Milan’s Duomo is decidedly the most impressive structure in Milan. Standing proud in Piazza del Duomo, this behemoth cathedral has seen more than 600 years pass by and has the history to prove it! Learn all that’s behind that elaborate façade with these 6 amazing facts about the Cathedral of Milan:
(If you want to visit the Duomo with a passionate, expert guide who can bring every stone to life with stories and information take a look at our Milan Tours)
The Duomo is the fifth largest Christian church in the world
Outdone by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Basilica of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil, Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York and Seville’s Cathedral, Milan Cathedral is still one big church! Covering a surface of 109,641 square feet and an entire city block, its size is even more impressive considering it’s the oldest church on that list.
And it has the most statues.
They say there are more statues on this gothic-style cathedral than any other building in the world. There are 3,400 statues, 135 gargoyles and 700 figures that decorate Milan Duomo! Climb the stairs or take the lift to the rooftop to fully appreciate the architecture of the most renowned silhouette in the city. From the terrazza you’ll see breathtaking views across Milan and, on clear days, the snow-capped peaks of the Alps. You can also see the famous Madonnina, the gold-colored statue of Mary that stands on the cathedral’s highest spire.
You can set your watch by its sundial
Near the main entrance you’ll see a sundial on the floor. A ray of sunlight from a hole on the opposite wall strikes the clock, shining the bronze tongue on June 21, the summer solstice, and the meridian on the winter solstice, December 21. Though ancient (it was placed in Milan Duomo in 1768 by astronomers from the Accademia di Brera) the sundial is surprisingly precise – even used to regulate clocks throughout the city!
And don’t miss the little red bulb
Above the apse (the arched part above the altar) there is a spot marked with a red lightbulb. This marks the spot where one of the nails of Jesus’ crucifixion was allegedly placed. Every year on the Saturday closest to September 14 the archbishop of Milan ascends to the apex in a wooden basket decorated with angels to retrieve the nail. The basket itself was constructed in 1577, though it was significantly reconstructed in 1701 when the angels were added. But you’ve got to be visiting at the right time – the nail is exhibited at the altar until the Monday after vespers before it’s lifted back up again.
It took thousands of workers, a new canal system and over six centuries to complete…
The construction of the Duomo officially started in 1386 by Bishop Antonio da Saluzzo and was supported by the ruler of Milan Gian Galeazzo Visconti who had grand visions of the cathedral. Though originally started in terracotta stone, once the grandeur of the project was realized Condoglian marble from Lake Maggiore was chosen. The entire building is made up of this pink-hued white marble. To bring it from the quarries of Candoglia, canals were dug leading to the construction site, evidence of which is still visible along the famous navigli, the canals left over from the network built in southern Milan specifically for that purpose! Thousands of artists, sculptors and specialized workers were involved in the construction of the Cathedral of Milan. Architects from across Europe were invited to work on the project (at least 78 different architects total) and as it grew and grew, its construction dragged on over the years. It was consecrated in 1418 but only the nave was really finished at that time. Heavy construction continued for another 200 years.
… but it’s still not finished!
After its consecration in 1418 Milan Cathedral remained incomplete for centuries. Politics, lack of money, indifference in a seemingly never-ending project (imagine a mammoth structure in the middle of your city left unfinished for your entire lifetime and father’s… and grandfather’s) and other setbacks kept the cathedral on standby for what seemed like forever. Actually, it was Napoleon who finished the façade and jump-started the final stages of construction in the early 19th century. Considering its construction is still continuing, this could be considered the longest-worked cathedral in the world. A five-year project to clean the building was started in 2002 and routine restorations and cleaning are continually taking place to keep maintain its gleaming stone.