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A Weaving of Silk, Copper and Ink. The Story of the Gonzaga Tapestries

From 27 January to 2 May, Milan Duomo Museum is showcasing an exhibition to rediscover a rather curious artistic tale

23 January Jan 2023 1555 23 January 2023

Between the walls of the Borromeo Room, Milan Duomo Museum is presenting, from 27 January to 2 May 2023, a deeper insight into the visit which, through drawings, objects from the Veneranda Fabbrica Archive and a video, tells the public the fascinating story of the Gonzaga tapestries, among the most unique works of art in the Museum's collection.
Indeed, the presence of some refined tapestries originating from Mantua within the Veneranda Fabbrica's collection may awaken some curiosity: this in-depth look takes us back in time, to the 16th century, unveiling their origin and their following sequence of events.
The heart of the exhibition “A Weaving of Silk, Copper and Ink. The Story of the Gonzaga Tapestries” are the preparatory drawings for the engravings depicting tapestries from the famous “Stories of Moses”, on public display for the first time following their careful restoration.
Seven protagonists and one plot threading across time. A story in which the sumptuous warp of the original tapestries interweaves with the minutiae of the elegant Indian ink drawings.


The interesting events of the famous Gonzaga Tapestries – of which only four examples survive that were already part of Milan Duomo Museum's collection – originated in the mid-1500s when, in all likelihood, Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga, de facto regent of the Duchy of Mantua on behalf of his adolescent nephew Guglielmo Gonzaga (who became Duke at just twelve years old), commissioned the works of art to Nicola Karcher (Brussels, 1497/1498 - Mantua, 1562), one of the most important tapissiers of the time, who created the tapestries based on the cartoons by Giovan Battista Bertani (Mantua, 1516-1576), pupil of Giulio Romano.
The seven fabrics therefore came about with the aim of celebrating the Gonzaga Court and bear the coat of arms of the Duke of Mantua. It was Gugliemo Gonzaga himself who donated the collection to Cardinal Charles Borromeo in 1563, and it was he who brought them to Milan.
A few years later, the now Archbishop of Milano Charles Borromeo donated the seven precious tapestries to the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo, in exchange for the construction of some parsonages adjacent to the archiepiscopal palace.

The seven drawings on display faithfully reproduce the scenes of the tapestries from the original series and were made in the 1700s by Gaetano Le Poer (18th century), the artist appointed to design the preparatory drawings and the copper intaglio plates needed for the engravings: he was called by the Fabbrica del Duomo who, due to the high maintenance costs, decided to test the waters and look for possible interested buyers. The volume, which was produced in varying versions of quality, was therefore composed as a type of “catalogue” that was easily able to illustrate the tapestries in the most important Courts of Europe. Despite all attempts, the tapestries remained unsold.
A turning point in this tale was the fire of 3 August 1906 that devastated the Fabbrica del Duomo's pavilion at the Milan International Expo. Three of the seven tapestries were on display at that moment to be shown to the public in honour of the great occasion: instead, they were destroyed in the flames. These were the tapestries depicting: The Gathering of Manna, Moses and the False Prophets before Pharaoh, and The Jewish Passover, since then lost forever.
Gaetano Le Poer’s drawings and copper matrices therefore allow us to admire the iconography of the tapestries lost in the fire, and they have taken on an inestimable documentary value for their telling of this complex tale, that weaves in truly surprising ways.
The seven drawings and copper intaglio plates are currently kept in the Historic Archive of the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo, alongside the 18th-century volume, bound in marbled paper, one of the volumes to have survived to this day and among the five still present in Italy.
The exhibition has been set up in collaboration with the Polytechnic University of Milan (Politecnico di Milano) and is enriched through a video created by IULM University of Milan (Libera Università di Lingue e Comunicazione IULM ), in which images, graphics, and a narrative voice guide the visitor on a journey to discover the most important stages of this enthralling story.
Restoration of the 18th-century drawings is the work of Elena Allodi, while restoration of the copper intaglio plates was carried out by Franco Blumer.


Milan Duomo Museum
(Piazza Duomo, 12)

27 JANUARY - 2 MAY 2023

Daily 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. - Wednesday closed
Last ticket: 6 p.m. Last admission: 6.10 p.m.

Duomo Museum - Church of San Gottardo in Corte - Cathedral
From € 7.00 / 3.00


For information about tickets and access:

tel. +39.02.72023375