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The Certosa and its Museum

The monumental complex of the Certosa of Pavia was founded in 1396, by the will of the first duke of Milan Gian Galeazzo Visconti, to show the greatness and the prestige of the Visconti’s dukedom, taken by Gian Galeazzo to the higher territorial extension and political influence among the European Powers. The construction of the huge complex and its decoration with works of art (already disapproved in 1506 by an exceptional visitor like Erasmus of Rotterdam) were carried on with alternate phases, through the historical events during the almost four following centuries. Among continuous interruptions, renewals, accelerations and slowdowns on the works, the Certosa has collected important artistic witnesses for the Lombard context. There was also a particular opening to artists and artistic objects come from other Italian centers, starting from the monumental Embriachi’s triptych, made of bone and ivory and come from Firenze in 1400. The monastery was acknowledged as national monument on the 7th of July 1866, becoming property of the Italian Kingdom and after of the Italian state.

The complex

From the half of the fifteenth century, the two cloisters have received a rich decoration made of terracotta. The construction of the church finished before 1473 and then started the hard marble decoration of the façade, intermittently continued for almost a century, through a wide number of planning changes. The interior has been decorated with a unified program of frescoes, ended before the consecration of the church in 1497, totally preserved in the transept and on the vaults of all the church (with the exception of the major part of the chapels). In this period, also almost all of the stained-glass windows and the inlayed wooden choir were arranged. The main altar was reformed shortly after the half of the sixteenth century, with wonderful inlaid marbles (from then onwards a constant in Certosa) and precious bronzes. Some of the chapels still have Renaissance polyptychs and frescoes, while the others were redecorated and reorganized during the seventeenth century, gaining the present look. In 1630, the walls of the choir were painted with beautiful frescoes, while the sculptures, like in the rest of the church and the chapels, were continued in the following century.

The museum

The Museum of the Certosa takes place in the prestigious Ducal Palace, summer residence of the Visconti and Sforza dynasties, also used as quarters for high ranking guests. It’s situated along the southern side of the courtyard of the church, St Mary of the Graces. The late mannerist building, modified about 1621 with a new façade designed by the architect Francesco Maria Richini, presents a linear succession of windows between semi-columns, that gives elegance and brightness to the entire structure. The first idea about the foundation of the Museum was suggested to the Ministry of Education in 1883 by the Milanese architect Tito

Vespasiano Paravicini, well-known author of books about the Renaissance architecture of Lombardy. He also performed a first thorough survey of the façade of the church. He proposed to collect and sort many marbles, terracotta artefacts and other objects to constitute a museum, in a sense complementary to the same Certosa.
Among the sculptures of the Museum, there are some particularly important and beautiful pieces, like the extraordinary marble high reliefs of Agostino Busti called Bambaia and the polished sculptures carved by Giovanni Antonio Amadeo and Antonio Mantegazza. These last represent the Prayer on the Mount of Olives, the Flagellation and the Ascent to the Calvary. Former part of a carved polyptych, they are datable after 1481, because the architectural background of the Flagellation comes from the Prevedari’s engraving on a Bramante’s drawing. Like other masterpieces of polychrome stone sculpture of second half of the fifteenth century Lombard artists, all these pieces were recently restored.


