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Milan Cathedral


Milan Cathedral

Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica of St Mary of the Nativity
Basilica cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Nascente (Italian)
Milan Cathedral from the Square.
Basic information
Location Milan, Italy
Geographic coordinates
Affiliation Catholic
Rite Ambrosian Rite
Province Archdiocese of Milan
Architectural description
Architectural style Italian Gothic
Direction of façade West
Groundbreaking 1386
Completed 1965
Capacity 40,000
Length 158.5 metres (520 ft)
Width 92 metres (302 ft)
Width (nave) 16.75 metres (55 ft)
Height (max) 108 metres (354 ft)
Dome height (outer) 65.5 metres (215 ft)
Spire(s) 135
Spire height 108.5 metres (356 ft)
Materials Brick with Candoglia marble
Plate celebrating the laying of the first stone in 1386.

Milan Cathedral (Italian: Duomo di Milano ; Lombard: Domm de Milan) is the cathedral church of Milan, Italy. Dedicated to St Mary of the Nativity (Santa Maria Nascente), it is the seat of the Archbishop of Milan, currently Cardinal Angelo Scola. The Gothic cathedral took nearly six centuries to complete. It is the 5th-largest church in the world[1] and the second largest in Italy.[2]


  • History 1
    • St Thecla's 1.1
    • Rebuilding begins 1.2
    • Borromeo 1.3
    • 17th century 1.4
    • Completion 1.5
    • Architects and engineers 1.6
  • Architecture and art 2
    • Aesthetic judgements 2.1
    • Main monuments and sights 2.2
  • In literature 3
  • In popular culture 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


St Thecla's

Milan's layout, with streets either radiating from the Duomo or circling it, reveals that the Duomo occupies what was the most central site in Roman Mediolanum, that of the public basilica facing the forum. The first cathedral, the "new basilica" (basilica nova) dedicated to St Thecla, was completed by 355. It seems to share, on a slightly smaller scale, the plan of the contemporaneous church recently rediscovered beneath Tower Hill in London.[3] An adjoining basilica was erected in 836. The old octagonal baptistery, the Battistero Paleocristiano, dates to 335 and still can be visited under the Milan Cathedral. When a fire damaged the cathedral and basilica in 1075, they were rebuilt as the Duomo.[4]

Rebuilding begins

In 1386, Archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo began construction of the cathedral. Start of the construction coincided with the ascension to power in Milan of the archbishop's cousin Gian Galeazzo Visconti, and was meant as a reward to the noble and working classes, who had suffered under his tyrannical Visconti predecessor Barnabò. Before actual work began, three main buildings were demolished: the palace of the Archbishop, the Ordinari Palace and the Baptistry of St. Stephen at the Spring, while the old church of Sta. Maria Maggiore was exploited as a stone quarry. Enthusiasm for the immense new building soon spread among the population, and the shrewd Gian Galeazzo, together with his cousin the archbishop, collected large donations for the work-in-progress. The construction program was strictly regulated under the "Fabbrica del Duomo", which had 300 employees led by first chief engineer Simone da Orsenigo. Orsenigo initially planned to build the cathedral from brick in Lombard Gothic style.

Visconti had ambitions to follow the newest trends in European architecture. In 1389, a French chief engineer, Nicolas de Bonaventure, was appointed, adding to the church its Rayonnant Gothic, a French style not typical for Italy. He decided that the brick structure should be panelled with marble. Galeazzo gave the Fabbrica del Duomo exclusive use of the marble from the Candoglia quarry and exempted it from taxes. Ten years later another French architect, Jean Mignot, was called from Paris to judge and improve upon the work done, as the masons needed new technical aid to lift stones to an unprecedented height.[5] Mignot declared all the work done up till then as in pericolo di ruina ("peril of ruin"), as it had been done sine scienzia ("without science"). In the following years Mignot's forecasts proved untrue, but they spurred Galeazzo's engineers to improve their instruments and techniques. Work proceeded quickly, and at the death of Gian Galeazzo in 1402, almost half the cathedral was complete. Construction, however, stalled almost totally until 1480, for lack of money and ideas: the most notable works of this period were the tombs of Marco Carelli and Pope Martin V (1424) and the windows of the apse (1470s), of which those extant portray St. John the Evangelist, by Cristoforo de' Mottis, and Saint Eligius and San John of Damascus, both by Niccolò da Varallo. In 1452, under Francesco Sforza, the nave and the aisles were completed up to the sixth bay.

