Listed among the largest churches in the world, the Duomo rises on a magnificent square at the heart of Lombardy’s capital. It is dedicated to St Mary of the Nativity, an iconic landmark which took almost 600 years to complete. The last gate was inaugurated in 1965.
Work began in the late 14th century by the church of St Maria Maggiore. Foundations were laid for three naves, soon increased to five as both the local bishop and duke aimed to raise the city to new heights. A canal network was designed to transport material. Gothic architecture would rival the great cathedrals in northern Europe but flexibility and innovations were welcome. Marble was used, foreign architects, artists and craftsmen joined the Italian team, and on this ancient pagan site building progressed unusually, from back to front. It started with the apse while the façade of St Maria Maggiore remained in use until 1682. The new one was only completed in the 1800s by order of Napoleon.
Elegant buildings line the vast panoramic square but all lead the eye to the Duomo, stretching 92 x 158 metres. Inside are 98 gargoyles, 135 spires and over 3,400 statues which found their niche around the cathedral. The pink-hued marble of Candoglia cleverly hides the brickwork, playing all day long with light and shade to take your breath away. The main bronze door greets visitors with stunning bas-reliefs, while the 18th century sundial is still used to set the clocks around town.
Large enough for 40,000 people, the interior is striking, with five broad naves supported by 40 columns. At 45 metres, the central aisle is the highest in a finished Gothic church and is decorated with impressive stained glass windows. Up above the apse, a small red light marks the holy place where a nail from the cross is kept. On the Feast of the Holy Cross in mid-September, the archbishop of Milan is slowly hoisted up in an angel-decorated basket to bring the relic down for display on the altar.
Statues, frescoes, sarcophagi, pulpits and the largest organ in Italy – there is much to see inside the cathedral, but most famous is the 16th century statue of St Bartholomew Flayed, a sad disturbing figure by Marco d’Agrate. More enticing are the three superb altars by Pelligrino Tibaldi, who was appointed by archbishop Borromeo to lighten up the old Gothic style with the flourishing Italian Renaissance. The treasury is housed in the Duomo Museum, a separate building next to the Palazzo Reale, where displays include some 200 items, tapestries, paintings, terracotta models, statues and more.
Visitors could easily spend an hour or more in the cathedral but most exciting of all is the rooftop walk. Beyond the first terrace accessed by a lift are narrow passageways and slippery steps up to the wide open space of a safe but steeply-slanted roof. Up there, above pinnacles, flying buttresses and statues, the golden Madonna rises on the very top to bless the city at her feet. Views are superb and in clear weather the Alps are visible. It’s the perfect place to reflect on this unique building and the work of so many architects and artists over the centuries. Mark Twain described it as ‘so grand, so solemn, so vast’ and across the square, on the equestrian statue flanked by lions, Victor Emmanuel II, first king of the newly united Italy, certainly seems to approve.