The Milan Cathedral (Duomo di Milano, Domm de Milan), or Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica of the Nativity of Saint Mary (Basilica cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Nascente), is the cathedral church of Milan, Lombardy, Italy.
Dedicated to the Nativity of St Mary (Santa Maria Nascente), it is the seat of the Archbishop of Milan, currently Archbishop Mario Delpini.
The cathedral took nearly six centuries to complete: construction began in 1386, and the final details were completed in 1965. It is the largest church in Italy—the enormous Saint Peter’s Basilica is in the State of Vatican City, a sovereign state—and the second largest in Europe and the third-largest in the world.
History of Milan Cathedral
Milan’s layout, with streets, either radiating from the Duomo or circling it, reveals that the Duomo occupies the most central site in Roman Mediolanum, that of the public basilica facing the forum.
The first cathedral, the “new basilica” (basilica nova) dedicated to St Thecla, was completed by 355. On a slightly smaller scale, it seems to share the plan of the contemporary church recently rediscovered beneath Tower Hill in London.
An adjoining basilica was erected in 836. The old octagonal baptistery, the Battistero Paleocristiano, dates to 335 and still can be visited under the Cathedral.
When a fire damaged the cathedral and basilica in 1075, they were rebuilt as the Duomo.
In 1386, Archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo began construction of the cathedral.
The start of the construction coincided with the ascension to power in Milan of the archbishop’s cousin Gian Galeazzo Visconti and was meant as a reward to the noble and working classes, who had suffered under his tyrannical Visconti predecessor Barnabò.
The following buildings were demolished before actual construction began: the palace of the Archbishop, the Ordinari Palace, and the Baptistry of St Stephen at the Spring, while the old church of Sta. Maria Maggiore was exploited as a stone quarry.
Enthusiasm for the significant new building soon spread among the population, and the shrewd Gian Galeazzo, together with his cousin the archbishop, collected large donations for the work-in-progress.
The construction program was strictly regulated under the “Fabbrica del Duomo“, with 300 employees led by first chief engineer Simone da Orsenigo.
Orsenigo initially planned to build the cathedral from brick in Lombard Gothic style.
Visconti had ambitions to follow the newest trends in European architecture.
In 1389, a French chief engineer, Nicolas de Bonaventure, was appointed, adding its Rayonnant Gothic to the church.
Galeazzo gave the Fabbrica del Duomo exclusive use of the marble from the Candoglia quarry and exempted it from taxes.
Ten years later, another French architect, Jean Mignot, was called from Paris to judge and improve upon the work done, as the masons needed new technical aid to lift stones to an unprecedented height.
Mignot declared all the work done up till then as in pericolo di ruina (“peril of ruin”), as it had been done sine scienzia (“without science”).
Mignot’s forecasts proved untrue in the following years, but they spurred Galeazzo’s engineers to improve their instruments and techniques.
Work proceeded quickly, and at the death of Gian Galeazzo in 1402, almost half the cathedral was complete.
Construction, however, stalled almost totally until 1480, for lack of money and ideas: the most notable works of this period were Marco Carelli and Pope Martin V (1424) and the windows of the apse (the 1470s), of which those extant portray St John the Evangelist, by Cristoforo de’ Mottis, and Saint Eligius and San John of Damascus, both by Niccolò da Varallo.
In 1452, under Francesco Sforza, the nave and the aisles were completed up to the sixth bay.
In 1488, both Leonardo da Vinci and Donato Bramante created models in a competition to design the central dome; Leonardo later withdrew his submission.
From 1500 to 1510, under Ludovico Sforza, the octagonal dome was completed and decorated in the interior with four series of 15 statues each, portraying saints, prophets, sibyls, and other Figures from the Bible.
The exterior long remained without any decoration, except for the Guglietto dell’Amadeo (“Amadeo’s Little Spire”), constructed 1507–1510.
This is a Renaissance masterwork that nevertheless harmonized well with the general Gothic appearance of the church.
During the subsequent Spanish domination, the new church proved usable, even though the interior remained largely unfinished, and some bays of the nave and the transepts were still missing.
In 1552 Giacomo Antegnati was commissioned to build a large organ for the north side of the choir, and Giuseppe Meda provided four of the sixteen pales to decorate the altar area (Federico Borromeo completed the program).
In 1562, Marco d’ Agrate’s Saint Bartholomew and the famous Trivulzio candelabrum (12th century) was added.