Milan, an exhibition on 18th-century drawings reproducing the Gonzaga Tapestries of the Duomo

From Jan. 27 to May 2, 2023, the Milan Cathedral Museum hosts the exhibition "Interweaving Silk, Copper, Ink. The Story of the Gonzaga Tapestries," an in-depth look at the 18th-century drawings prepared for engravings reproducing the Gonzaga Tapestries.

The Duomo Museum in Milan, inside the Tapestry Rooms, is hosting from January 27 to May 2, 2023 an in-depth visit among drawings, archival material and videos to tell the fascinating story of the Gonzaga Tapestries, among the most unique works of the itinerary. Indeed, the presence of some refined tapestries of Mantuan origin within the collections of the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo may arouse curiosity: such in-depth study takes the public back in time, to the 16th century, to reveal their provenance and events.

Heart of the exhibition entitled Interweaving Silk, Copper, Ink. The Story of the Gonzaga Tapestries are the eighteenth-century preparatory drawings for engravings depicting tapestries belonging to the famous Stories of Moses series , presented to the public for the first time after careful restoration. Seven protagonists at the center of a plot developed in different eras. A story in which the sumptuous warp of the original tapestries is interwoven with the minutiae of elegant drawings executed in India ink.

The interesting events of the famous series of Gonzaga Tapestries, of which only four examples already part of the collection of the Milan Cathedral Museum survive, originate in the mid-sixteenth century, when in all likelihood Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga, de facto regent of the Duchy of Mantua on behalf of his teenage nephew Guglielmo Gonzaga (who became duke at a very young age, only twelve years old) commissioned the works from Nicola Karcher (Brussels, 1497/1498 - Mantua, 1562), one of the leading tapestry makers of the time, who made the tapestries from cartoons by Giovan Battista Bertani (Mantua, 1516-1576), a pupil of Giulio Romano. The seven yarns were thus born with a celebratory purpose of the Gonzaga court and bear the insignia of the Duke of Mantua. It was Guglielmo Gonzaga himself who donated the series to Cardinal Carlo Borromeo in 1563, and it was he who brought them to Milan. A few years later, the now Archbishop of Milan Carlo Borromeo gifted the seven valuable tapestries to the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo in exchange for the construction of some canonicals adjacent to the archbishop’s palace.

The original series consisted of the following subjects, of which the first four are currently on display inside the Milan Cathedral Museum, located in two different but adjacent rooms: Putti Games, The Bronze Serpent, Crossing the Red Sea, Moses Receives the Tables of the Law, The Gathering of the Manna, Moses before Pharaoh, The Passover of the Hebrews.

The seven drawings featured in the exhibition faithfully reproduce the scenes from the tapestries of the original series and were made in the 18th century by Gaetano Le Poer (18th century), the artist who was the author of both the preparatory drawings and the intaglio plates needed for the engravings: he was commissioned by the Fabbrica del Duomo, which due to the excessively high maintenance costs and conservation difficulties decided to sound out the terrain and search for possible interested buyers. The volume, which was produced in several more or less valuable versions, was thus intended as a kind of “catalog” that could nimbly illustrate tapestries in the best Courts of Europe. However, the sale of the tapestries was never successful,

A turning point in this affair is the August 3, 1906 fire that ravaged the pavilion of the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo at the headquarters of theUniversal Exhibition in Milan. Three of the seven tapestries were on display at that time to be presented to the public of great occasions: instead, they were fatally destroyed by the flames. These were the examples depicting The Gathering of the Manna, Moses before Pharaoh and The Passover of the Hebrews, which have since been lost forever.

Gaetano Le Poer’s drawings and copperplates thus make it possible to learn about the iconography of the specimens lost in the fire and assume inestimable documentary value for the telling of this complex story, with its truly astonishing interweavings. The seven drawings and intaglio plates are currently preserved in the Historical Archives of the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo, together with the 18th-century volume, bound in marbled paper, one of the volumes that has survived to the present day and among the five present in Italy.

The display, created with the collaboration of the Milan Polytechnic, is enriched by a video made by the Free University of Languages and Communication IULM, in which images, graphic drawings and a narrator’s voice guide the visitor to discover the most significant stages of this engaging history. The restoration of the 18th-century drawings is the work of Elena Allodi. The restoration of the copper plates was carried out by Franco Blumer.

Declares Monsignor Gianantonio Borgonovo, Archpriest of the Duomo of Milan and Director of the Cultural Area of the Veneranda Fabbrica: “This exhibition aims to retrace a little-known event of our past that originated from a ’double gift’: the one that Guglielmo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, made to Carlo Borromeo and later Borromeo himself - once he became Archbishop of Milan - to the Fabbrica del Duomo. It was thanks to this chain of generous events that, in the second half of the 16th century, the Gonzaga tapestries became part of the historical-artistic heritage of the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo. Today, our intention is to bring to life the rooms of the Museum dedicated to the precious series, telling a story whose plot unfolds over a time span of more than four centuries. This exhibition is the first in a series of events aimed at highlighting works in the Museum that, in the vastness of its collections, would be in danger of being lost, but which instead deserve to be enhanced.”

Milan, an exhibition on 18th-century drawings reproducing the Gonzaga Tapestries of the Duomo
Milan, an exhibition on 18th-century drawings reproducing the Gonzaga Tapestries of the Duomo