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The capital of Lombardy, and Italy’s second largest city, Milan is today the major industrial city in Italy. Its history goes back to the Celts, who founded the area about 400 B.C.E. Rome conquered the area and named the city Mediolanum. As capital of the Lombard League it led the fight against the Hohenstaufens, and was subsequently destroyed in 1162 by Frederick Barbarossa. The city was quickly rebuilt and was subsequently dominated by the Visconti family, who won control of northern Italy. In 1450 the Sforza dynasty took control, but died out in 1535. A pieta composition by Michelangelo, labeled “unfinished” can be found in the Sforza Palace in Milan. In reality Michelangelo must have discarded the statuary, in that it never achieved proper proportions. Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire (also known as Charles I of Spain) took control until 1714, after the War of the Spanish Succession, and the area was assigned to Austrian control. Napoleon came and his armies stayed from 1797 until 1814, when Austria resumed power over the region. Austrian rule lasted until 1859, and it was shortly thereafter that Victor Emanuel united the city-states and formed the country we know today as Italy. In 1919 Mussolini founded the Italian Fascist Party in Milan, and it was here that his dead body was put on exhibition in 1945.


Although many churches of significance, mainly cathedrals (in which Bishops celebrate Mass) are known in Italy as “the duomo,” the Cathedral of Florence does not go by that appellation as readily as does the Cathedral of Milan. Italian duomo has come to mean a cathedral, with origins from the Latin "domus," meaning house, thus the "house of god" (Domus Dei). When we read or hear the expression "piazza duomo," we would be referring to the piazza in front of the cathedral, in this or any other Italian city.

The more one researches, the more discrepancies one finds. Many sources indicate a beginning date for the cathedral of 1385; recent sources state 1387, with one bid thrown in for 1386. This is one reason this Professor will never test you on a specific date unless, of course, there is no possibility of conflict. Just as controversial - but of a more serious nature - was the considerable consultation and debate among architects, stonemasons, and a mathematician. Apparently the Milanese wanted something in the latest "style," the French Gothic, something patterned after Bourges or Le Mans. The debate revolved around structure, and the fact that not even the French could accurately predict the structural forces inherent in stone construction. Aesthetics and tradition played their individual roles in design and construction.

Although architects from nearby Campione and Bologna were consulted, there are northern design elements influenced by consultants from north of the Alps. The Duke of Milan and his family, the Viscontis, helped finance the construction. Work was carried on continuously until completion in 1858.

This is the second largest medieval cathedral in Europe (Seville is the largest). The exterior, including the roof itself, is faced with marble, which some sources say is white, others that it is rosy Candoglia marble. Having visited after the surface was cleaned, and having walked on the roof itself, the impression was that it is white. The biggest problem is that pollution in the city quickly turns it to the color of soot.

Our usual dimensions, which you should compare to prior Gothic examples, are as follows: the church is 148 meters (486') in length, the width of the façade measures 61.5 meters (202'), and the interior can, supposedly, hold 40,000 congregants in an area of 11,700 square meters (125,938 square feet). The crossing, composed of a dome-like ribbed construction, reaches a height of 68 meters (223'), and culminates with a statue of the Virgin known as the “Madonnina” at a height of 108 meters (354'). What is undoubtedly more astonishing than some of the huge figures is the fact that there are more spires, pinnacles, and statues on this Cathedral roof than on any other building anywhere. There are 135 pinnacles reaching like outstretched fingers to the heavens, accompanied by about 2,300 marble statues. This combination completely eliminates any feeling of solidity, and the building meshes with the sky – the ultimate in spirituality, the non-existent mass, which only faith can provide.

The center of the western (entrance) facade is a little higher than the 48 meter (148') nave vault. The facade itself was completed under the orders of Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th century, probably from designs created by Carlo Buzzi in 1653. Napoleon certainly did his share of construction.

Apparently the Milanese wished their “marble giant” to compete with the cathedrals of the whole of Europe in size and magnificence. And they did, indeed, achieve that goal. The building is so absolutely complete, that it is possible to walk on the roof, made with the same white marble as the elevations. The experience is a unique one. Walk to the north transept, and take either the elevator to its stop (158 steps), then an additional 73 steps to the base of the “dome,” with yet another 139 steps to the highest gallery. Somewhere in between you have access to the roof itself. Just imagine walking on top of the vaults we have been describing. And the view, as with all high places, is exceptional, including the mountains beyond the Po plain.

A detail of the marble exterior immediately below the spires.

The number of lace-like spires, and pinnacles capped with statues seems to create the illusory non-outline for which Gothic designers had striven. It is like having several thousand fingers thrust into the sky, each helping to obliterate the solidity of the building, turning everything into a spiritual mass, defying the reality of existence. Yet beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, and in this case the validity of those spires has come into question. One author(s) has stated: "The building is everywhere pervaded by an immoderate ornateness, whose particulars, however, are obscured in the interior by a gloomy illumination comparable only to the Gothic of Spain" (Trachtenberg & Hyman, Architecture from Prehistory to Post-Modernism). Another has stated: "The pinnacled luxuriance of the exterior is a Late Gothic fantasy without equal in Italy;" then getting to the interior: "(it) has an overwhelming grandeur to which the piers, with their strange tabernacle-like capitals containing statues, contribute an almost antique resonance, since they are somehow reminiscent of the figured columns of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. This rich solemnity is underlined by the pink marble with which the exterior and interior is faced" (David Watkin, A History of Western Architecture).

An extraordinary experience: it is absolutely possible to walk on the roof of this Cathedral. Described by some as being flat-pitched, the roof is not exactly very flat, but it is walkable. Thick slabs of marbles have been laid over the domes of the vaults below.

A view of the fleche, rising 113 meters (350') above the ground. It is an openwork spire sitting on top of a domical vault that is 70 meters (215') above the ground. Subtract one figure from the other to obtain the actual fleche height itself.

The Altar situated in a transept of the Cathedral. It is a dramatic backdrop in the transept, filled with figures seemingly expressing an Italian sense of exuberance, in keeping with the rest of the building. It is almost lyrical and whimsical, reminiscent of an Italian opera. Perhaps that is what some critiques misconstrue about the building itself - it is, after all, in Italy, where opera was born. Moreover, it maintains that operatic sense of excess and of exuberance. The spires shout to the heavens on the outside, while the altar sings to those same heavens from the inside.

Situated in the center of the apse is this baldachino, or tabernacle. Here we can clearly see the capitals mentioned above, and how much like an actual tabernacle they really are. You can also see the Gothic ribs angling through the apse.

The second altar in the opposite transept, is similar to the first, but the figures vary in their poses and representations. Same exuberance, though.

Again, the interior is quite dark. There are fifty-two columns standing on the floor of the nave. This is a five-aisled church, with quadripartite vaulting.

The stained glass windows are the largest in the world, and were completed in the 15th and 16th centuries. Their color is most spiritual, and the color red dominates.

Multiple biblical stories are told, and perhaps here, with contrast to French designs, the spirituality achieves a different kind of intensity. French stained glass provides a brightly lit glow (often, but not always, bluish); here a soft, red glow seeps in from the Italian windows, carrying the sounds of muted whispers through the tall shadows.

There is one problem, however. As you leave this especially spiritual place, in great measure induced by the darkness and color, and you stand on the threshold of the church, the vision across the piazza outside is unarguably the most blatant display of commercialism on the planet.

From “bebite coca cola,” to advertisements for just about anything and everything, giant neon constructions scream in your face. The contrast could not be greater; the play on your emotions could not be stronger, or more negative.

One parting look at the Cathedral at night.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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