When I think about the state capital of Lombardy, the first two things that come to mind are the beautiful Pinacoteca di Brera and the wonderful Milan Cathedral. The first, for its remarkable collection of artworks while the second, but certainly not for importance, for its history.
If you started reading this article because you are looking for practical information to buy tickets for the Duomo of Milan or for the terraces, you can directly go to this section. Here you will find everything you need to know to get to the top of the Milan Cathedral and observe one of the most beautiful skyline of Milan. In my experience, in fact, the ticket offices of Milan Cathedral are always very crowded and you risk staying in line for hours.
If instead, you want to discover the history of Milan Cathedral, the curiosities, and the most important artworks, I suggest you to read the whole post, I promise not to get too bored.
Did you know, for example, that it took more than five hundred years to build the cathedral of Milan?
5 centuries in which artists, architects, projects and ideas have transformed the Milan Cathedral into an absolutely surprising and unique building in the world.
On the main spire, you will surely notice the statue of the famous Madonnina, made of gilded copper.
Did you know that it is 4 meters high?
The church is in fact dedicated to “Santa Maria Nascente” and represents one of the most beautiful and significant examples of Gothic architecture in Italy and in the world.
But the Milan Cathedral is a unique structure for a very specific reason: precisely because of the long duration of the works, in its interior and in its architecture, artistic elements of different origins have perfectly merged.
In short, there is much more to discover about the most important church in Milan, for example: what are the origins of Milan Cathedral? What to see inside and how to go to the top of Milan Cathedral?
If you have the patience to read, I will answer all these questions and you will also discover some curiosities that not everyone knows.
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Index of topics
- 1 – How to climb the top roof of Milan Cathedral
- 2 – The history of the Milan Cathedral
- 3 – The construction of the Milan Cathedral
- 4 – What to see inside the Cathedral
- 5 – The solar sundial
- 6 – The most particular statues
- 7 – Curiosities about the Madonnina
- 8 – How to get to the Milan Cathedral
- Need help?
Tickets and Tours for the Milan Cathedral
1 – How to climb the top roof of Milan Cathedral
I imagine that one of the first things you want to know how to climb the rooftop of Milan Cathedral. The terraces of the church are, in fact, one of the privileged points to enjoy the beautiful Milan skyline, but also the closest point to observe the famous Madonnina and the most beautiful statues.
The terraces of Milan Cathedral are accessible every day from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm and the last entry is at 6:00 pm. Tickets are available at the official ticket office located right at the foot of the church or you can buy them online and save hours in queue.
This is the ideal place from which to take beautiful pictures or if you want to make a romantic surprise. I advise you to arrive at sunset time: for me, it was an unforgettable and magical moment to see the rays caress the statues and pinnacles of this church and make everything golden!
To deepen the visit, I suggest you also to visit the underground archaeological area and the beautiful Cathedral museum. Inside you will find all the projects, the remains and the removed parts of the various historical periods. Essential to fully understand the five centuries of the Milan Cathedral’s factory.
But how to get on the terraces of the Duomo?
As for the Eiffel Tower in Paris, there are two ways to reach the top of the Milan Cathedral:
- if you want, you can reach the terraces of the Cathedral through a staircase of 251 steps, after which you will have access to the first level of the terraces
- or you can just decide to use the elevator, which will bring you directly to the beginning of the tour
Now, instead, I’ll tell you a little about the history of this beautiful monument and the most interesting things to see.
2 – Milan Cathedral history
The origins of the Milan Cathedral are very ancient.
As has happened for many other religious buildings, the Cathedral was built on a pre-existing building. The first church built on this square dates back to the early Christian era: it had five naves and was called Santa Tecla.
Nearby was the ancient basilica dedicated to Santa Maria Maggiore, which divided the role of the cathedral with Santa Tecla.
So why build a new and majestic church?
The decision to build the current Milan Cathedral was taken only in 1386, due to the collapse of the bell tower of Santa Maria Maggiore. It was the archbishop of that period, Antonio de ‘Salluzzi, who promised to build a new cathedral for citizenship.
And what happened to the ancient cathedrals?
Well, to build the new cathedral, unfortunately, the two Basilicas were completely demolished but the remains of the ancient foundations can still be visited in the basement of the current church and are impressive for their size.
