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Things to do in Milan in Italy. Visit the Gothic Cathedral in Piazza Duomo


Many visitors to Italy sidestep Milan for the more romantic and historic destinations. Certainly the old town of 'Mediolanum' can be a graffiti-scarred concrete jungle in its worst places.

Cigarette butts will be gently scattered along the way while street hawkers accost passers-by on any a corner. But among the whirl of this bustling business centre of finance and endless trading are many jewels to delight.

There are indeed many things to do in Milan and a visit to the Cathedral or 'Duomo' in the Italian language is highly recommended. It is a spectacular gem in the heart of the city.

The cathedral resembles the type of enchanted ice-palace imaginatively created by the pen of someone like Hans Cristian Andersen.

In the bright light of a summer afternoon the reflected glare from the cathedral can be hard on the eyes. Your sunglasses will help you enjoy a strain-less perusal of the exterior.

It's a Gothic masterpiece of detailed pinnacles and spires with the intricacies of countless carvings and statues adorning the walls. A total of 135 gargoyles project open-mouthed into the air. Old historical figures with astonishing beards also loom over you.

In fact in the lower corners of the front elevation there are so many that you can hardly see the wall. Almost sensually writhing figures cover almost every inch of these sections. Elsewhere there are many depictions of martyrs exuding the pain of Christian loyalty.


However the building itself is actually made mostly of ordinary bricks with a Candoglia marble cladding to cover the modest truth.

The knowledgeable cynics will say this is a living symbol of the fashion capital where style triumphs over substance and where good looks and looking good are all that matter.

Facts and figures about Milan Cathedral

1. Work began in 1386, consecration in 1418 and completion in 1965.

2. Covers an area of 109,641 square ft with its highest point at 356 ft.

3. There are a total of 3,400 statues, 700 figures and 135 gargoyles.

4. The interior contains 5 large naves, 3 altars, 52 pillars and a crypt.

5. The 14 ft 'Madonnina' statue is coated with 3,900 pieces of gold leaf.

One of Milan's canals was especially built to transport the marble from Lake Maggiore which is north west of the city.

Scorned too by Wilde: No prizes from Oscar

The cathedral was originally intended to have a French style, not Italian, but this was not a popular idea among many patriots.

A Renaissance exterior was then considered before the present Gothic look was agreed. But closer examination reveals clear traces of Baroque and neo-Classical styles in the decoration.


It has been accused of having too much eclecticism and derivation having taken ideas from other sources.

John Ruskin accused it of stealing "from every style in the world; and every style spoiled". Oscar Wilde fulminated in 1875 that "The Cathedral is an awful failure. Outside the design is monstrous and inartistic...."

Henry James was more positive describing the cathedral as "grandly curious and superbly rich" albeit with some reservations akin to Ruskin.

Mark Twain went further and eulogised in 1867 "What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful!"

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If you follow in the footsteps of the literary giants and you go in summer then be aware of your appearance and your apparel. The hot, humid weather encourages visitors to divest themselves in the confined streets of Milan.

However the eastern wall of the cathedral is in semi-permanent shade as the sun floats over towards the west for most of the day. A good spot to escape the heat although there are no convenient benches for your comfort.

Looking down on you are Adam and Eve shivering in the nude on the wrong side of the building. Above them is a large stained-glass window, circular and with flowing Paisley pattern style patterns in its fenestration.

Never-ending change and constant renewal

But if you are enticed by the cool interior of the cathedral then go no further across the the threshold unless you cover up. Skimpy wear is strictly forbidden. Vests, sun-tops, mini-skirts and hot-pants are definitely not welcome.

I entered in my winter clothes in January to be greeted by a gentlemen raising and lowering his hand from his head. Hats and caps are banned as well.

Photographs are also not allowed unless you have a wristband. These can be bought at the cathedral shop for a nominal sum.

Near the entrance an 18th century sundial on the floor keeps perfect time aided by a ray of sunlight beaming through a hole in the wall. On June 21st, the summer solstice, the bronze tongue of the sundial is illuminated.

Further nominal sums will buy you some time to listen to a headphone commentary at a static information stand. A mobile audio guide is also available if you want to keep on the move.

More cash wins you the right to light a candle at the offertories and the opportunity to donate at one of the little chapels around the sides of the floor.


The interior structures have a two-tone effect conditioned by centuries of age and experience. More specifically by the past two centuries of industrialisation as factory smoke and vehicle exhaust have added their own veneer to the interior.

The Italian job: A work in progress

The cathedral actually took six centuries to complete. Which is an average rate of pace for your typical city shrine to the heavens. A total of 78 architects employing thousands of workers across the generations brought this magnificent project to fruition.

Construction began in 1386 and officially ended on January 6th 1965 when the last of the 5 bronze doorways was inaugurated. However the site was actually consecrated in 1418.

There was a large gap in the 15th century when work halted for around 80 years through lack of funds but also a dearth of inspiration.

However some work has continued as well as the maintenance. In fact there are some stone blocks on the building that still haven't been carved into sculptures.

But as it stands now it has more statues than any other building in the world. There are 3,400 of them all over the building.


