Milan: the majestic Room of Grechetto and its uncertain future

Alessandro Morandotti

A show brings the Orpheus Cycle, long attributed to Grechetto, to Palazzo Reale. But a book* casts doubt on the future of this masterpiece.



With some delay I came across an article, suggested by a friend of mine, which was published on the Italian daily newspaper ‘Corriere della Sera’ on the 27th January 2019. Through an interview with Filippo del Corno, Councillor for Culture of the city of Milan, commented by journalist Anna Gandolfi, I found out that the so-called Cycle of Grechetto housed in Palazzo Sormani, a majestic series of over twenty canvases depicting an incredible botanical-zoological diorama intended to represent animal and plant species from all over the world, would have soon been the core of an exhibition in the Hall of the Caryatids at Palazzo Reale in Milan. The not-so-easy process of transferring the whole work there (considering it is made of 200 squared meters of canvases, in some cases more than 5 meter high) embodies an attempt on the one hand to find funds for its restoration and on the other to evaluate its future destination in a public debate open to the citizens. The Councillor regarded as necessary to look for a more suitable location for that cycle. which is now part of the decoration of Palazzo Sormani, a property purchased by the Municipality in 1934 and house to the Civic Library since 1956.

Room of Grechetto

Anonymous Dutch artist, Pandolfo Reschi (1640-1696), Livio Mehus (1627-1691), Ciclo di Orfeo (dettaglio), c. 1675-1680 circa, oil on canvas, installation view at Palazzo Reale, Milano.

The Room of Grechetto, a disputable exhibition.

Immediately I started to feel a bit doubtful about the whole matter. That cycle is indeed the only remaining evidence of the antique decoration of Palazzo Sormani, one of the most important Milanese baroque buildings. Despite the work being commissioned towards the end of the 17th century for Palazzo Visconti, then Lunati, then Verri, in the heart of Monte Napoleone contrada, it has been re-set up in its current location through a link operation which, albeit falsified compared to the origin, historically represents an early 20th century reinterpretation of the old layout of the cycle, and is by now part of the established history of conservation of that complex of canvases.

Orpheus cycle milan

The Room of Grechetto in Palazzo Sormani Andreani, Milano.

the Orpheus cycle milan

Anonymous Dutch artist, Pandolfo Reschi (1640-1696), Livio Mehus (1627-1691), Room of Grechetto (detail), c. 1675-1680 circa, oil on canvas, installation view at Palazzo Reale, Milano.

Every move, every intervention must be monitored and carefully pondered to avoid rushed decisions. The restoration and a new potential set up must be carefully evaluated; and the criteria guiding pictorial integrations and reshaping when the cycle is transferred from Palazzo Visconti Lunati Verri to Palazzo Sormani must be understood and respected so not to disassemble a mosaic without then being able to put it together again.

Despite being familiar with the Councillor, I was writing him a rather concerned email, stressing that I was against the dismantling of an historical room such as this one.

I was also very puzzled by the whole exhibiting operation, a showcase intended to get funding for the restoration works, as I believed that organising a show where the cycle is actually housed would have been a more prudent move: its current location, helped with the proper lighting, would have certainly been more suitable to prove the quality of the canvases, thus allowing the exhibition of two further elements of the cycle which are currently preserved in the Library’s offices and hadn’t found a place in the rearrangement of the early 20th century. They could have been set up in the wide room in front of the staircase through which you can access the main room from the street, with an independent entrance from that of Sormani Civic Library. In that same anteroom it could also have been possible to present a virtual revival of the original layout of the cycle at Palazzo Visconti Lunati Verri, based on some 19th century-paintings of the room which was originally housing it before it was moved to Palazzo Sormani.

I doubted that, following the falsification at the beginning of the 20th century, the cycle could still be re-proposed without gaps and inconsistencies as compared to the original project, considering that the size of the room at Palazzo Sormani is smaller than the one which hosted it at first, at Palazzo Visconti Lunari Verri.

the Orpheus cycle milan

Anonymous Dutch artist, Pandolfo Reschi (1640-1696), Livio Mehus (1627-1691), Room of Grechetto (detail), c. 1675-1680 circa, oil on canvas, installation view at Palazzo Reale, Milano.

the Orpheus cycle Milan

Gioachino Banfi, Room in Palazzo Verri in Milan, 1870, oil on canvas, Milano, galleria d’Arte Moderna.

Issues on the ground.

On March 14th, right after the opening, I was visiting the exhibition at Palazzo Reale, titled: ‘Il Meraviglioso Mondo della Natura’. I must admit that my perplexity surrounding the core idea of the exhibition, that is re-proposing the layout of the cycle as it was in its original location, Palazzo Visconti Lunati Verri, was indeed confirmed.

The history of art restoration teaches us that it was common practice, particularly in the 17th century, to scale up or cut paintings to decorate the walls of a palace, a hall or other rooms, albeit harmoniously directed and always respectful of the spaces to be furnished. Concerning the conservation of the artworks we all know how hard it is to go back once that choices are made. Sometimes they can be radical yet needed for interior decoration’s purposes. This is why, once the cycle at Palazzo Sormani has been disarranged in the attempt to present it again in the wider spaces of its ancient location which has been artificially reconstructed in the Hall of the Caryatids at Palazzo Reale, there is a lack of congruence, mostly due to the manipulations and adjustments the canvases had been subjected to at the beginning of the 20th century.

Based on the measurements of the room stated in archival documents, the full-scale Visconti Lunati Verri room recreated by set designer Margherita Palli, as well as on the 19th century-visual records that attest the cycle in its original location, doesn’t really look good.

There are huge gaps to be filled, due to the lack of some elements that went lost or were transformed by the early 20th century intervention. Also the under-ceiling canvases’ alignment, an effect wanted since the origin so to give the idea of a real covering tapestry, has not been properly observed.

Recreating the original room only on a supposed basis, where canvases can no longer fit as their dimensions have changed, has been rather risky.

Ultimately what comes out is that if the Municipality pursued the idea of dismantling Palazzo Sormani’s room, then the cycle should be re-arranged taking into account its last set-up and not according to the spaces it had been originally thought for.

*This writing has been extracted by the author, Alessandro Morandotti, from his book ‘Una mostra, un trasloco. Destini della sala del Grechetto di Palazzo Sormani a Milano’, published in June 2019 by Scalpendi editore, Milano.

November 7, 2019