Da Vinci’s “Portrait of a Musician” gets its own room at the Ambrosiana

The only panel painting by the Renaissance master that has remained in Italy is finally getting the space it deserves.

Leonardo Da Vinci's ‘Portrait of a Musician’ has been enclosed in a new display, equipped with electronic devices that allow continuous measurement of temperature and humidity. Pinacoteca Ambrosiana

Leonardo da Vinci lived in Milan for 22 years. The first time he stayed in the Duchy of Milan from 1482 to 1499 and returned from 1508 to 1513. He worked a lot in this city and, through the years, became one of its most precious symbols.

However, little remains of the Renaissance master in Milan. After the Napoleonic raids, it survived only what the French troops couldn’t steal, like the popular fresco “The Last Supper”, the painting made by Da Vinci under the rule of Ludovico il Moro, which depicts the last moments between Jesus and his disciples, on the walls of what was once the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, on Corso Magenta. 

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” was commissioned by Ludovico il Moro for the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie. It is considered one of the most famous paintings in the world.

The recently rediscovered mural decoration of the Sala Delle Asse inside the Sforza Castle has been saved, as well as a vast collection of writings and drawings, the Codex Atlanticus, now in the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana. The Milanese institution also houses the unfinished portrait of a young man, or musician, widely attributed to Da Vinci.

The painting, probably influenced by Antonello da Messina’s introduction of the Early Netherlandish style of portrait painting to Italy, constitutes a substantial departure from the profile portraiture that predominated in 15th-century Milan. It has many similarities with other paintings Leonardo completed here, such as the Louvre “Virgin of the Rocks” and the “Lady with an Ermine”, but the “Portrait of a Musician” is his only panel painting that has remained in the city since at least 1672.

Leonardo da Vinci, “Portrait of a Musician”, c. 1483–1487. © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana – Mondadori portfolio.

With an intimate inauguration ceremony on Wednesday, the art gallery unveiled the new room that has been reserved for this masterpiece. To ensure the best possible conservation and protection of Leonardo’s work, a new large case has been built around the panel. The painting has been enclosed in a climaframe display, equipped with electronic devices that allow continuous measurement of temperature and humidity. The initiative was carried out thanks to the support of the Intesa Sanpaolo bank and Fondazione UBI Banca Popolare Commercio & Industria.

“The musician has been placed in a display, new in concept and technology, in the room that was once the Oratory of Santa Corona, that the master probably visited many times” said Monsignor Alberto Rocca, director of the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana.

The history of this room dates back to 1497, when the Congregazione di Santa Corona was founded, a pious association of Milanese nobles, whose aim was to help the poor by distributing bread and wine. Leonardo da Vinci, to whom we owe the drawings of the plans of the lower and upper churches of San Sepolcro, right across the street, might have visited this very place several times.

Between 1521 and 1522, Bernardino Luini, with the assistance of collaborators, painted the fresco that still dominates the room today. From the end of the 16th century, the chamber became an oratory reserved for the celebrations of the adjacent church of San Sepolcro, until the beginning of the 19th century, when it was purchased by the Ambrosiana and, since then, took on different names –Coronation Hall, Sala del Cinquecento, Sala Luini –until 2009 when it was renamed Aula Leonardi.

A view of the recently renovated Aula Leonardi at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana.

In the same room, visitors can now see two works by the 17th-century painter Andrea Bianchi known as ‘il Vespino’: a copy of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” that was commissioned in 1609 to maintain a trace given the deterioration of the painting, which began practically upon completion, and a copy of the “Virgin of the Rocks,” extremely faithful to the version that is now in London at the National Gallery.

In front of “Portrait of a Musician,” the recently renovated room now houses “Saint John the Baptist” by Gian Giacomo Caprotti, known as ‘Salaino’, a student of Leonardo. On the opposite wall, there’s another painting attributed to Caprotti: “Head of Christ the Redeemer,” a faithful copy, probably made at the same time as the famous Salvator Mundi.

At last, these masterpieces of the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana have a dedicated space worthy of their value. Until the opening of this room, many were concerned about the state of the delicate painting, located near the exit door and exposed to the high humidity levels, typical of this region.

With the renovation of the final room of the museum, the Ambrosiana continues to establish itself as one of the most important collections, and museums in town. In pure Milan style, it maintains a long tradition of private collectors and philanthropists at the very center of the cultural life of the city. A long line of visionary people, to whom we owe the preservation of the most important masterpieces that can be seen in the city today.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.