No visit to Milan is complete without a visit to the Sforza Castle. It’s imposing size and long history make it one of the most interesting and important sights in Milan. Like the Duomo of Milan, the Sforza Castle is a symbol of the City of Milan. Over the centuries, it’s served as a military fort, a residence, barracks, and lastly, a museum complex. Here are ten interesting facts to know before you visit:
1. Sforza Castle Has Roman Roots
The castle was built in the area known in Roman times as Castrum Portae Jovis, which is where barracks for the Roman Praetorian guard were located. In fact, Milan, known then as Mediolanum was the capital of the Roman Empire between 286 AD and 402 AD.
2. The Original Castle Was Built in 1360
The Visconti family, who ruled Milan in the 14th century, built the original castle between 1360 to 1370. The castle was used for military defense as well as the Visconti family residence. When the Sforza family came into power in 1450, the castle was expanded significantly.
3. Leonardo da Vinci Left His Mark on the Castle
In 1498 Leonardo da Vinci painted an entire room of the castle. The “Sala delle Asse” was commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. The room’s walls were painted to look like an intricate forest scene, the ceiling resembling a canopy of trees. The room and significant remnants of da Vinci’s work are still visible and have undergone restoration over the years. The Sale delle Asse is currently being restored once again.
4. It’s Been Invaded by Many
The City of Milan has been conquered many times over the centuries. The Spanish, Austrian, and French armies all ruled Milan at various times. During the chaos of military campaigns, the castle was almost completely destroyed and rebuilt many times. In 1799 Napoleon conquered Milan and ordered modifications to the castle and the surrounding area. Then, after years of neglect and use as strictly military barracks, an effort began in 1893 to restore the castle to its former glory.
5. It’s a Museum Complex
The modern day Sforza Castle houses 18 different museums, archives and libraries. Included in the price of admission is access to many museums; the Ancient Art and Arms museum, Picture Gallery, Furniture Gallery, and Musical Instrument Gallery to name a few. A full list of museums can be found here.
6. Michelangelo’s Last Sculpture in on Display
Michelangelo’s last, unfinished sculpture, the Rondanini Pietà, which he began in 1552 and worked on until the last days of his life is displayed in the Rondanini Pietà-Michelangelo Museum located on the castle grounds in a stunning room which was used as a hospital during the Spanish occupation. Entry into the museum is included in the price of admission into the castle.
7. The Visconti Coat of Arms is Everywhere
At every turn while visiting the castle you’ll see the famed Visconti coat of arms, a snake eating what appears to be a man/child. Why this cruel scene on a family coat of arms? According to legend, Ottone Visconti took part in the Second Crusade and battled the cruel Saracen Voluce. Visconti killed the Saracen and took his coat of arms (the snake eating a man) as his own. The Visconti coat of arms was adopted by the Sforza family, and eventually by the city of Milan and Alfa Romeo, the Milanese based car company.
IMPORTANT NOTE: As is the case all over Italy, a Green Pass (an EU vaccination passport) or an equivalent is required to enter. As an American who was vaccinated in the US, my CDC vaccine card and passport have been sufficient at every museum I’ve entered Italy. The castle is open Tuesday through Sunday. Hours can vary so check their hours here before visiting.