This cathedral is a most astonishing work of art. It is built of white marble, and cut into pinnacles of immense height, and the utmost delicacy of workmanship, and loaded with sculpture. The effect of it, piercing the solid blue with those groups of dazzling spires, relieved by the serene depth of this Italian heaven, or by moonlight when the stars seem gathered among those clustered shapes, is beyond anything I had imagined architecture capable of producing. The interior, though very sublime, is of a more earthly character, and with its stained glass and massy granite columns overloaded with antique figures, and the silver lamps, that burn for ever under the canopy of black cloth beside the brazen altar and the marble fretwork of the dome, give it the aspect of some gorgeous sepulchre. There is one solitary spot among those aisles, behind the altar, where the light of day is dim and yellow under the storied window, which I have chosen to visit, and read Dante there.
Thus wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley when he visited Milan’s cathedral on his way to stay at Bagni di Lucca. As a description it could hardly be bettered. If anything, Shelley would have been even more struck by that wondrous building today as many more pinnacles and steeplets have been added since he was there.
From the Castello to the cathedral it’s either a fifteen minute walk down the Via Dante or two stops on the efficient metro system.
If the Castello Sforzesco is the secular symbol of Milan’s history then surely the Duomo is its spiritual one. No part of the building is taken more to heart by the Milanese than the Madonnina, the golden statue of the Virgin Mary crowning the cathedral’s highest spire which miraculously survived those dark nights in summer 1944 when Milan took a greater beating from bombing than any other Italian city and, instead, offered its inhabitants hope for an end to their nightmare.
The external glory of the cathedral is its apse with three massive stained glass windows topped by glorious roses – the front is somewhat piecemeal – adequate but no more, thanks to that common Italian habit of not being able to agree on the completion of church facades, particularly prevalent in such buildings as San Petronio in Bologna and San Lorenzo in Florence.
The interior is vast, dark and tremendous. If Florence is the birthplace of Italian Renaissance then, paradoxically, Milan is the apotheosis of the gothic – not many years separate its cathedral from the graceful arches of re-born Florence. Double aisles, an amazingly spacious octagonal crossing and that marvellous apse combine to produce a sense of spiritual pomp that is, at the same time not vulgar.
The crypt contains the remains of one of Italy’s most illustrious churchmen, Saint Carlo Borromeo, founder of the great library famous for its Leonardo codex, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, and included as one of the characters in Italy’s “national” novel I Promessi sposi.
The cathedral’s rooftop has to be one of the most ecstatic experiences one is ever likely to encounter in one’s life. It’s like an astounding giant petrified marble forest. These pictures were taken during a visit in summer 2009.
Milan’s massive reconstruction after World War II destructions and its economic leap forwards in that other “miracolo” of the sixties is apparent everywhere and conspires to give the city an essentially modern and cosmopolitan atmosphere. But, as I have suggested before, hidden between and behind that contemporary aspect are artistic and architectural treasures the equal, if not more so, of any other great Italian “Città d’arte”.
I’ve visited Milan twice before since moving to Italy: in 2007 and 2009. Among the highlights I saw was the Brera Picture galley, the Science and Technology museum, innumerable fine churches including San Ambrogio, Roman remains and the most superb art nouveau architecture one is likely to encounter in the peninsula.
Anyone who doesn’t spend at least three days in Milan is quite unable to say they know and love Italy – just strolling through the grand galleria or riding on the 1927 vintage trams are unbeatable experiences!