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The Duomo of Milan: marbles and marvels

Last updated on January 19, 2023

The Duomo of Milan: Marbles and Marvels


The Duomo of Milan with its 11.700 square meters surface is the fifth largest church of the world or the third if only Catholic churches are taken into consideration (the first two are the St Peter Basilica in Rome and the cathedral of Seville in Spain). The gothic cathedral is widely considered as the main landmark of the city of Milan and it is dedicated to the St. Mary of the Nativity.

The construction of the Duomo of Milan took almost six hundred years and its origin dates back to 1386 when the Archibishop of Milan Antonio da Saluzzo decided to demolish those buildings occupying the area where the Duomo now stands.

The ruler of Milan during the 14th Century was Gian Galeazzo Visconti and his contribution to the project was fundamental. To Visconti we owe the decision to replace the bricks, that were supposed to be used for the construction, with the more elegant white marbles of Candoglia.

The commitment of the Milan’s population to this project was relevant. The Milanese people financially contributed to the construction of the Duomo of Milan while the engineering and architectural works were supervised by the Fabbrica del Duomo (The Duomo factory) a company that is still in charge of the preservation and renovation works of the Duomo of Milan.

Throughout the six centuries the project suffered some setbacks due the lack of money and to the political changes that affected Milan and its surroundings. It wasn’t until 1805 that the Cathedral was officially considered as completed. Napoleon ordered the construction of the façade that was to be dedicated to Santa Maria Nascente (St. Mary of the Nativity).

Facts and Figures

The Duomo of Milan features more than 3600 (2500 on the exterior) statues and gargoyles. The most of them are representations of saints and of prominent figures of the Church’s history: Saint Ambrogio (on the right side, second buttress), Saint John the Baptist (nineteenth buttress), Adam and Eve (twenty-first window), etc… It is also worth mentioning that among the statues of the Duomo of Milan there are some interesting artworks that have nothing to do with a Catholic church. It is the case of a sculpture that depicts a dragon or the representation of a boxing glove, a racket and of an ice axe.  The most particular statue of the Duomo is for sure the one called “La Legge Nuova (the new law)” by Camillo Pacetti (1810) which has a striking resemblance with the Statue of Liberty (see the balcony above the main entrance).

The rooftop of the cathedral is adorned by 135 spires and on the top of the tallest one (108,5 meters from the ground) stands proudly the Madonnina, the symbol of Milan and the most popular statue of the city.

The roof of the Duomo of Milan rests on 52 pillars of a height of 24 meters, one per each week of the year, that split the interior of the cathedral in five different naves. The walls of the gothic cathedral feature 55 glass windows realized between the end of the 14th century and the 80s of the 20th century.

On the floor at the main entrance there is a sundial that it is said to be so precise that it was once used to regulate the clocks of the city.

The main altar of the Duomo of Milan dates back to the 8th century and was consecrated in 1418. Above the altar, at the top of the apse’s roof, there is a red light that indicates the position of the tabernacle that contains one of the nails of the Holy Cross used for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Once a year (the Saturday before the 14th of September) the Archibishop of Milan retrieves the nail to let the people adore it for 40 hours, when it is put back in the tabernacle. This rite is called the Nivola (from the Italian word nuvola – cloud): the Archibishop is lifted to the ceiling of the Duomo of Milan in a basket shaped like a cloud adorned with angels.

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