Giovanni Antonio Amadeo on the "Amadeo's Little Spire".

In 1500 to 1510, under Ludovico Sforza, the octagonal cupola was completed, and decorated in the interior with four series of 15 statues each, portraying saints, prophets, sibyls and other characters of the Bible. The exterior long remained without any decoration, except for the Guglietto dell'Amadeo ("Amadeo's Little Spire"), constructed 1507-1510. This is a Renaissance masterwork which nevertheless harmonized well with the general Gothic appearance of the church.

During the subsequent Trivulzio candelabrum (12th century) were added.


Plan of the Cathedral in the 16th century

After the accession of Carlo Borromeo to the archbishop's throne, all lay monuments were removed from the Duomo. These included the tombs of Giovanni, Barnabò and Filippo Maria Visconti, Francesco I and his wife Bianca, Galeazzo Maria and Lodovico Sforza, which were brought to unknown destinations. However, Borromeo's main intervention was the appointment, in 1571, of Pellegrino Pellegrini as chief engineer— a contentious move, since to appoint Pellegrino, who was not a lay brother of the duomo, required a revision of the Fabbrica's statutes.

Borromeo and Pellegrini strove for a new, Renaissance appearance for the cathedral, that would emphasise its Roman / Italian nature, and subdue the Gothic style, which was now seen as foreign. As the façade still was largely incomplete, Pellegrini designed a "Roman" style one, with columns, obelisks and a large tympanum. When Pellegrini's design was revealed, a competition for the design of the façade was announced, and this elicited nearly a dozen entries, including one by Antonio Barca [6]

This design was never carried out, but the interior decoration continued: in 1575-1585 the presbytery was rebuilt, while new altars and the baptistry were added. The wooden choir stalls were constructed by 1614 for the main altar by Francesco Brambilla. In 1577 Borromeo finally consecrated the whole edifice as a new church, distinct from the old Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Tecla (which had been unified in 1549 after heavy disputes).

17th century

The cathedral as it appeared in 1745.

At the beginning of the 17th century Federico Borromeo had the foundations of the new façade laid by Francesco Maria Richini and Fabio Mangone. Work continued until 1638 with the construction of five portals and two middle windows. In 1649, however, the new chief architect Carlo Buzzi introduced a striking revolution: the façade was to revert to original Gothic style, including the already finished details within big Gothic pilasters and two giant belfries. Other designs were provided by, among others, Filippo Juvarra (1733) and Luigi Vanvitelli (1745), but all remained unapplied. In 1682 the façade of Santa Maria Maggiore was demolished and the cathedral's roof covering completed.

In 1762 one of the main features of the cathedral, the Madonnina's spire, was erected at the dizzying height of 108.5 m. The spire was designed by Carlo Pellicani and sports at the top a famous polychrome Madonnina statue, designed by Giuseppe Perego that befits the original stature of the cathedral.[7] Given Milan's notoriously damp and foggy climate, the Milanese consider it a fair-weather day when the Madonnina is visible from a distance, as it is so often covered by mist.


The Cathedral in 1856.

On May 20, 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte, about to be crowned King of Italy, ordered the façade to be finished by Pellicani. In his enthusiasm, he assured that all expenses would fall to the French treasurer, who would reimburse the Fabbrica for the real estate it had to sell. Even though this reimbursement was never paid, it still meant that finally, within only seven years, the Cathedral had its façade completed. Pellicani, largely followed Buzzi's project, adding some neo-Gothic details to the upper windows. As a form of thanksgiving, a statue of Napoleon was placed at the top of one of the spires. Napoleon was crowned King of Italy at the Duomo.

In the following years, most of the missing arches and spires were constructed. The statues on the southern wall were also finished, while in 1829-1858, new stained glass windows replaced the old ones, though with less aesthetically significant results. The last details of the cathedral were finished only in the 20th century: the last gate was inaugurated on January 6, 1965. This date is considered the very end of a process which had proceeded for generations, although even now, some uncarved blocks remain to be completed as statues. The Duomo's main façade went under renovation from 2003 to early 2009: as of February 2009, it has been completely uncovered, showing again the colours of the Candoglia marble.

