novellas.
The 214 Novelle by Bandello, which were published in 1554, are generally recognized as the most important stories of the sixteenth century. Many of the novellas are announced by the Atellanis, or have the Atellanis as spectators; many are told and set against the background of their home and garden, a place of dinners and parties, a privileged centre of Milanese social life. And it was precisely in the area that extended across the front of this garden, from today’s Corso Magenta to today’s Via San Vittore, that Ludovico Sforza dreamt of building a residential neighbourhood where he could host his most loyal courtiers.
But the dream didn’t survive Ludovico’s fall from power in 1500 and the area was still green and intact until 1922, when Portaluppi embarked on his first project and the private Via De' Grassi was constructed, the current boundary of Casa degli Atellani. Photos from that time show a neglected garden, with a long greenhouse dividing it in two. In the nineteenth century, the garden had been a romantic English garden, in which it is said that Ercole Silva, the landscape architect who’d introduced the English garden style to Italy in the early nineteenth century, had had a hand. That same garden was redesigned by Portaluppi according to new rules of symmetry, around an avenue consisting of cypress trees, adorned with amphoras and stone statues, completed by parterres and fountains.
The eastern wing of the building adjoining the Palazzo delle Stelline is the only part of the building to have been added by Portaluppi in 1922. Portaluppi, who never left his home, not even during the war, not even during the bombardment, died in 1967 and now rests at the Cimitero Monumentale. After the war, the architect Piero Castellini raised a little dust in the garden, partly filling the borders and hedges designed by his grandfather.
LEONARDO’S VINEYARD - A hidden passion
Leonardo moved to Milan, to the court of Ludovico Sforza, in 1482. Sixteen years later, in 1498, Ludovico gave Leonardo a vineyard. It was a rectangular plot, measuring 59 meters wide by 175 meters long, extending in the direction of Via De' Grassi; a vineyard consisting of nearly sixteen poles, and over a hectare of land. Part of Leonardo’s vineyard was here, on the perimeter of the garden belonging to Casa degli Atellani.
Leonardo da Vinci died in France, in Amboise, on the 2nd of May 1519. In his will, he asked that his vineyard, which he’d never forgotten, be divided into two equal lots: one for Giovanbattista Villani, the servant who’d looked after him to the end; the other to his favourite pupil, Gian Giacomo Caprotti, known as Salaì. Villani gave his share to a monastery; Salaì, who built a small house on the plot, was killed in this very district on the 19th of January 1524.
After his death, Francesco the Second Sforza, the last Duke of Milan, donated the lot to Giovan Francesco Stampa, a distant cousin of Barbara Stampa, originally of the Atellani family. For four centuries, Leonardo’s vineyard fell into obscurity, until Portaluppi began reconstruction of Casa degli Atellani. It was during this period that the architect and Leonardo expert Luca Beltrami, using Renaissance deeds and documents, determined the possible location of Leonardo’s vineyard, just at the bottom of this garden. He photographed the vineyard belonging to Leonardo and Salai, which incredibly was still intact, before it was destroyed by fire and the pressing needs of urban planning.
In recent years, the Portaluppi Foundation and the current owners of the house have promoted a research project around the site of Leonardo’s vineyard. Digging in the area recognized by Beltrami, pathways regulating the rows of vines, which were buried under rubble from the 1943 bombing, were identified. Thanks to organic material found at the site, Professor Attilio Scienza, a leading expert on grapevine DNA, managed to trace the DNA of the grape variety grown by Leonardo: Malvasia di Candia. On the basis of these results, and in the location identified by Luca Beltrami at the bottom of Casa degli Atellani’s garden, Leonardo’s vineyard was replanted in 2015 with the same grapes along the original planting rows, and is now reborn.