The construction of the Duomo di Milano initiated in 1386 on the site of the ancient basilicas of Santa Tecla and Santa Maria Maggiore, which were then demolished at a later date. Dedicated to Maria Nascente, the cathedral was commissioned by Gian Galeazzo Visconti and had a dual purpose: the plan was to replace the sites of worship in the heart of Milan with an imposing edifice and it was also intended to celebrate the Visconti Signoria and its ambitious expansion policy.
It is the largest and most complex Gothic building in Italy, made of pink-veined white marble from the Candoglia quarries, in the Val d'Ossola. It is 157 metres in length and covers an area of 11,700 m2. The highest spire measures 108.5 and, in October 1774, the golden 4,16 metre-high statue of the Madonna by the sculptor Giuseppe Perego was placed on its pinnacle.
The construction works were prolonged over five centuries and, during this extensive period, local and European architects, sculptors, artists and workers all proceeded in turn to work in the Fabbrica del Duomo. The result of all their labour is a unique style of architecture, a fusion of European Gothic style and Lombard tradition.
The abundance of adornment is impressive: spires, pinnacles and an immense patrimony of statues (approximately 3,400, of which 1,100 on the inside and 2,300 outside), plus, sculptures in the frames and windows and decorations on the facade.
The complexity of the build was such that the final part completed was the façade in 1813. Before this date the Santa Maria Maggiore façade was the provisional front of the cathedral.
The bronze doors date back to different periods in the twentieth century. The central door was carved with floral Gothic reliefs in 1906 by Ludovico Pogliaghi and the theme is "stories from the life of Mary".
The interior is shaped like a Latin cross and has large choir stalls and a polygonal apse. The style is mostly Late Gothic with the addition of classical elements from the Counter Reformation period when the presbytery, the main altar, the pulpit and some side altars were all created.
The crypt houses the chapel of S.Carlo Borromeo, designed by Francesco Maria Ricchino in 1606, with the rock crystal coffin which encloses the saint's body in pontifical dress.
The entire city of Milano can be admired from the rooftop terraces, which are accessed by lift or stairs.
A significant number of masterpieces are preserved inside the Duomo di Milano.
The funeral monument of Gian Giacomo Medici, known as Medeghino, brother of Pope Pius IV and uncle of Carlo Borromeo, is the work of Leone Leoni.
In the left transept, the splendid ‘tree-shaped’ Trivulziano candelabra, by the bronze sculptor Nicola da Verdun, was donated to the cathedral in 1562 by archpriest G.B. Trivulzio and dates from the end of the twelfth century.
The baptistery in the left aisle was added in the sixteenth century by Pellegrino Tibaldi in a classical temple; the precious central baptismal font carved in porphyry dates back to Roman times.
The area of archaeological excavations displays the remains of both the early Christian baptisteries of S. Giovanni alle Fonti and S.Stefano and the remains of the basilica of S. Tecla.
The windows of the cathedral, the oldest of which date back to the fifteenth century, represent a magnificent decorative cycle and were designed or created by artists such as Cristoforo de Mottis, Stefano da Pandino, Niccolò da Varallo and also Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Pellegrino Tibaldi and Giovanni Battista Bertini.
The tabernacle above the choir, illuminated by a red light, contains a nail allegedly from the cross of Jesus.
Over the centuries, the Milanese have donated generously to restore and maintain the upkeep of the Duomo. Donations can still be made today and are recorded in the Donors’ register kept in the Fabbrica del Duomo.
The blocks of marble utilised for the construction of the cathedral arrived at the "laghetto" - a small reservoir located near the church of Santo Stefano - from Lake Maggiore by means of the Ticino, the Naviglio Grande and the internal trench of the Navigli.
In an attempt to avoid attracting the attention of the Allied bombers during the Second World War the Milanese covered the gilded surface of the statue of the Madonnina with rags.
An expression typically used in Lombard dialect, "a uf" (free, no charge) seems to be attributed in some way to the Duomo di Milano. In fact, according to tradition, it refers to the words "AUF - Ad Usum Fabricae" which, in all probability, permitted those who transported the blocks of marble for the cathedral to be exempt from paying duties. However, this tradition has not been confirmed by scholars who claim that "a uf" has an unknown etymology.
It is the first cathedral in the world to illuminate its windows from within so that, at night, the sacred images can be admired from the outside. Please visit www.duomomilano.it for advance dates of the special occasions, mainly related to major religious festivals, when the Duomo is illuminated.