Novelists have described the gothic cathedral of Milan as “a curious marble mountain” and a “glorious structure in all its majesty and beauty”.
It is not only the symbol of Milan, but also the most important work of Gothic architecture in Italy: the Cathedral-Basilica of Santa Maria Nascente, better known as the Milan Cathedral.
Duomo Cathedral is certainly the most famous monument in Milan, but are you really sure that you know it well?
Here are 10 amazing things that will you make to see it in a new light.
1 – It is the largest church in Italy and the third largest in the world
Followed by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the Basilica of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil the Duomo Milan’s Cathedral (11,700 m2) is the third largest church in the world. The massive cathedral has a length of 157 meters and can accommodate 40,000 worshipers at a time.
2 – The cathedral took nearly six centuries to complete
Its foundations were laid in 1388. Many architects continued its construction before it was completed in 1965. Altogether, the project took 577 years.
3 – It has most number of statues in the world
The Milan Cathedral is decorated with an amazing number of beautifully sculpted statues and spires. There are more statues on this building than any other in the world, 3159 in total. 2245 of these are on the exterior together with 96 gargoyles and 135 spires. It is said that if the statues were placed on top of each other, they would reach a height of about 5,300 meters (3.3 miles).
4 – Milan’s cathedral has the solar calendar inside
The Cathedral sundial is inserted into the floor parallel to the counterfaçade, it was made in 1786 by astronomers of the Astronomical Observatory of Brera Giovanni Angelo de Cesaris and Guido Francesco Reggio.
It is a long gilded brass strip broken up by the twelve zodiac signs, and it runs up the left wall.
Being a watch and a solar calendar perfectly working, it had required over centuries of several checks and restores. One of these was made in 1827 and it was necessary because of the lowering of the floor plan.
A second test was made in 1929 by astronomer Louis Gabba on behalf of the Royal Astronomical Observatory of Brera.
The last check was made in 1976 as the excavations of the first subway line and the lowering of the phreatic aquifer caused a further lowering of the Cathedral floor. The gnomic hole, site at the first vault of the first bay of south aisle, was also widened.
Sundial is currently working.
5 – A very unique statue of St. Bartholomew, with own skin is in the Duomo di Milano
One of most precious piece of art in Milan Cathedral, is the sculpture of St. Bartholomew, by Marco D’Agrate, made around 1562 and placed in the right transept of the Cathedral.
St. Bartholomew was condemned to one of most cruel and inhuman execution: the Syrian martyrdom. That is being skinned alive and then beheaded.
The statue depictes the saint flayed with the Bible in hand. The masterpiece is characterized by fine precision anatomical with which the human body is rendered devoid of skin, with the skin thrown like a stole on the shoulders and body of the martyr.
The sculptor, with not too much modesty, signed it on the bottom of the statue. “NON ME PRAXITELES SED MARCO FINXIT AGRAT.” (“I was not sculpted by Praxiteles, but by Marco d’Agrate”).
6 – Duomo’s construction is responsible for the Naviglio Grande – the city’s canal system
Today as before, the marble that serves the works of the Duomo comes from Candoglia on Lake Maggiore: it is an exclusive marble, donated by the Visconti Family to the venerable Duomo Factory on 24 October 1387.
The marble was transported to the city through the waterways, quickly and without great effort thanks to the natural thrust of the stream that from Lake Maggiore through Ticino leads directly to Naviglio Grande.
This was the genius of the Milanese (with the help of Leonardo da Vinci). From Naviglio, through the inner circle of the canals, the blocks of marble were unloaded into the small port just behind the Duomo.
7 – The Statue of Madonnina (the Little Madonna) gained fame and it’s part of local legend
The Madonnina is a statue of the Virgin Mary atop Milan Cathedral in Italy.
The Madonnina spire one of the main features of the cathedral, was erected in 1762 at the height of 108.5 m (356 ft). The spire was designed by Francesco Croce. At the top of the spire is the polychrome Madonnina statue, designed and built by Giuseppe Perego in 1774, during the episcopacy of Giuseppe Pozzobonelli who supported the idea to place the Madonnina at the top of the Cathedral. By tradition, no building in Milan is higher than the Madonnina.
So, when a modern building surpassed this height, a replica of la Madonnina was placed atop it.
During World War II, the Madonnina was covered with a cloth for five years to avoid providing an easy target for fighter-bombers.
8 – The Statue of Liberty on the Milan Duomo Facade
If you look carefully at the balcony above the main entrance, there on the left side of the balcony you’ll see the Statue of Liberty!
The statue was sculpted by artist Camillo Pacetti in 1810. It is then 75 years older than the Statue of Liberty and it is said that Frederic Auguste Bartholdi took inspiration from this statue to create “Lady Liberty“.
The resemblance between the two statues is impressive. They are both holding a torch with their right hand, they are both wearing a crown and a tunic.
They only difference seems to be what they are holding with their left hand. While the one in New York holds a book with the independence day’s date on it, the one in Milan holds a cross.
9 – The cathedral has statue of Saint Napoleon
There are so many statues that adorn the Duomo, but one of them has a very special story. It is on the side overlooking the Palazzo Reale, on the third buttress from the main façade, and represents a boy with his arms folded, in a pose with a note od defiance, and chained feet: it is Saint Napoleon.
Clearly, it is an imaginary saint, invented on purpose to please Bonaparte at the time when he governed Milan.
The legend tells us that the saint did not exist and that, to please the Emperor, Cardinal Caprara tracked down a strange young man of the fourth century, Neapolis, for assonance connected with Napoleon. Even the story of the saint was built from scratch, through analogies with other lives of Saints: Neapolis was said to have been tortured and then killed in captivity.
10 – The Cathedral has relics that are claimed to be the Holy Nails with which Christ was crucified
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.