The Biblioteca Ambrosiana, one of Europe's earliest and most prestigious
research libraries, was founded in Milan by Cardinal Federico
Borromeo (1564-1631). The Cardinal sent agents to the major cites of
Italy, the Low Countries, France, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Greece, Syria,
and other countries of the East to acquire precious books and manuscripts.
By the time construction began on the library in 1603, Borromeo had already
ammassed a collection of approximately 15,000 manuscripts and 30,000 printed
The cardinal's personal collection of paintings and drawings was donated
to the Ambrosiana in 1618. Thereafter, the Ambrosiana's art collection grew
dramatically. In 1625, it acquired Raphael's School of Athens cartoon, designed
for the fresco in the Vatican's Stanza della Segnatura, and in 1637, twelve
manuscripts by Leonardo da Vinci, including the famed Codex Atlanticus,
were obtained from Marchese Galeazzo Arconati.
The drawings came to the Ambrosiana from the collections of a wide range
of patrons, dilettantes, artists, art academicians, wealthy collectors,
art dealers, art historians, and architects, including, Cardinal Federico
Borromeo; Padre Sebastiano Resta (1635-1714); Carlo Donelli, called il Vimercato
(1660-1715); Protasio Girolamo Stambucchi (1759-1833); Federico Fagnani
(1775-1840); Giuseppe Vallardi (1794-1863); Giovanni Morelli (1816- 1891)
and his pupil Gustavo Frizzoni (1840-1919); and Luca Beltrami (1854-1933).
The Fagnani donation (the single largest bequest, consisting of 23,000 books
and manuscripts and 16,000 prints) has been variously dated to 1738 (the
year of his testament), 1840 (the year of his death), and 1841 (the year
of the Ambrosiana inventory). We have chosen to date this donation to 1841,
the year in which 4,320 drawings were inventoried (in Cod. A 361 Inferior).
The inventory was signed by the prefect of the Ambrosiana Bartolomeo Catena
on April 19 of that year. Unfortunately, the Fagnani inventory does not
identify, nor does it offer physical or iconographic descriptions. Only
the number of drawings ascribed to each artist is listed. It seems likely,
however, that a large body of Venetian and German drawings was included
in this collection.
Since the Ambrosiana's foundation in the seventeenth century, its holdings
have included an eclectic collection of drawings. Quite naturally, the majority
of the sheets are of the Lombard school. All of the drawings were contained
in bound volumes or codices and placed in the F Inferior grouping. While
many drawings have been removed from their original codices for reasons
of conservation, most still remain affixed to their original folios.
Some of the finest drawings and, indeed, some of the most famous in the
Ambrosiana collection, are contained in Resta Codices I and II (F 261 and
249 Inferior), assembled in the early Settecento by Padre Sebastiano Resta.
Resta Codex I is an extraordinary group of 293 drawings including French
and German examples, as well as works by Italian artists, such as Raphael,
Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Ludovico Carracci, Guido Reni, and Guercino.
Resta Codex II contains nine drawings by Rubens.
In general, the drawings contained in individual codices are a random
and sometimes startling assortment. However, some codices were organized
according to particular criteria of classification, as for example, the
architectural drawings in F 251 and 252 Inf., the seventeenth-century drawings
by the teachers and pupils of the Accademia Ambrosiana in F 255 Inf., the
predominately German drawings in F 264 Inf., drawings by leonardeschi in
F 274 Inf., and the sketchbook of drawings by the neoclassical painter Andrea
Appiani (1754-1817) in F 279 Inf.