• Deborah Kade

Duomo di Milano Milan, Italy

Milan Cathedral, called Duomo di Milano in Italian, is a vast Gothic-style cathedral, located in the heart of Milan. It is 515 feet (157 meters) long and 302 feet (92 meters) wide. It can house up to 40.000 people. It covers  a surface of 109,641 square feet and an entire city block.

"The construction of the Duomo officially started in 1386 by Bishop Antonio da Saluzzo and was supported by the ruler of Milan Gian Galeazzo Visconti who had grand visions of the cathedral. Though originally started in terracotta stone, once the grandeur of the project was realized Condoglian marble from Lake Maggiore was chosen. The entire building is made up of this pink-hued white marble. To bring it from the quarries of Candoglia, canals were dug leading to the construction site, evidence of which is still visible along the famous navigli, the canals left over from the network built in southern Milan specifically for that purpose. Thousands of artists, sculptors and specialized workers were involved in the construction of the Cathedral of Milan. Architects from across Europe were invited to work on the project (at least 78 different architects total) and as it grew and grew, its construction dragged on over the years. It was consecrated in 1418 but only the nave was really finished at that time. Heavy construction continued for another 200 years."

"After its consecration in 1418 Milan Cathedral remained incomplete for centuries. Politics, lack of money, indifference in a seemingly never-ending project (imagine a mammoth structure in the middle of your city left unfinished for your entire lifetime and father’s… and grandfather’s) and other setbacks kept the cathedral on standby for what seemed like forever. Actually, it was Napoleon who finished the façade and jump-started the final stages of construction in the early 19th century.

Considering its construction is still continuing, this could be considered the longest-worked cathedral in the world. A five-year project to clean the building was started in 2002 and routine restorations and cleaning are continually taking place to keep maintain its gleaming stone."

Inside the Milan Cathedral, you will want to dress respectfully and modestly as it is still in use as a church. You may find that you will be denied entry if you are considered to not be dressed modestly or moderately. This includes too short of sleeves or showing shoulders, shorts or mini skirts, or an exposed abdomen, or a hat.

"The Duomo of Milan tells a story of faith and art spanning over six centuries. Construction work on the Duomo of Milan probably began in 1386.

Work for the construction of the Milan Cathedral began in 1386 when the style of Gothic cathedrals had reached its peak. It was decided that the new church should be built in the area of the ancient basilicas of Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Tecla, the remains of which, together with those of the Baptistery of San Giovanni alle Fonti, are still visible in the Archaeological Area.

For this purpose, in October 1387 the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo was founded at the instigation of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Lord of Milan, with the aim of continuing with the design and construction of the church. Gian Galeazzo’s decision to use Candoglia marble instead of the traditional Lombard brick was accompanied by a real revolution in style through the choice of Gothic, which forced the Fabbrica to look for engineers, architects, sculptors and stone-cutters from all around Europe. The construction site became a lively space for the exchange of the most diverse ideas, experiences and skills from workers coming from all over the continent, which made the Duomo a crossroads of peoples and cultures and the most European among Gothic cathedrals.

The long succession of architects and engineers at the head of this innovative and original construction site makes it impossible to trace a certain authorship of the project.

Construction began from the apse, with its awe-inspiring and imposing stained-glass windows, and continued towards the transept and the first spans of the naves, leaving the age-old problem of closing the vault unresolved.

On October 16, 1418, Pope Martin V, who was returning from the Council of Constance, consecrated the church’s high altar.

At the end of the fifteenth century, the greatest architects and artists of the time, including Leonardo da Vinci, tried to accomplish the difficult task of designing the tiburium. Once this phase was concluded and a unanimous decision was reached, construction work continued and a new phase started under the inspiration of the pastoral work of Carlo Borromeo.

