THE JOY OF CONSERVATION. Monsignor Alberto Rocca is a fellow at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana library in Milan, as well as being the director of the Pinacoteca (painting gallery), and director of the Class of Borromean Studies.

As director of the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, were you in charge of the extraordinary restoration of Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ cartoon, now on display at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana?

Yes. It is extraordinary and fundamental for our collection, not just because it is an exceptional work but because it fully represents the aesthetic ideal of our founder Federico Borromeo.

How did the restoration go?

It was a long four-year process due to the fact that it is incredibly fragile paper, a preparatory work for a fresco, therefore it was not created to last and be conserved. The restoration took so long both because of the material, the paper, and also the size, which is 8 metres by 3 metres. It took almost a year to analyse it and understand the best way to proceed.

Who carried it out?

Maurizio Michelozzi of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure and now an official at the Uffizi Gallery. Studio Boeri was in charge of the staging.

How was it done?

They very carefully carried out an initial cleaning by vacuuming out the dust. After that, the canvas, which was applied in Paris at the end of the eighteenth century, was removed.

Why in Paris?

Because the cartoon was taken to Paris following Napoleon’s looting. It was to be taken to the Louvre, and during that restoration they applied a canvas meant to reinforce it. Therefore the canvas was still there, and fortunately it was taken off without issue. The restorers reinforced it by applying three layers of Japanese paper in increasingly heavier grammage to strengthen it and flatten it out. The Japanese paper has long fibres that bind together forcefully. Finally, a synthetic canvas was added to guarantee that there was no biological damage. The wonderful thing is that the restoration was a synergistic group effort among different institutions, starting with the Central institute for Restoration at the Vatican Museums. The restoration and staging of the new Raphael room were made possible thanks to Giuseppe Rabolini’s generosity and passion for art. He is an amazing collector of contemporary works on paper.

“The Ambrosiana is able to encourage cultural exchanges of the highest level.”

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Ritratto di musico (Portrait of a Musician), 1485-1490, tempera e olio su tavola, 40×30 cm. (Inv. 99). © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Mondadori Portfolio


You have been director of the Pinacoteca for five years. What is the nature of your work?

The joy of conserving the oldest museum in Milan by mandate of the College of Fellows, which is one of the managing bodies of the Ambrosiana. The other body is the Congregation of Conservators. In 1604, Federico Borromeo founded the College of Fellows, which is essentially the scientific committee, and I am one of the members, with Monsignor Marco Ballarini as prefect. Then there is the Congregation of Conservators, which we call the Board. Lorenzo Ornaghi is president.

How would you describe the painting gallery?

The Pinacoteca was created in 1618, and it is a manageable size for visitors. There are twenty-five rooms that hold the most important treasures of Italian art from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including works by Botticelli, Titian, Caravaggio, Leonardo, Raphael, Bramantino…

Do you have many visitors?

We have 70,000 visitors, but we are seeing net growth, thanks as well to the new Raphael room and exhibitions celebrating the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci showing all of the pages of the “Codex Atlanticus”. I like to say that the Pinacoteca has extraordinary pieces beyond just the paintings, such as the Tupinambá Cloak, a cape made of feathers by a Brazilian tribe at the end of the sixteenth century. This is one of few existing examples, and it was recently restored. We also have a one-of-a-kind collection of Hindi ritual plaques showing Virabhadra, the fierce representation of Shiva. This was a gift from a Milanese collector. It is a very diversified collection.

“The library is one of the most important in Europe.”

Who brought it all together?

Federico Borromeo, who donated his collection of paintings and drawings to the Ambrosiana in 1618.

Is it a private museum?

It began as Federico’s private legacy, and he gave the Holy See the guardianship of the collection; it is an ecclesiastical organisation.

Who are your visitors?

