Exterior of the Duomo Milan Cathedral Diary

When I arrived at the Duomo in Milan with my camera, it was about six am. I hadn’t been able to sleep because I was so anxious about my exciting itinerary for my first full day in the city. The large square was almost empty, though an occasional jogger passed through. I spent at least an hour walking around the cathedral, gazing at the exterior decoration – the spires, the large windows, the flying buttresses, the rich sculptural adornment, the gargoyles and more.

The Duomo is an architectural gem with a dominating Gothic exterior. It is the symbol of the city I would grow quickly to love. The Milan Cathedral ranks as the largest church in the country, though St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican is bigger. The cathedral is one of the largest in the world. Construction started in 1386 and didn’t end until 1965, spanning six centuries. It has 135 spires, the first finished in 1404. Some of its150 gargoyles harken back to the 14th century.

While the style of the cathedral does not correspond to only one type, many features are in French Gothic style, such as the flying buttresses and rib vault. The statuary on the exterior stems from various eras. Some statues were created from 1418 to the middle of the 16th century, placed in niches of capitals of pillars. Many more were created in the 18th century in Late Baroque style. External statuary of the prophets and apostles are in Neo-Classical style. New stained-glass windows were installed in 1470. The construction of the façade started in 1590 in late Mannerist style and was finished in Neo-Gothic style under the guidance of Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign in the 1800s. Using the art of painting on glass, new stained-glass windows were made from 1829 to 1858. During the 19th century more spires were constructed, and the roof terraces were finished. Flying buttresses also appeared as did more statues.

Bombing during August of 1943 damaged the structure, but it was reconstructed. The wooden doors were replaced with bronze ones. The main façade was renovated from 2003 to 2009 in Candoglia marble.

Because the cathedral was not yet open, I was able to study its closed bronze doors. One showed the history of life of Mary with floral reliefs. Another depicted the history of Milan and yet another the history of the cathedral itself. The reliefs on the doors were incredible. I saw the Assumption, the Sacrifice of Cain, David with the Head of Goliath, the Tower of Babel and other biblical pictorial renditions. The floral and animal decoration on the central door was outstanding, too. The tympanium was worth noting, too. The one in the central portal showed off the Creation of Eve.

Later that morning, I walked on the sloping terraces of the roof with its pinnacles and spires on flying buttresses. Gazing at the sheer beauty of the cathedral’s exterior from high up was astounding. I spotted the octagonal lantern from the 15th century with its Madonnina statue from 1769. The Madonnina reaches more than four meters high. The total height of the cathedral is 108.5 meters. The view of the city and spires was phenomenal. It was calming and soothing seeing all the people so far below. Up there I didn’t have a reason to rush or worry. It made me think of how we have to open ourselves to new perspectives when traveling. This applies in daily life as well. Whenever I had a pessimistic attitude, I had to try to see the problem from a fresh perspective that would give me a more positive outlook.

After my visit to the roof terraces, it was time to take a look inside the cathedral. I had expected the cathedral to impress me, even to overwhelm me with its beauty, and it had done just that. I made my way down the narrow spiral staircase to the ground floor, certain I would continue to be amazed at the beauty of such an architectural gem.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio Diary

When I entered the large courtyard of the basilica in Milan, I thought that this must be one of the most beautiful Romanesque buildings I had ever seen. I reminded myself that I was looking at one of the oldest churches in Milan, built by Saint Ambrose in the fourth century over a cemetery for martyrs. Saint Ambrose had built four churches, then situated outside the walls of the city. A monastery was located there from 789, housing two different monastic communities who had each built a bell tower.

The current appearance stemmed from a 12th century transformation into Lombard Romanesque style. In 1528, The Peace of St. Ambrose had been penned there between the nobility and the populace. Kings of Italy and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire had been crowned there during Romanesque and medieval times. There was 15th century renovation carried out by Donato Bramante, who had served as architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In August of 1943, the basilica was bombed, causing much damage to the apse and other areas. Restoration had worked wonders.

Standing in the atrium, I concentrated on the exterior. The red brick color of the Romanesque architecture was stunning. I saw a portico with arches supported by semi-columns and pilasters. The portico entrance included four blind arcades. The main portal hailed from the 8th to 10th century. One side of the atrium included upper and lower loggias. I looked at the pillars surrounded by semi-columns with lavish capitals adorned with lions, angels and vegetable motifs, to name a few. These were older than the Romanesque elements. I saw the two bell towers, one from the 9th century and a higher one from the 12th century. I gazed at the white marble Devil’s Column, which, according to legend, had two holes made by the Devil’s horns after he was unsuccessful at tempting Saint Ambrose. Tombstones from the former cemetery there also stood outside the entrance.

Inside, I saw a 12th century nave with two side aisles that had stunning arcades. The ceiling had remarkable 12th century ribbed vaults, and I saw galleries above the aisles. I loved the Romanesque brickwork of the pillars. It made both the interior and exterior dynamic. There was no transept. I noticed the Serpent’s Column, which was supposedly built by Moses.

I stared at the apse with its 13th century mosaic of Christ Pantocrator or creator of all. At the sides were scenes featuring the life of Saint Ambrose. A gilded domed ceiling caught my attention as did mosaics on walls dating from the 5th century.

The pulpit was for me perhaps the most intriguing part of the church. It hailed from the 12th century and boasted two gilt copper reliefs showing an eagle and seated man, symbolizing apostles John and Matthew. The base of the pulpit was the fourth century sarcophagus of Stilicho with amazing reliefs from the Old Testament. I also noticed Apollo riding a chariot.

Also, I gazed at the 10th century ciborium which was painted with reliefs showing Christ, Saint Ambrose, Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica. It included four columns in red porphyry and a canopy. The Golden Altar, another highlight for me, dated from the 9th century. The front showed off masterful goldsmithing skills and was adorned with precious stones. Scenes from the life of Christ decorated this side as well. The back included a silver relief celebrating the life of Saint Ambrose. The bishop’s throne hailed from the 9th and 14th centuries. I imagined the kings of Italy seated on the throne during their coronation ceremonies. Wow!

The oratory contained the relics of Saint Vittore and Saint Satiro, who was Saint Ambrose’s brother. The San Vittore in Ciel d’Oro sacellum featured a chapel to Saint Vittore. It was adorned with 5th century mosaics, with the bust of San Vittore making an appearance. The walls were striking in blue and showed six saints. The tomb of Emperor Louis II, who passed in 875, was also in the church. The chapels contained paintings by Tiepolo and Bernardo Luini, for example. In the crypt were the remains of saints Ambrose, Gervasus and Protasus.

The six-room museum included artwork and objects related to the church. Some of the highlights were Saint Ambrose’s bed and a cast of Stilicho’s sarcophagus. I also saw mosaics and triptychs.

Finally, I left the basilica, still stunned by the Romanesque pillars with delightful capitals and sarcophagus from 400 AD under the pulpit as well as the golden altar with its precious stones. The Christ Pantocrater mosaic bewitched me. The museum, too, had been more than intriguing. I gazed at the exterior from the atrium, entranced. My next stop was the Church of Saint Maurizio, where I would be overwhelmed by beauty once more.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.