The Council of Trent’s decrees (1545-1563) started the Counter-Reformation (more precisely, the Catholic Reformation) in opposition to the Protestant one. Carlo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan from 1564 to 1584 and Federigo Borromeo’s (archbishop from 1595 to 1631) interventions in the cathedral were inspired by the concepts and forms of the architecture and ecclesiastical furnishings of papal Rome, leaving a new imprint in the Duomo’s interior, as we can see from the magnificent architectural framework of the presbytery, the side altars, the crypt, the baptistery, the floor. The Quadroni di San Carlo and the wooden choir are among the most interesting examples testifying to the creativity of this prolific historical phase.

The design of the church’s façade began at the end of the sixteenth century, when the foundations for its prospetto (front) were laid, meanwhile the ancient façade of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore (which was demolished in 1683) had been rebuilt forward of its original position. As was the case for many other architectural elements of the cathedral, the façade too had to wait for long (until the end of the eighteenth century) before a definitive plan was completed.

Between the seventeenth and eighteenth century the tiburium was completed with the great spire on top and the laying of the statue of the Madonnina (1774).

The nineteenth century saw great activity on the construction site. On the eve of Napoleon’s coronation as King of Italy and on his initiative, new works were undertaken to complete the façade (1807-1813). The construction and decoration works continued, most of the spires were placed on the roof and several stained glass windows with enamel-painted glass were also completed.

The twentieth century, which was marked by war and conflict, saw the start of major renovation works, the first archaeological excavations in Piazza del Duomo and the completion of the façade with the addition of the doors, which date back to a relatively recent period, between 1909 and 1965.

In the second half of the 20th century, the Fabbrica undertook the complete, structural and conservative restoration of some complex parts of the Duomo. The sixties and seventies saw the Veneranda Fabbrica engaged in works on the façade, with the second restoration carried out on the spire after another one that had been carried out in 1840.

Inside the cathedral, the complex static restoration of the tiburium pillars was certainly one of the most complex interventions, while at the end of the century the apse and the façade were restored. Later, the Great Spire was restored for the third time. In 2016, the exciting challenge of restoring the tiburium and the dome began."

The large bronze door protecting the main entrance to Milan’s magnificent cathedral was designed by the Italian sculptor Lodovico Pogliaghi in 1902 and completed by him in 1908. The events carved on the door represent the major joys and sorrows in the life of Mary, mother of Jesus. The large center left image is the Ascension of Jesus and the corresponding center right image is the Assumption of Mary.

Pogliaghi (1857-1950) originally won the contest for the Duomo’s doors in 1895. He had to submit a new design in 1902 after plans for a new facade changed. Pogliaghi was also a painter and art collector. On display in the museum containing his collection is the plaster cast of his famous bronze door. The museum is called Casa Museo Lodovico Pogliaghi and is located in Varese, about 34 miles north of Milan.

The doors are admired, but only rarely opened.

There are sections that people touch and pray a special intention.

It was a very hot and humid day! My cheeks were so red.

Frequent touching of specific parts of the holy scenes, which results in burnishing these parts over the years. The highly selective burnishing indicates synchronized visitors— behavior, here the touching of the central and significant mutual soft touch of Jesus— and Maria's hands.

They say there are more statues on this Gothic-style cathedral than any other building in the world. There are 3,400 statues, 135 gargoyles and 700 figures that decorate Milan's Duomo!

The golden Madonna statue on top of the Milan Cathedral was deemed so culturally and historically important that a law was passed in 1930 saying no building can be taller than the statue. To bypass this law, all high rise buildings in Milan have a statue of the Madonna on them.

"If the Duomo is the symbol of Milan in the world, the Madonnina, perched on the highest spire of the Cathedral, represents the heart and soul of the city."

"The first evidence of a possible laying of the statue of the Virgin Mary on top of the Great Spire is found in a drawing by architect Cesare Cesariano dated 1521, where a central spire surmounted by a statue of the Madonna appears.

Francesco Croce, architect of the Veneranda Fabbrica, was commissioned to build the Great Spire on June 21, 1762. In 1765, Croce proposed decorating the gran guglia (great spire) with a statue of the Virgin who was being brought to heaven by angels.

