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June 16, 2022

Visit to the villa in early June 2021

I well recall that precisely one year ago, when the sweltering streets of Milan began to feel the effects of the June days, I made my way to one of the city's many hidden beauties of “industrial city” on the Peninsula. At least that's what they claim, and I'm sure of one thing: Milan is a place for those ready to delve into its essence and find the history behind the closed doors of monumental portals. That is how I arrived at Casa Degli Atellani, one of the many houses of historic Milanese families, whose homes are open to the public today, where they can enjoy the actual Milanese architectural signature. Casa Degli Atellani, however, differs from other family home museums because its history goes back to the 15th century. It spans the lives of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, and Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance master whom himself resided in this unique structure while working on Il Cenacolo, also known as The Last Supper, in the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery, directly across from the Atellani residence. He also looked after the grapes in his vineyard, formerly on the city's outskirts but now in its very centre.

The atrium at the entrance to Casa degli Atellani

The church was chosen by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, as his family's mausoleum, and a neighbourhood was constructed around it. A few years after completing what he had envisioned, he gifted his knight Giacometto di Lucia dell'Atellani three mansions, each divided by gardens and an atrium and leans on the other. The Atellani lived in the homes up to the seventeenth century, when the first renovation was made: the architect Carlo Aspari gave it a neoclassical makeover. Then, following several ownership changes, Ettore Conti, the first industrial magnate of the Italian electrical sector and one of the first to adopt the then-new technology, purchased them in 1919. He first sold the first of the three homes, after which he recruited Pietro Portaluppi, the architect without whom Milanese architecture in the 20th century cannot be described. Regrettably, the Atellani home was entirely damaged by a bombing during World War II in 1943. The reconstruction that gave it its current look took place between 1946 and 1952, also by the Portaluppi idea.

The interior of one of the Atellani houses

However, with this article, I will go back to when the houses, including Milan, were ruled by the already mentioned Ludovico Sforza. This "arbiter of Italy" was an Italian Renaissance nobleman who ruled as Duke of Milan from 1494 to 1499. Ludovico Sforza created a prosperous court in Milan, attracting artists, intellectuals, and musicians. Indeed, between 1478 and 1482, Donato Bramante and Leonardo da Vinci moved to Milan from Florence, the capital of the Italian Renaissance. As a result, two artists, among the most important figures of the art scene of the Apennine peninsula of that time, worked on the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, creating one of the most extraordinary colossal complexes in Italian architecture history.

Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie

Cenacolo Vinciano, part of the wall painting

Leonardo da Vinci, 1495-1498 

Leonardo da Vinci arrived in Milan in 1482 after presenting himself to the city's ruler with a letter stating his abilities as a painter, musician, military engineer, and architect. He stayed at Ludovico's court until 1499 and was employed as an artist, inventor of marvellous spectacles and scenery, and an engineer and sculptor. From this period, date his studies on the Lombardian canal systems, the portrait of Ludovico's favourite Cecilia Gallerani, known as the Lady with the Ermine (now in Krakow), and the project of the equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza, father of Ludovico Sforza, which Leonardo was unable to complete. The decoration of Sala delle Asse in Castello Sfrozesco also remained unfinished.

At the end of the century, Ludovico Sforza wanted to make the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie a place to celebrate his power and his long lineage. He provided funding for significant construction projects within the complex, such as Donato Bramante's design of the sanctuary. Ludovico commissioned a wall painting of Christ at the Last Supper with the twelve apostles from Leonardo da Vinci, who was tasked with decorating the dining room. The entire northern wall of the Dominican monastery's refectory is taken up by The Last Supper, also known as the Cenacolo Vinciano. It is situated in the room where the friars gathered for meals, prayer, and meditation. Leonardo da Vinci went across the street to the Santa Maria delle Grazie church daily and worked on Sforza's order until 1498.


Cenacolo Vinciano, wall painting

Leonardo da Vinci, 1495-1498

But another somewhat forgotten story connects Leonardo da Vinci with Milan. Sforza granted him possession of a vineyard established and cultivated in the Case degli Atellani garden fields as payment for the work completed and after he completed The Last Supper in 1498. This vineyard was cared for by da Vinci and produced wine. In April 1500, the French king's troops won, putting Sforza behind bars, and Leonardo left Milan. He managed to recover his vineyard after the French took it. On his deathbed in 1519, he mentioned the vineyard in his will, leaving part of it to his servant and the other to his preferred student Gian Giacomo Caprotti, better known as Salai. This lovely vineyard still produces Key Atellano, a superb wine, and its interior features statues, fruit trees, and a rose garden.

The garden behind the house; La vigna di Leonardo (Leonardo da Vinci's vineyard) 

Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo da Vinci, and Piero Portaluppi. These are the melodic names of Italian and world heritage, followed by significant examples of architecture and art. Visiting three hidden beauties – Cenacolo Vinciano in Santa Maria delle Grazie, Casa degli Atellani and La vigna di Leonardo – proves that discreet elegance is the greatest. At least that's what Milan teaches us.

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