The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana

The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana was established in April 1618, when Cardinal Federico Borromeo donated his collection of paintings, drawings and statues to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, which he had founded in 1607.

Inside the Pinacoteca’s expositive path, articulated in 24 rooms, we can admire some of the greatest masterpieces of all times, like The Musician by Leonardo, The Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio, The cartoon for the School of Athens by Raphael , the Adoration of the Magi by Titian, the Madonna del Padiglione by Sandro Botticelli and the magnificent Vases of Flowers by Jan Brueghel.

In addition to Renaissance artworks, the museum’s collections include paintings by important 17th century Lombard artists (like Morazzone, Giulio Cesare Procaccini, Daniele Crespi and Carlo Francesco Nuvolone) as well as 18th century artists like Giandomenico Tiepolo, Fra’ Galgario, Francesco Londonio, and also a notable cluster of 19th and early 20th centuries authors like Andrea Appiani, Francesco Hayez and Emilio Longoni. Walking from a room to another you can also discover a series of genuine curiosities, like the gloves that Napoleon wore at Waterloo, the armillary spheres from the Settala Collection, or the case that keeps a lock of Lucrezia Borgia’s hair, in front of which many famous poets like Gabriele D’Annunzio and Lord Byron came to take inspiration.


On April 29th 1618 Cardinal Federico Borromeo donated his collection of paintings, statues, drawings and engravings to the Ambrosiana, instituting the Pinacoteca which, in his plans, was supposed to be a support and a model to a future fine arts Academy, to train and teach young artists in accordance with the Council of Trent’s dictates and the new needs of religious art.

So he completed the great project he had started in 1607 by founding the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, which was supposed since the beginning to become a real rampart for science and literature in the heart of Milan, opened to dialogue and deeply attached to the catholic doctrine at the same time.

The Ambrosiana Academy was established in 1621 and its first president was the painter Giovan Battista Crespi, called Cerano. The new institute, at the beginning, had a prosperous life: lots of architects, painters, famous sculptors like Biffi, Mangone, Procaccini, Morazzone, Daniele Crespi, Nebbia, came by and joined it. Unfortunately in 1776 it ceased to exist, while the Pinacoteca remained and grew more and more.

Initially the gallery consisted of 172 paintings, all coming from the Cardinal’s collection.

Among them there were absolute masterpieces like the Adoration of the Magi by Titian, The Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio, The cartoon for the School of Athens by Raphael, and Bernardino Luini’s Holy Family with Saint Anne and the infant Saint John. There was also an important cluster of artworks with landscapes and still lives, like those by Flemish artists Jan Brueghel and Paul Bril.

The criteria that led Borromeo throughout his collection enterprise are shown and explained in his 1625 treatise Musaeum, from which we can learn about his firm belief in the importance of artworks as educational and religious tools (as stated in the Council of Trent) and his optimistic vision about faith and the world, which came directly from his spiritual master saint Philip Neri. In his Musaeum Federico described scrupulously the look of the Pinacoteca’s painting section (set in four rooms at the time) following a strict subdivision by schools: the Venetian masters, the Leonardesques, the Flemish school, the section dedicated to the Cartoon for the School of Athens and the copies from Raphael (which also housed copies of ancient sculptures and of Michelangelo’s works).

As the centuries passed by, several donations by liberal patrons contributed significantly to enhance the Museum’s collections. The Settala Museum, which merged into the Ambrosiana in 1751, stands out among the others for its uniqueness. Manfredo Settala, eclectic friend of Borromeo, dedicated his whole life to the creation of a real encyclopaedic collection, based on the 16th century Wunderkrammer model: it featured not only paintings, engravings and manuscripts, but also “naturalia”, scientific tools, ethnographic finds and automatic self-moving devices too. Even the famous De Divina Proportione codex by Fra Luca Pacioli, illustrated by Leonardo, was part of his collection, and is today kept in the Biblioteca.

Apart from the Settala donation, it is worth remembering the De Pecis donation, thanks to which several Lombard, Venetian, Flemish schools paintings together with a precious series of neoclassic style golden bronzes entered the Ambrosiana, and the Melzi d’Eril donation, which enriched the gallery with the famous Madonna of the Towers by Bramantino and the Polittico di San Cristoforo by Vivarini. More recent are the Brivio and the Negroni Prati Morosini donations. The first one in 1959 brought to the Ambrosiana several artworks, like a Nativity from the school of Ghirlandaio and a Holy Family from Bellini’s workshop, while the second one, in 1962, gave the Ambrosiana the Portrait of Napoleon by Andrea Appiani, four portraits by Hayez and two paintings by Camillo Procaccini and Nuvolone.

Base and expositive path

Base of the Pinacoteca is an ancient building in the heart of Milan, located right on the ruins of the Roman forum.

During the centuries it has been object of several enlargements, which culminated at the end of the 1920s,  with the annexation of the Oblati’s Convent rooms, by the Santo Sepolcro church, where new spaces for the gallery were obtained. The new rooms were inaugurated in 1932 by Prefect Giovanni Galbiati, during the celebrations for the anniversary of Borromeo’s death. They were characterized by rich, eclectic decorations, set to celebrate historic moments and objects of the Ambrosiana through symbols, quotations and erudite inscriptions. The new wing, also called “the cloister wing”, was closed to the public after the 1966 arrangement, which was supervised by architect Caccia Dominioni and by the Prefect Angelo Paredi, and was inaccessible for decades.

The current structure comes from a complex and radical restoration intervention and a deep rearrangement of the collections, which took place at the Ambrosiana between 1991 and 1997.

The path starts from the origins of the Pinacoteca under the guidance of the Cardinal, to continue then with artworks coming from subsequent donations, following a chronological and educational clear path. The Cardinal’s collection was unified in the first floor’s rooms 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, maintaining where possible the division suggested by Federico himself in his Musaeum. The coeval age artworks, which were coming from subsequent donations, were placed in adjacent rooms and in the galleries which are overlooking the today’s reading room, creating a suggestive visual union with the Biblioteca. At the same time the Galbiati wing’s magnificent rooms were restored, where the path continues with art works from the Italian 16th century to the early 20th century.

In 2009 the path got richer with the creation of two more rooms, thanks to the starting of the Codex Atlanticus full exposition project: the Aula Leonardi – which was inaugurated in 1938 by Prefect Galbiati, but then destroyed during the 1943 bombings – was set up again. There were collected, in addition to Leonardo’s “Portrait of a Musician”, the art works directly or indirectly depending on the great genius da Vinci. Finally the visitors enter the Biblioteca Ambrosiana’s old 17th century reading room, the Federiciana Room, which was chosen as the frame for the Codex Atlanticus exhibition and as the ideal end of the visit.