Omenoni, holding the weight of art
Milan’s “Omenoni” – “big men” in the local dialect – were described by Vasari as muscular, masculine, mighty figures clad in animal fur; contemporary poet Maurizio Cucchi has called them honestly disheartened giants (two of them hold their arms sadly crossed on their gigantic naked chest, and hang their heads low).
In fact, these eight Atlases – architectural elements that support, decorate or are part of the structure of a building, sculpted to look like men (a male version of the caryatids, in other words) – have been on the façade of Palazzo Leoni-Calchi since the 16th century, to represent the Barbaric people subdued by Roman power.
They were created in 1565 by sculptor Antonio Abondio for Arezzo-born artist Leone Leoni (1509-1590), the owner of the palace (the façade also includes a relief titled “Slander mauled by lions”, obviously hinting at the owner’s family name).
A powerful man with quite an exciting life, Leoni created sculptures admired even by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but ended up in prison in Venice and Rome more than once, for various attempted murders – one against his famous colleague and rival, Benvenuto Cellini.
As a collector, he brought a number of masterpieces to the palace, including works by Parmigianino, Michelangelo, Titian and Leonardo da Vinci (a book of drawings from his “Codex Atlanticus”, now at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, was kept here).