Ambrosian Library – Milan

One of my first objects, on the morning after my arrival at Milan, was to visit the Ambrosian Library, which is esteemed one of the most valuable and extensive in Italy, being said to contain 60,000 volumes, and 16,000 MSS. It is impossible to visit objects of this nature without a feeling of regret, in being obliged to take only a passing glance; yet, in merely surveying such institutions, something may be gained, were it only gleaned from the conversation of the learned professors; the politeness and courtesy of their general manner was such as to lead them to take not merely pleasure, but apparently, even a pride, in attending to the visitors; evincing every solicitude to shorten their labours, and to give them every information in their power.

This tribute is well due to the learned institutions which I have visited in this elegant metropolis. The descriptions I had read of the college, its galleries, sculpture, and paintings, had given me a high idea of the edifice itself. I was, however, disappointed in the expectations I had formed. I looked for magnificent apartments, and princely halls; but I found them gloomy, the arches low and heavy, and the whole having a monastic cloistered aspect, somewhat depressing, yet not unsuitable to a seminary of science.

In this short summary of the many interesting objects which are presented to the traveller in Milan, I must not omit the triumphal arch begun by Buonaparte, situated on the road leading to the Simplon, which is finely imagined. It is almost as colossal as the barriers of Neuilli, and infinitely more elegant than the Arch of the Carousal, the effect of which is much injured by its various colours, while this is composed of the purest white marble. The design, however, much exceeds the execution; the sculpture is indifferent, and the academic figures incorrect; some conspicuous defect being perceptible in each, either from the too great length of arms, flatness of chest, or disproportioned size of the head, but yet, although critically imperfect, the effect of the whole is very striking. None of the figures are grouped; they stand singly, and their forms are generally elegant. For the embellishments in the finishing of the structure, viz. friezes, cornices, capitals, and enrichments, there is a most splendid collection. But, like the Elephant at Paris, the whole stands encircled by a wooden railing, and its greatest use, probably, will be the producing a few francs a-day to the custode who shows it.

The Amphitheatre in the Piazzo di Castello, another work erected by Buonaparte, is also a splendid undertaking. It is capable of containing 30,000 spectators; and although the whole is in an unfinished state, naumachiae or naval conflicts have been represented, and, upon two occasions, witnessed by himself. I am told, that it was his intention to renew the exhibition of gymnastic exercises, for which preparations had already been made, in the training of youths for the games of the Circus and Arena.

Among the many public institutions in Milan, the Brera, a university originally instituted under the superintendance of the Jesuits, and bearing the name of Santa Maria in Brera, may be distinguished as an object ‘of high interest, embracing an extensive circle in the arts, and in the various branches of knowledge. The whole plan is established on such a system of liberality, as must, when accomplished, do great honour to the city; but, as yet, a considerable part of the arrangements are only in progress. The apartments forming the gallery of pictures are large and beautiful, and the collection valuable. Of these, however, I shall mention only two or three, which seem to me the most interesting. Abraham sending away Hagar, by-Guercino, a composition of much expression. I stood long gazing on this very beautiful picture, full of nature and feeling. The piece is composed of the Patriarch, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael, whom she is leading towards the desert; she has left her home, and is on her way, but looking back to Abraham. Her eyes, reddened by the traces of tears, are fixed upon him with a sadness so deep, an expression so mournful, of silent anguish, as is inexpressibly touching. In Abraham’s countenance may be read a manly sorrow, suffering, en-during, yet submitting. In the further end of the picture, Sarah is seen watching the lingering steps of Ha-gar with a look of malignant joy. I shall mention also three exquisite paintings which particularly attracted my notice; a Crucifixion, by Scarpaccio, the imitator of Giorgione; the same subject, by Girolamo; and a Holy Family, by Battoni. The two first are executed in the finest style and manner, distinguished by a character grand, touching, and dignified, combined with the most affecting simplicity. A Holy Family by Battoni, I should rank next to these in merit. I must not omit a very fine painting by Vandyke; as also some beautiful pieces of game, by Frith.