The sculptor Giuseppe Perego was commissioned to create the statue and in 1769 he presented three different solutions. Of the first and third one (the last one was selected) there are still terracotta models, preserved in the Sala della Madonnina of the Museo del Duomo, where the head, carved from the single trunk of a walnut tree is also exhibited.

The construction of the statue, which was decided on June 17, 1769, was carried out with the participation of the carver and model-maker Giuseppe Antignati for the counter form, while the blacksmith Varino provided the supporting armor. The goldsmith Giuseppe Bini modeled and beat the copper plates on the wooden model, while the gilding involved the use of 156 booklets, each made up of 2 sheets of pure gold, on the advice of the painter Anton Raphael Mengs.

There were no special ceremonies for the placement of the Madonnina, which had been completed in 1773 but remained in the building of the Veneranda Fabbrica because of the initial fear of lightning and wind until the last days of December 1774.

In August 1939, on the eve of the last World War, the Madonnina was covered with a grey-green cloth and it remained so for five years, to avoid providing an easy target to bombers. The removal of the cloth took place on May 6, 1945 with a solemn ceremony presided by Cardinal Schuster, the then Archbishop of Milan.

Between June 9th and July 27, 1967, the restoration of the Madonnina involved the entire removal of the copper sheets and their re-gilding with a mordant, as well as the replacement of the original internal iron core, which had become dangerously corroded (it is now preserved in the Museum), with one in stainless steel.

The last re-gilding of the Madonnina was carried out in 2012, when the great Great Spire was also restored."

" 4.16 meters: the height of the statue

33: the copper plates that cover the statue

399.200 kilograms: the weight of the slabs

584.800 kilograms: the weight of the stainless steel supporting structure

6750: the sheets of pure gold used in the last gilding"

"The Madonnina is not only a religious symbol, but also an important civic one for Milan since the revolts of the “Five Days” of 1848, during which Luigi Torelli and Scipione Bagaggi raised the tricolor on the statue of the Virgin to signal the evacuation of the city by Austrian troops. The sight emboldened the hearts of the whole city and awakened the pride of the barricade fighters, leading them to victory.

Still today, on the occasion of solemn religious and civil events, the Italian flag flies on the halberd to the right of the Madonnina.

The tricolor is regularly hoisted on the following days:

January 7 - Feast of the Tricolor

February 11 - Lateran pacts

March 17 - Day of National Unity, Constitution, Hymn and Flag

March 18 to 22 - Five Days of Milan

April 25 - Liberation from Nazi-Fascism

May 1 - Labor Day

May 9 - Europe Day

June 2 - Republic Day

September 28 - Popular uprising against the Nazi-Fascists in Naples

October 4 - Day of Saint Francis and Saint Catherine, patron saints of Italy

November 4 - Day of National Unity and of the Armed Forces"

Restoration work was being done to the inside of the Duomo when we visited. There were also too many tours inside.

There are 52 pillars inside the Duomo, one for every week of the year.

The marble all comes from one quarry where it is still taken from to this day.

The Duomo consists of a nave with four side-aisles, crossed by a transept and then followed by choir and apse. The height of the nave is about 148 feet (45 meters), the highest Gothic vaults of a complete church.

"The Duomo di Milano's basic floor design consists of large square tiles made of Candoglia marble with a geometric floral design (a large round central rose, shells, and floral motifs arranged axially along the vertices of the square) that repeats alternatively. From the time it was created in the 15th century, it has always been made of only three materials: pink Candoglia marble with inlays made from small slabs of black marble from Varenna (Como) and red marble from Arzo (Canton Ticino). The first mention of the Duomo di Milano's floor is from 1392 when the order was given to complete the flooring "a medoni", or "with bricks", from the back of the choir all the way to the door that probably led to Santa Maria Maggiore, the area around the apse in which the floor was described in white marble alternating with black.