In November 2012 officials announced a campaign to raise funds for the cathedral's preservation by asking patrons to adopt the building's gargoyles. The effects of pollution on the 14th-century building entail regular maintenance, and recent austerity cuts to Italy's culture budget has left less money for upkeep of cultural institutions, including the cathedral. To help make up funds, Duomo management launched a campaign offering its 135 gargoyles up for "adoption." Donors who contribute 100,000 (about $135,220) or more will have their name engraved under one of the grotesque figures perched on the cathedral's rooftop. The figures serve as drainage pipes.[8]

Architects and engineers

  • 1387 Simone da Orsenigo
  • 1387 Zeno da Campione
  • 1387 Marco da Campione detto da Frixono
  • 1389 Giacomo da Campione
  • 1389 Nicola Bonaventura o da Benaventis di Francia
  • 1389 Stefanino o Tavannino di Castelseprio
  • 1391 Giovanni Fernach di Frimburgo
  • 1391 Giovannino de Grassi
  • 1391 Lorenzo degli Spazii da Campione o di Laino
  • 1391 Marco da Carona
  • 1391 Enrico di Gamodia (Gmüden)
  • 1394 Beltramo da Conigo
  • 1394 Ulrico Füssingen di Ulma
  • 1398 Salomone de Grassi
  • 1399 Antonio o Antonino da Paderno
  • 1399 Gasparino da Carona
  • 1399 Giacomolo da Venezia di Parigi
  • 1399 Giovanni Mignoto
  • 1399 Giovanni Cona o Cova di Bruges
  • 1399 Arasmino de Sirtori
  • 1400 Filippo degli Organi
  • 1401 Polino da Orsenigo
  • 1404 Antonio da Paderno
  • 1406 Cristoforo de Chiona
  • 1407 Leonardo da Sirtori
  • 1409 Giovanni Magatto
  • 1415 Antonio da Muggiò
  • 1416 Bartolomeo di Modena
  • 1420 Antonio da Gorgonzola
  • 1430 Franceschino da Cannobio
  • 1451 Giorgio degli Organi da Modena
  • 1451 Giovanni Solari
  • 1452 Antonio da Firenze detto il Filarete
  • 1458 Donato de Sirtori
  • 1459 Boniforte o Guinforte Solari
  • 1476 Pietro Antonio Solari
  • 1483 Giovanni Nexemperger di Graz
  • 1486 Giovanni Antonio Amadeo
  • 1490 Gian Giacomo Dolcebuono
  • 1506 Cristoforo Solari detto il Gobbo
  • 1512 Gerolamo della Porta
  • 1519 Bernardo Zenale di Treviglio
  • 1524 Giangiacomo della Porta
  • 1526 Cristoforo Lombardo
  • 1539 Baldassarre Vianelli
  • 1547 Vincenzo da Seregno o Seregni
  • 1567 Pellegrino Pellegrini detto il Tibaldi
  • 1587 Martino Bassi
  • 1591 Lelio Buzzi
  • 1598 Aurelio Trezzi
  • 1609 Alessandro Bisnato
  • 1617 Fabio Mangone
  • 1617 Giovanni Paolo Bisnato
  • 1631 Francesco Maria Ricchino
  • 1638 Carlo Buzzio o Buzzi
  • 1658 Girolamo Quadrio
  • 1679 Andrea Biffi
  • 1686 Giambattista Quadrio
  • 1723 Antonio Quadrio
  • 1743 Bartolomeo Bolla o Bolli
  • 1760 Francesco Croce
  • 1773 Giulio Galliori
  • 1795 Felice Soave
  • 1801 Giovanni Antonio Antolini
  • 1803 Leopoldo Pollak
  • 1806 Giuseppe Zanoja
  • 1806 Giuseppe Pollak
  • 1806 Carlo Amati
  • 1813 Pietro Pestagalli
  • 1854-1860 Carica vacante
  • 1861 Giuseppe Vandoni
  • 1877 Paolo Cesa-Bianchi
  • 1904 Gaetano Moretti
  • 1907 Luca Beltrami
  • 1912 Adolfo Zacchi
  • 1963 Antonio Cassi Ramelli
  • 1964 Carlo Ferrari da Passano
  • 1988 Benigno Mörlin Visconti Castiglione

Architecture and art

The famous "Madonnina" atop the main spire of the cathedral, a baroque gilded bronze statue
Interior view of the Duomo di Milano

The plan 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 45 meters, the highest Gothic vaults of a complete church (less than the 48 meters of Beauvais Cathedral, which was never completed).

