The Milan Cathedral
Onsite history lessons give an architect a remarkable vantage point and access to hidden details.
— Steve Chambers, A.I.A.
By Stephanie M. Chambers
The Duomo was begun in 1386, in a rayonnant Gothic style that is more characteristic of France than Italy. Work proceeded for generations, the main spire being topped off in 1762. The Milan Cathedral blurs the normal distinctions between Gothic and Neo-Gothic. Only in details does it reveal its Baroque and Neo-Classical date.
Americans think it takes a long time to roast a turkey. When a Milanese thinks something takes too long, they refer to it as la fabbrica del duomo, the making of the Duomo. This reference is to the five centuries it took to complete the magnificent cathedral that appears to rise from the center of Milan. Begun in the mid-1380s, the Duomo wasn’t actually completed until 1965 and includes architectural styles from several periods. Because of the gritty atmosphere of this dense city, restoration of the Duomo began within a few years of its completion. This phrase also describes its recent renovation, which kept the building behind scaffolding until 2009, frustrating many visitors. To our surprise, in 2010, the cathedral stood completely unveiled. The façade now sparkles, especially at night with lighting. Its completed total beauty can be seen, perhaps for the first time in its long history. Mark Twain, a great fan of the Duomo, described it this way in Innocents Abroad… “what a wonder it is, so grand, so solemn, so vast. And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful. A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath! They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St. Peter’s at Rome. I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands.”