Luca Beltrami, Director of the Regional Office for the Preservation of Monuments in Lombardy since 1891, wanted to constitute a big gipsoteca. Here, the plaster casts had to be a witness about the conservative events of the Renaissance sculptures on the façade and the two cloisters, to favour a close view of sculptural details situated on the upper part of the façade and to help the study about many executive particulars that could not be viewed from a distance. The casts, that show a high quality and big size, started to be collected from the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1911 the first museum’s set-up was opened to the public.
The gipsoteca is placed in the Galleria San Bruno, on the ground floor of the Museum. At the entrance, there is the Carlo Magenta’s bust, a man who played an important role in the constitution of the Museum. On the left side, there is the sculptural group of Antonio Della Porta called Tamagnino representing the Pity of Christ (first half of the sixteenth century) and its copy. In front of these, you can admire four casts (work of Edoardo Pierotti in the second half of the nineteenth century), copies of the marble panels situated on the sides of the church entrance. These reliefs show some of the most meaningful events in the history of the Carthusian order and of the monument. At the end of the Galleria San Bruno, towards the north side, there is the plaster cast of the first main altar of the Certosa, now placed in the St Martin’s church in Carpiano, where it was transferred in 1567. On the closing wall of the Gallery, there is the fresco of Giovanni Mauro della Rovere called Fiammenghino, representing Cristo fons vitae and dating about 1615-1620. Among columns that ideally continue beyond the wall with a fake perspective, Christ over a fountain lets gush from the wounds on his hands, feet and chest a stream of blood, that becomes source of eternal life, according to the iconography come from the late medieval illuminations or the North European paintings. Next to Christ there are two prophets, on the left king David with his cithara, on the right Isaia.

Museum Room D

In the past, this room was the monks’ Oratory in the Ducal Palace. The fresco on the ceiling representing the Glory of St Bruno with Virtues is a work of art by Giovanni Mauro Della Rovere called Fiammenghino (1630 – 1635). Inside an architectural structure that fakes a lodge, there are many male and female figures, personifications of virtues that the Carthusian order had to observe. On the short sides, there are the four cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude), while on the long sides the Meekness, the Wisdom and the Silence. In the middle of the vault, the painting represents an opening on the sky where St Bruno, the Carthusian order’s founder, is received on the heavenly glory with the three theological Virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity. The architectural setting out and the able direction of the painted quadratura suggest similarities with other works of Della Rovere, like the paintings in one of the chapels of the Sacro Monte of Orta and some frescoes in a residence in the country of Como.

Museum Room F

At the first floor, in the Room F, you can admire Renaissance paintings, like the masterpieces of Bartolomeo Montagna, Ambrogio Bergognone and Bernardino Luini. The altarpiece of the painter Bartolomeo Montagna representing the Virgin Mary with the Child, St John the Baptist, St Jerome and musician angels comes from the third chapel on the left of the church, dedicated to the Baptist: the recent restoration discovered a fine preparatory drawing and recovered the chromatic intensity of the colours and the executive refinement of the polychrome marbles painted on the architectural structure.
Beside the altarpiece there are two paintings on wood by Ambrogio Bergognone, representing couples of praying Angels (1488 – 1489): they come from the church too and still have their original wooden and gilt frames.
Two wonderful paintings of Bernardino Luini, one representing St Ambrogio, the other St Martin, dated 1520-1522, are considered as part of a lost polyptych, painted by Luini for the church of the Certosa or for another Carthusian centre. Very impressive the painting on canvas representing risen Christ (about 1614): it’s a copy of a Bramantino’s painting on wood, now at the Thyssen Museum in Madrid.

The Studiolo

The walls of this wonderful Renaissance room are decorated with a beautiful landscape, painted with the trompe-l’oeil technique and divided in squares by monumental monochrome figures with snake-shaped endings, called telamons. Four couples of niches, painted on the corners, host fake bronze candelabras, an antiquarian element. They have plates with the inscription GRA CAR (Gratiarum Cathusia in Latin, Certosa delle Grazie in Italian). The vault, decorated with the amazing tip brush painted grotesques on white background, holds the representation of the Costantino’s Dream in an elliptic frame. The fake bass reliefs of the lunettes represent stories about kings, emperors and saints. The thread that links the episodes seems to be the relation between the politic power and the religious life, with examples of punished pride and exalting of the humility and the secluded life. The cycle is probably work of different artists, maybe active in different periods. The grotesques are similar to some Aurelio Luini’s decorations, but also to Central Italian examples. Painted with fast brush-strokes, they contain figures of nymphs and satyrs, verdant structures, masks, amphorae, armillary spheres and European and exotic animals. Finally, on the right side there is a “painting inside the painting”, representing the Adoration of the Child, that is a copy from a Perugino’s painting, once situated in the Certosa and now at the National Gallery in London.