Few sights on earth can actually measure up to what the Milan Cathedral has to offer from an aesthetic point of view. If there were a word to describe what the prestigious Duomo di Milano stands for, that would be “overpowering”. There’s nothing shy, nothing modest about any of the structural and decorative features of the cathedral that could make the visitor believe that any sense of moderation has ever inspired the architects who succeeded, one after another, to the task of designing the cathedral.
Indeed, in time the cathedral has either repelled the dainty connoisseurs of architecture or has literally inspired the likes of Shelley to accede to new heights of artistic perception. Ridiculed or idolized, the Milan Cathedral is impossible to miss out during a stay in the second largest city of Italy. It took more than 5 centuries for the cathedral to be constructed (hence the locals’ saying, “fabbrica del duomo”, when they mean to underline that something takes too long to be done). The works were commissioned by Antonio Saluzzo who, in 1386, when the groundbreaking was carried out, filled the position of archbishop (a period which also coincided with the ascension of the first Duke of Milan, Gian Lorenzo Visconti). The works were completed no sooner than 1965, though the constant restoration works might make visitors believe the works are still in progress (scaffolds can are constantly set up and than dismantled).
The airy exterior look of the cathedral, hesitatingly labeled as Gothic, is the result of centuries of design works. The first two architects, the France-born Nicolas de Bonaventure and Jean Mignot, envisaged a Gothic edifice, but the succeeding 16th century architect, Pellegrino Pellegrini, under the influence of archbishop Carlo Borromeo, changed the plans, seeking to lend the cathedral a Renaissance touch. Indeed, the duomo assumed certain Renaissance elements, but the Gothic eventually prevailed, since the 17th century architects, Francesco Maria Richini and Fabio Mangone, decided to revisit the initial designs and reinforce the unsettled Gothic appearance.
Napoleon himself had something to say in the construction of the cathedral. He was the one who had the works sped up (Napoleon, for that matter, was crowned King of Italy in the Milan Cathedral). Indeed, in its general outline, the cathedral was completed in the 19th century (including the facade), but about 5 decades of the 20th century also had to pass in order to see the edifice totally completed, with the addition of all the decorative accessories: spires, statues, arches.
Rising to a height of more than 65 meters, its verticality being even further reinforced by the 108 meters high spire of the Madonnina statue, Il Duomo is the fourth largest cathedral in the world (and the second largest in Italy, if we take into account the Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican), stretching on an approximately rectangular surface of more than 14,000 square meters. The body of the edifice appears as if engulfed in a forest of steeples, counting a total of 135 spires. The spires pierce the air in a violent movement, overtopped by the legendary Madonnina, a splendid Baroque work by Giuseppe Perego (the statue is made of gilded bronze, and it can only be seen during the rare sunny days of Milan, remaining generally shrouded in mist). Visitors have access to the cathedral’s roof, from where they can admire both the sweeping view of Milan and the plethora of statues and decorative motifs on the spires, but a fee must be paid separately (they can either take the stairs or the elevator).
The interior of the cathedral is just as exquisite. It is populated by tens of pilasters and columns, meant to divide the sections of the church (the five naves, the transepts), and it has a capacity of 40,000 seats (meaning that, at the beginning of its construction, the edifice could shelter the entire population of the city). Some of the most important highlights here refer to Pellegrini’s altars, three works of remarkable Renaissance impeccability, Leone Leoni’s monument to Gian Giacomo Medici di Marignano (located in the right transept of the church), Marco d’Agrate’s statue of Saint Bartholomew (one of the most famed masterpieces in the cathedral), and the crypt, which shelters the mortal remains of San Carlo Borromeo. The cathedral is also known for having contained the tombs of three members of the Visconti family (Givanni, Barnabo and Filippo Maria) and the tombs of three Sforzas (Francesco I, Galeazzo Maria and Lodovico), but these were removed in the 16th century, on the command of Carlo Borromeo. The early Christian Baptistery, Battistero Paleocristiano (Saint Augustine is said to have been baptized here by Sant’Ambrogio), located underneath the cathedral, as well as the cathedral’s treasury (containing wide collections of medieval Christian art), are also well worth a visit (tickets are paid separately for the access to the baptistery).
But in order to see the wealth of masterpieces which once used to adorn the cathedral, tourists should head for the Duomo Museum, located across the piazza, in Palazzo Reale (a major tourist sight in itself, next to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, located on the opposite side of the piazza), which showcases, amongst others, an epic work by Jacopo Tintoretto.
The Brera Art Gallery in Milan is hosted by Palazzo Brera, and surrounded by the Brera Botanical Garden. It showcases important works by Italian artists.
The Civic Museum of Archeology of Milan features collections of vestiges of the old Milan, and of the past Roman, Etruscan and Greek civilizations.
The Leonardo da Vinci National Museum of Science and Technology of Milan is the largest science museum in Italy. It is housed in a 16th century monastery.