In 1404, the project was entrusted to Marco da Carona who completed the flooring of the northern sacristy in soft pink Candoglia marble with geometric inlays in black marble with red brocatelle. Following the orders from San Carlo for the Cathedral's decoration, on July 24, 1567 the design for the entire marble flooring was entrusted to Pellegrino Pellegrini, known as Tibaldi, however construction didn't begin until May 27, 1575. The archbishop of Famagosta Ragazzoni bitterly criticized the condition of the floor on April 12, 1576 and in his decree suggested that a decoration in keeping with the design created by Pellegrini in the central nave and in the two smaller external naves be completed, leaving the medians as they were "for the passage of wagons for resupplying the construction site".

Thanks to a resolution by the Fabbrica, dating from December 29, 1585, Bernardo Robbiano was once again hired (after having previously turned down the offer) to complete the Duomo's entire "solatura" [flooring] in marble according to Pellegrini's designs, making the raw marble available to the architect. The contract was taken from Robbiano after two years and given to Lelio Buzzi in the second half of the 17th century.

The floor completed according to Pellegrino Tibaldi's design was begun in 1584 and was the object of an important renovation from 1914-1920. The purpose of the renovation, ordered by Luca Beltrami, was to reinforce the most resistant colored inlays in the visible surface.

In fact, due to abrasion caused by pedestrian traffic, the white Candoglia marble is worn down more quickly and more evidently than the colored marbles, creating recesses that can even lead to the detachment of the inlays."

Signs of the Zodiac

The Duomo also acts as an impressive sundial. As the sun shines through a special window, it shines along a golden line that runs along the floor with symbols of the Zodiac on either side.

As the sun moves through the sky throughout the day, it tells the time on the sundial and as the year progresses, it marks the various months with their zodiac signs. A ray of sunlight from a hole on the opposite wall strikes the clock, shining the bronze tongue on June 21, the summer solstice, and the meridian on the winter solstice, December 21. Though ancient (it was placed in Milan Duomo in 1768 by astronomers from the Accademia di Brera) the sundial is surprisingly precise – even used to regulate clocks throughout the city!

Restoration work being done. To see the inside of the Duomo, we signed up for a tour.

At the left of the altar is located the most famous statue of all the cathedral, the Saint Bartholomew Flayed (1562), by Marco d'Agrate, the saint shows his flayed skin thrown over his shoulders like a stole.

Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus according to the New Testament.

Saint Bartholomew was skinned alive for spreading his faith. He was flayed alive—the skin of his body cut into strips, then pulled off, leaving his body open and bleeding for a long time, then beheaded.

Due to the nature of his martyrdom, Bartholomew is the patron saint of tanners, plasterers, tailors, leather workers, bookbinders, farmers, house painters, butchers, and glove makers.

As one might imagine, the cathedral of Milan, the largest cathedral in Italy and the mother church of one of the largest dioceses in the world, boasts a very impressive collection of relics. Chief among these is the Holy Nail, one of the nails of Our Lord’s Crucifixion, found by Saint Helena when she discovered the relics of the True Cross in Jerusalem. According to an old tradition, attested by Saint Ambrose in his funeral oration for the Emperor Theodosius, the holy empress sent one of the nails to her son Constantine, who had it bent into a bridle for his horse. This was then passed on to his son Constantius, who made his capital at Milan, and by him to his successors, until Theodosius consigned it to Saint Ambrose at the very end of the fourth century.

The reliquary containing the Holy Nail is normally kept in a tabernacle at the very back of the Duomo’s apse, and almost at the ceiling, forty meters above the floor. Its place is marked with a red lightbulb which burns before it continually, but the tabernacle itself is often difficult to see when the church is dark. However, each year the reliquary is brought down every year on the Saturday closest to September 14, at First Vespers of the Exaltation of the Cross, and left for a week in the main sanctuary of the cathedral for the veneration of the faithful. The archbishop of Milan ascends to the apex in a wooden basket decorated with angels to retrieve the nail. The basket itself was constructed in 1577, though it was significantly reconstructed in 1701 when the angels were added. This was formerly done for the feast of the Finding of the Cross as well, which was historically the more important of the two feasts of the Holy Cross.