The roof is open to tourists (for a fee), which allows many a close-up view of some spectacular sculpture that would otherwise be unappreciated. The roof of the cathedral is renowned for the forest of openwork pinnacles and spires, set upon delicate flying buttresses.

The cathedral's five broad naves, divided by 40 pillars, are reflected in the hierarchic openings of the façade. Even the transepts have aisles. The nave columns are 24.5 metres (80 ft) high, and the apsidal windows are 20.7 x 8.5 metres (68 x 28 feet). The huge building is of brick construction, faced with marble from the quarries which Gian Galeazzo Visconti donated in perpetuity to the cathedral chapter. Its maintenance and repairs are very complicated.

In 2015, Milan's cathedral developed a new lighting system based on LED lights.[9]

Aesthetic judgements

The cathedral was built over several hundred years in a number of contrasting styles and the quality of the workmanship varies markedly. Reactions to it have ranged from admiration to disfavour. The Guida d’Italia: Milano 1998 (Touring Club Editore, p. 154) points out that the early Romantics tended to praise it in “the first intense enthusiasms for Gothic.” As the Gothic Revival brought in a purer taste, condemnation was often equally intense.

John Ruskin commented acidly that the cathedral steals "from every style in the world: and every style spoiled. The cathedral is a mixture of Perpendicular with Flamboyant, the latter being peculiarly barbarous and angular, owing to its being engrafted, not on a pure, but a very early penetrative Gothic … The rest of the architecture among which this curious Flamboyant is set is a Perpendicular with horizontal bars across: and with the most detestable crocketing, utterly vile. Not a ray of invention in a single form… Finally the statues all over are of the worst possible common stonemasons’ yard species, and look pinned on for show. The only redeeming character about the whole being the frequent use of the sharp gable … which gives lightness, and the crowding of the spiry pinnacles into the sky.” (Notebooks[M.6L]). The plastered ceiling painted to imitate elaborate tracery carved in stone particularly aroused his contempt as a “gross degradation”.[10]

While appreciating the force of Ruskin’s criticisms, Henry James was more appreciative: “A structure not supremely interesting, not logical, not … commandingly beautiful, but grandly curious and superbly rich. … If it had no other distinction it would still have that of impressive, immeasurable achievement … a supreme embodiment of vigorous effort.”[11]

Main monuments and sights

The interior of the cathedral includes numerous monuments and artworks. These include:

  • 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.
  • The Archbishop Alberto da Intimiano's sarcophagus, which is overlooked by a Crucifix in copper laminae (a replica).
  • The sarcophagi of the archbishops Ottone Visconti and Giovanni Visconti, created by a Campionese master in the 14th century.
  • The sarcophagus of Marco Carelli, who donated 35,000 ducati to accelerate the construction of the cathedral.
  • The three magnificent altars by Pellegrino Pellegrini, which include the notable Federico Zuccari's Visit of St. Peter to St. Agatha jailed.
  • In the right transept, the monument to Gian Giacomo Medici di Marignano, called "Medeghino", by Leone Leoni, and the adjacent Renaissance marble altar, decorated with gilt bronze statues.
  • The presbytery is a late Renaissance masterpiece composing a choir, a Temple by Pellegrini, two pulpits with giant Jacopino da Tradate) can be seen.
  • The transepts house the Trivulzio Candelabrum, which is in two pieces. The base (attributed to Nicolas of Verdun, 12th century), characterized by a fantastic ensemble of vines, vegetables and imaginary animals; and the stem, of the mid-16th century.
  • In the left aisle, the Arcimboldi monument by Alessi and Romanesque figures depicting the Apostles in red marble and the neo-Classic baptistry by Pellegrini.
  • A small red light bulb in the dome above the apse marks the spot where one of the nails reputedly from the Crucifixion of Christ has been placed. The Holy Nail is retrieved and exposed to the public every year, during a celebration known as the Rite of the Nivola.
  • In November–December, in the days surrounding the birthdate of Saint Charles Borromeo, a series of large canvases, the Quadroni are exhibited along the nave.
  • Since September 2005, in the cathedral’s crypt, beside the relics of Saint Charles Borromeo, there has been a video installation by English artist Mark Wallinger. Entitled Via Dolorosa, it consists of a 18 minutes film reproducing scenes of the Passion excerpted from the film Jesus of Nazareth by Franco Zeffirelli.[12]
  • In November 2014 a white marble sculpture by Tony Cragg inspired to the Madonna statue on the rooftop was installed.[13]
  • The 5-manual, 225-rank pipe-organ, built jointly by the Tamburini and Mascioni Italian organbuilding firms on Mussolini's command, is currently the largest organ in all of Italy