Most, 94%, are foreign, though the restoration of the Raphael cartoon is bringing in many visitors from Milan and Italy as well. The library is one of the most important libraries in Europe due to its collection of manuscripts, some of which have enriched European culture, such as “De divine proportione” by Luca Pacioli with drawings by Leonardo, “De perspective pingendi” with original drawings by Piero della Francesca, the “Codex Atlanticus” by Leonardo da Vinci, and Petrarch’s “Virgil”. There are also many books acquired by Federico in Asia. We have one of the oldest Korans in the world. Miniated manuscripts from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, from Baghdad, the oldest illustrated “Iliad” in the world, along with many Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac, Armenian, and Coptic works. Federico sent fellows to Africa and Mount Athos .

Who frequents the library?

Academics from all over the world, including students working on their university or doctorate theses. To do research at the Ambrosiana a high level of knowledge is often required, to be able to study manuscripts in Latin, Greek, or Oriental languages.

Do you have relationships with universities?

The Ambrosiana has three souls: the library, with about one million printed works and 46,000 manuscripts; the painting gallery with thousands of paintings and 30,000 prints and drawings; and the academy that is divided into eight sections of study. These areas include modern history; ancient Christianity; Italian studies with works by Beccaria and Parini; Greek and Latin studies; the Near East with an Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac section;  the Far East with a Chinese, Japanese, and Indian section; Slavic studies and Slavic languages; and African studies from northern Africa, with a Berber, Coptic, and Ethiopian section. Each class holds a highly scientific conference each year. Today, there are about 250 Ambrosian academics from all over the world. We are an institution like the Accademia dei Lincei or the Académie Française. The academy was re-established in 2008, bringing together the Accademia di San Carlo and the Accademia di Sant’Ambrogio, following in the footsteps of the Drawing Academy established by Federico Borromeo in 1620. What I would like to emphasise is that Federico had imagined an integrated institution.

What masterpieces can be found in the painting gallery?

“Portrait of a Musician” by Leonardo, “Basket of Fruit by” Caravaggio, “Madonna and Child with Three Angels” by Botticelli, two masterpieces by Breughel the Elder that were commissioned by Federico, four paintings by Titian, and my favourites are three masterpieces by Bramantino.

Luca Pacioli. La divina proporzione (De divina proportione). Tavola XXXIIII, folio 108 recto. Dodecaedro tagliato ed elevato vuoto (Dvodecedron abscisvs elevatvs vacvvs). Disegno attribuito a Leonardo da Vinci. © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Mondadori Portfolio 

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Codice Atlantico (Codex Atlanticus), foglio 1099 recto. Architettura con fontana all’interno. © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Metis e Mida Informatica / Mondadori Portfolio

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Codice Atlantico (Codex Atlanticus), foglio 199 verso. In alto, planimetria della città di Milano con l’indicazione delle sue porte; in basso, veduta a volo di uccello della città di Milano. © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Metis e Mida Informatica / Mondadori Portfolio

Canestra di frutta (Basket of Fruit), 1594-1598, di Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), olio su tela, 62×47 cm, inv 151. © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana / M. Ranzani / Mondadori Portfolio

Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan

Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan

“I like to think that the Ambrosiana is the centre of Milan.”

Do you hold exhibitions?

We don’t hold exhibitions borrowing works from other museums.  We have exhibitions with works and relics from the Ambrosiana. For example, a wonderful collection of pre-Columbian pieces in terra cotta, better known as the Litta Modignani collection.

How many people work in the institution?

There are eight fellows and one of us is a prefect.  We are parish priests from the Milan clergy.

Is it true that you are very interested in the Japanese language as well as its culture and religions?

This is a new passion. I would call it a new horizon that isn’t just an academic area of study but the continuation of an inner journey as well.

Have you spent a lot of time in Japan?

Five or six weeks in the summer. I go four times a year for exhibitions or conferences.

Is Milan a city that is important from cultural and religious points of view?

I would say so. Culturally, not just for its institutions but there are also many people who create high-quality culture. It is becoming an ever more international city, and I like to think that the Ambrosiana is the centre of Milan. With its 400 years of research and study, still today, the Ambrosiana is able to encourage cultural exchanges of the highest level. I like my work, and the fact that the exhibitions and conferences organised by the fellows serve to continue to build bridges among different religions and cultures.


Milan, May 2019

Photo of Alberto Rocca by Claudio Furlan/LaPresse