Milan Cathedral: History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In Northern Italy is the city of Milan, home to one of Europe's most breathtaking cathedrals. In this lesson, we'll explore the history and design of the Duomo di Milano, and see how its long construction impacted its final appearance.

Il Duomo di Milano

Most people aren't surprised to learn that the largest cathedral in the world is located in the heart of the Vatican. To get even close to St. Peter's record, however, they'd have to challenge the second-largest Catholic cathedral in the world, the Duomo di Milano. Located in the northern Italian city of Milan, this massive edifice is one of the most breathtaking and intriguing structures in Europe. Constructed steadily over nearly six centuries and featuring design elements from numerous styles, it's a fascinating cathedral unlike any other.

Il Duomo di Milano
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Origins

The location of a church matters, and many archaeologists believe that the location of the Duomo was a sacred Roman site for centuries before the arrival of Christianity. The first Catholic cathedral in that spot was known as Santa Tecla, built around 355 CE. Its baptistery can still be seen in the ruins underneath the Duomo, which tourists can visit today. A second basilica was later built right next to Santa Tecla, called Santa Maria Maggiore.

For nearly a thousand years, these two cathedrals performed their duties. However, by the 14th century, they had been damaged by fire and time. In 1386, the Archbishop of Milan, Antonio da Saluzzo, announced that Milan would build a new cathedral to replace Santa Tecla and Santa Maria Maggiore. The new structure was partly to celebrate the arrival of a new Lord of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, who was replacing their former tyrannical ruler. The new church was dedicated to Santa Maria Nascente, and construction began in 1387.

Design and Construction

The Archbishop and the new Lord of Milan wanted to build a cathedral that would make people marvel at the glory of God and power of the city. But what style should they use? Milan has an interesting history as both part of, and separated from, Italian culture. At the time, it was more politically connected to France than Rome, and the new cathedral was designed in a local variation of the Gothic style. This style was at the height of its glory at the time (Notre Dame in Paris was completed only 40 years earlier), so it was a timely choice. After all, Milan is a place where fashion matters.

Visconti established a craftsmen's guild called the Fabbrica del Duomo, which was in charge of building the actual structure. The project immediately attracted builders, artisans, and craftsmen from across Europe. Many historians refer to the Gothic style of this time as the International Gothic, and that name is very appropriate here. Milan has always been an international city, a crossroads between Northern, Southern, and Western Europe, and the construction of the Duomo reflected that. Each worker brought experience and tastes from their own part of Europe, and as a result, dozens of distinct motifs from across the continent can be found throughout the Duomo's design.

Flying buttresses of the cathedral, another element of Gothic design
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Interior and Exterior

Although it took centuries to build, the Fabbrica del Duomo maintained their devotion to an international Gothic exterior. The Gothic style is characterized by height and dramatic ornamentation, both of which are certainly evident here. In fact, there are over 3,400 statues around this structure, and thousands of individual spires. The tallest of these is 354 feet tall, and supports a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary known as la Madonnina (built in 1774).

According to tradition, la Madonnina must always be the highest human-made object in Milan. In fact, when a modern building surpassed the height of the Duomo in the early 2000s, a replica of la Madonnina was made and placed atop that structure as well.

A few of the statue-topped spires of the Duomo
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