In literature

Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley read literature inside the Duomo.[1] Alfred, Lord Tennyson enjoyed the view of the Alps from the Duomo.[1]

The American writer and journalist Mark Twain visited Milan in the summer of 1867. He dedicated chapter 18 of Innocents Abroad to the Milan Cathedral, including many physical and historical details, and a now uncommon visit to the roof. He describes the Duomo as follows:

What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems ...a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!... The central one of its five great doors is bordered with a bas-relief of birds and fruits and beasts and insects, which have been so ingeniously carved out of the marble that they seem like living creatures-- and the figures are so numerous and the design so complex, that one might study it a week without exhausting its interest...everywhere that a niche or a perch can be found about the enormous building, from summit to base, there is a marble statue, and every statue is a study in itself...Away above, on the lofty roof, rank on rank of carved and fretted spires spring high in the air, and through their rich tracery one sees the sky beyond. ... (Up on) the roof...springing from its broad marble flagstones, were the long files of spires, looking very tall close at hand, but diminishing in the distance...We could see, now, that the statue on the top of each was the size of a large man, though they all looked like dolls from the street... They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St. Peter's at Rome. I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands.

Oscar Wilde visited Milan in June 1875. In a letter to his mother he wrote: "The Cathedral is an awful failure. Outside the design is monstrous and inartistic. The over-elaborated details stuck high up where no one can see them; everything is vile in it; it is, however, imposing and gigantic as a failure, through its great size and elaborate execution."


In popular culture

  • The 1934 song "O mia bella Madunina" by Giovanni d'Anzi about the golden Madonna statue on the spire can be considered today an unofficial "city anthem" of Milan.
  • Luchino Visconti's 1960 film Rocco e i suoi fratelli, set in Milan, has a scene which takes place on the roof of the cathedral.
  • Many Milanese dialect speakers, reminded by the centuries needed to complete the Duomo, use the "Fabbrica del Duomo" ("Fabrica del Dom" in the dialect) as an adjective (sometimes humorously, sometimes not) to describe an extremely long, too complex task, maybe even impossible to complete.[1]
  • The Italian phrase "mangiare a ufo", stemming from the Milanese dialect mangià a uf meaning "being paid for a job not done", comes from the fact that the goods used to build the Duomo wore the inscription "A.U.F.", shorthand for Latin "Ad Usum Fabricae" (to be used for the construction) and were exempt from taxation.
  • A souvenir model of the cathedral was thrown at the nose of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi during an attack on December 13, 2009.[14]
  • In the song "In Every Age" from the musical Titanic the building is compared with the Pyramids and the Titanic as one of the greatest feats of architecture.
  • Several lavish shots of the Duomo are featured in the Italian film I Am Love (2009).
  • In the novel "The Wary Transgressor" by James Hadley Chase the main protagonist is seen working as an unofficial guide at the Duomo.
  • In the video game, Dark Souls, one of the locations in the game, Anor Londo, is heavily based on the cathedral.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Duomo is a generic term in Italian meaning "Cathedral", which technically refers to a church which is the official seat of an archbishop. It is derived from domus, a Latin term for "home" or "house", referring to the role of the church as home of God.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Sylvia Tombesi Walton 2005, Milan, the Lakes and Lombardy TimeOut Books, ISBN 978-1-904978-09-1
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Bibliolife Reproduction Series p. 41
  11. ^ Italian Hours, Bibliobazaar, p. 92
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ Italy's PM Silvio Berlusconi is bloodied by attack. BBC News, December 13, 2009.

External links

  • Official website
  • Photos and details
  • Duomo in Google Maps
  • Virtual model of Piazza del Duomo
  • Interactive Panorama: Milan Cathedral (roof)
  • Corpus of architectural drawings of the Cathedral of Milan research project by the Polytechnic University of Milan
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