Many of the 52 huge pillars that hold up the roof are a very dark hue of grey. However some have actually been returned to the original gleaming white colour by restoration.

The outside of the building was obviously given priority to return it to its crystal fairy tale vision of neo-gothic architecture. So inside is also still a work in progress.

Up above and down below

High above your heads you can just make out the carvings on the cross-vaulted ceiling so far away that they are in the dark. Spotlights pointing down to the floor obscure your vision even more.


Binoculars will help you appreciate the work of the woodshop more closely.

For another nominal sum a jet-pack might have been a useful innovation and you could float up at see the designs first hand.

While you were there you would also enjoy a face-to-face with the figures on the small stained-glass windows up there.

But there are many more on the walls to enjoy with your feet firmly on the ground.

Nevertheless you can still aspire to a higher plain as there is a lift in the cathedral which will take you onto the roof.

Back down on the ground you walk across the cream, brown and black tiles of the floor. From this safe vantage point you can enjoy the art and architecture on display.

On occasion you may find a modern work of art in a temporary emplacement connecting the traditional with the contemporary.

Below the tiles is the crypt which is free to enter and where you can see the tomb of Cardinal Borromeo. For a small fee the crypt area also offers the Cathedral Treasury containing medieval and religious art and artefacts.

Down below the remains of a Paloechristian Baptistry were discovered by archaeologists. These foundations of the original building date from the 4th century A.D.

But back on the main floor there is more to see. The classical stained-glass windows illuminate the gloom as do the many flickering candles. Tourists wander around at will and the soft murmur of many voices and footsteps can seem strangely distant than they really are due to the acoustics.

Sometimes there may be restrictions at the front when the cathedral is in operational mode or work is taking place by the restorers.

On my visit there were confessions being held on one side whilst resoration was taking place over on the right. Scaffolding wrapped in a white gauze seemed highly angelic and appropriate for the setting. A simple protection against the diffusion of dust was never less prosaic.

On the altar where staff doing some cleaning and the sight of them under the grandeur of the Duomo lent a perspective to its size.

The building is the largest church in Italy and the fifth largest in the world covering 109,641 square feet of real estate. It also contains the largest organ in the country built under the orders of Mussolini.

It's easy to lose this sense of scale when you don't have a human point of reference. It's like walking into a scene of a Renaissance painting. Apart from the slim-size public address speakers attached to the pillars.


Inside the Duomo there are five large naves and 40 pillars with aspidal windows 68 by 28 feet in dimension. The nave columns are 80 feet high and even the transepts have aisles.

There are also three tremendous altars designed by Pellegrino Pellegrini which also include notable works of art. For example the 'Visit of St Peter to St Agatha Jailed' by Federico Zuccari and the Trivulzio Candelabrum dating from the 12th century.

Flayed and displayed

The central altar has a gazebo style structure at the back with a huge Daliesque crucifix hanging above it in the apse. Also up there is a spot lit by a red light bulb supposedly marking the place where one of the nails used to crucify Jesus was once placed.

Every year in mid-September the archbishop of Milan rises up in a wooden basket decorated with angels and he retrieves the nail. It is then put back after being in display until the Monday after vespers.

The basket dates from 1577 although the angels were added in 1701. No plans are in place for a jet-pack delivery to replace the basket.


On the left-hand side of the altar is the most famous statue in the cathedral, that of St Bartholomew Flayed.

Created in 1562 by Marco d'Agrate it depicts the saint with his skin ripped off his back and folded over his shoulders.

The strict dress code obviously doesn't apply to this unfortunate resident.

Way up in the heavens

To the right of the main altar is one of the lifts where, for a fee, you can go up to the roof.

From there on the 'terrazza' you have a magnificent view over the concrete jungle of Milan lying among the smog.

But on a good day you can enjoy a crystal clear panormama all the way to the mountains of the Italian Alps and Apennines in the North.


Every day the gilded copper statue of Mary or the 'Madonnina' peers over the city from a height of 108.5 metres. Designed by Guiseppe Perego in the baroque style, almost 14 feet high and covered in 3,900 pieces of gold leaf it was placed on the roof in 1762.

You'll also find a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte which is a reminder of imperial rule of the French in the late 18th early 19th century.

The Little Corporal was actually crowned 'King of Italy' in the cathedral in May 1805 and he also ordered much more work to be done on the building.


For lovers of tradition, history and fine arts the cathedral Milan is perfect for you. Neo-Gothic architecture with a flavouring of the Baroque and the Renaissance.

You can spend hours admiring the outside of the building with its multitude of carvings and statues whilst soaking up the sunshine.

Cooling off inside there are beautiful works of art and outstanding features to enjoy. To finish off a ride to the roof lets you take in the scenery.

You only need one day in Milan to enjoy the best of the city and most of that day you might want to dwell in, around and on top of the cathedral.


Ced Yong from Asia on June 17, 2016:

I love your statement on how the composition of the walls reflect Milan's fashion sense.

Claudia Porter on March 28, 2015:

Milan is definitely one of the cities I want to see. Thanks for the tour!

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