The tabernacle is reached by a small platform, which is pulled up to its height on four ropes that run up into the church’s roof. Before it was motorized in recent times, the platform had to be pulled by hand by twenty-four men, six to each of the ropes, and with great care to keep them moving at an even pace, lest the platform tip and spill out the archbishop, who still to this day retrieves it personally. (At the end of the week, it is replaced by the arch priest of the Duomo.) This platform, made in the 16th century, is called the “Nivola”, Milanese dialect for “nuvola – cloud”, from the large bag which hangs from its bottom, and is painted with angels.

Baptismal Font

"Built by Mascioni of Cuvio (Varese) and Tamburini of Crema in 1938, restored and relocated entirely in the Presbytery by Tamburini in 1986, the grand organ of the Duomo is the largest in Italy and firmly maintains its second place in Europe as regards the number of pipes and stops (surpassed only by the organ of Passau cathedral, in Germany) and is among the fifteen largest organs in the world.

The current numbers of this giant are truly impressive:

  • 15,800 pipes, the highest over nine meters high while the smallest measures just a few centimeters

  • Five organ cases (Grand Organ North and South Side - Positive and Recitative North Side - Solo and Eco South Side - Choral at the altar level)

  • Five consoles (main console with five manuals, altar-side console with three manuals, choral console with two manuals, two apse consoles with one manual)

If these numbers look impressive, the artistic aspects are even more precious: the grand organ of the Duomo of Milan combines the timeless sounds of the Italian tradition with a decidedly eclectic sound structure, which allows for an exact characterization of a considerable portion of the organ literature, making the Mascioni-Tamburini an instrument with an absolutely exceptional timbre for the romantic-symphonic repertoire, like the instruments of the most important European cathedrals.

However, an organ cannot be qualified as a work of art only through its numbers. It is the nobleness of its sound that characterizes the grand organ of the Duomo as the last of a glorious series of musical instruments. The history of Milan cathedral has been linked to that of its organ since its foundation. The first instrument was reportedly built in 1394, after only 7 years from the laying of the first stone of the church. The assignment was entrusted to a friar, brother Martino de Stremidi, who completed it after two years of work. The original position of this first organ is not well known, but it must have been of considerable size because of the bellows that were operated through a large wheel set in motion by two men.

The liturgical and architectural reform promoted by San Carlo Borromeo in response to the new requirements arising from the Council of Trent entailed a rearrangement of the organs, which were definitively placed at the sides of the high altar.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the instrument was overhauled several times to adapt it to the growing needs for a more sophisticated sound. New stops were added and the bellows were replaced.

From the end of the nineteenth century, the need to introduce electric transmission became more pressing. The new system allowed the consoles to be detached from the pipe cases, so that the organist and choristers could more easily see the master conducting.

Following the installation of the current instrument in 1938, the restoration works according to the liturgical directives of the Second Vatican Council were seen as an opportunity to intervene on the organ complex. The irregular arrangement of the cases, which were far from each other and from the console, caused considerable acoustic problems: the entire sound set then was brought together by placing two new cases next to those dating back to the sixteenth century and the console was placed at the level of the presbytery.

The panels on both sides of the two monumental sixteenth-century organ cases consist of sixteen large canvases depicting episodes from the Old and New Testament: the pictorial decoration was begun by the Fabbrica in 1559. Several artists took turns painting them, among them Giuseppe Meda, Ambrogio Figino and Camillo Procaccini.

The entire renovated organ complex was solemnly inaugurated on September 8, 1986 with a concert by Maestro Luigi Benedetti, then principal Organist of the cathedral.

The instrument is suitable for of all services on Saturdays, Sundays and on other religious holidays, also allowing the possibility of offering concert performances that have seen the presence of some of the most renowned performers on the international scene.


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