Officially the first stone was laid in 1386 but the history of the Duomo and its construction was not very fast.
3 – The construction of the Milan Cathedral: an ambitious project
Gian Galeazzo Visconti started the construction of the Milan Cathedral in 1387. He decided to abandon the use of bricks, foreseen in the Gothic tradition, and choose Candoglia marble to give at the church an even more majestic and “fashionable” look.
To facilitate the procurement of the materials, Visconti made even the marble quarries available and each block destined for the Duomo factory was marked with the initials AUF (Ad usum fabricae) and made exempt from the payment of taxes. He called to work masters and architects from all over Europe.
Not even 10 years later, in 1393, the first capital for the nave was carved.
So why did it take so long to finish building the Milan Cathedral?
There are two reasons for the progressive slowdown in the construction of the Milan Cathedral. On the one hand, there have been frequent project changes. On the other hand, some wars severely limited the funds for the construction of the church. These problems were very common at the time, and the same thing happened also to the beautiful Malatesta temple in Rimini.
The conclusion of the work
Only in 1567 did Archbishop Carlo Borromeo put Pellegrino Tibaldi at the head of the construction site and he gave a new impetus to the resumption of work.
Finally, in 1765, the largest spire was finished and, after five years, the Madonnina of Milan found its place at the highest point of the church. Even today, this gilded copper statue dominates the city from its 108.5 meters high and has become one of the most recognized symbols of the city of Milan.
The works of the Milan Cathedral officially ended only in the nineteenth century when, at the orders of Napoleon, the façade and the spiers were completed.
Do you think it’s over here?
During the twentieth century, heavy restoration work had to be carried out due to structural problems of the church and the collapse of some parts. In fact, underneath Milan, there is a phreatic fault which, together with the vibrations caused by traffic and the subway, risked damaging the building very seriously.
For this reason, in 1969, Piazza del Duomo was closed to traffic and the slowing down of the trains passing along line 1 of the underground was ordered.
4 – Milan Cathedral interior: what to see
Perhaps you will be surprised to know it, but Milan Cathedral is the third-largest church in the world for the surface after St. Peter’s in the Vatican and St. Mary of Seville. The structure is really immense and you will notice it as soon as you arrive in Piazza del Duomo.
Here are some things you should definitely notice.
First of all, the Milan Cathedral is characterized by an absolutely unique set of styles, which however are harmonious and perfectly blended together. The prevailing style is Gothic, represented by the 135 spiers, typical of this architectural current. These elements give at the structure a particularly balanced appearance between vertical lines and horizontal lines.
The facade is a masterpiece of niches and tunnels that, playing with light, create different effects at every hours of the day.
Inside the Cathedral the light filters through the large windows where you will find the history of the most important events of Christianity. There are 55 of them and observing them is like taking a journey back in time: the first was actually built in the 15th century, while the latter is from the second post-war period. If you pay attention you will even be able to distinguish the various historical periods in which they were made.
One thing that will surprise you is that the Milan Cathedral was one of the first churches to have the windows illuminated even from the inside. It is very beautiful to walk in the evening and admire these masterpieces from the outside.
The show is really impressive, I’m sure you’ll like it.
5 – The solar sundial of the Cathedral
Particularly important is the solar sundial located on the floor of Milan Cathedral. It was installed in 1786 by the abbots of the Brera Observatory and it is a long brass strip that runs through the church from south to north with the various representations of the zodiac signs.
In the past, this tool was very important for the city life because it was the reference point for all the activities of the city: at exactly 12 pm a gunner fired a cannon shot to tell at the population the exact time.
Finally, the statues are the true heritage of this beautiful church and they are so many that they have not been completely studied and cataloged yet.
6 – The statues of the Milan Cathedral
One of the things that will surprise you the most is the impressive number of statues that decorate the façade and terraces of Milan Cathedral. There are more than 2500 of them and they do not only represent saints and blesseds.
If you pay attention, for example, you will find a statue very similar to the current Statue of Liberty in New York, a statue of a dinosaur and even a statue of a pigeon that symbolizes the “real” inhabitants of the Cathedral.
On the main terrace instead, there is the representation of an historical moment for Italian boxing: you can see two pairs of boxers intent on fighting. One of these was identified as Primo Carnera, the first Italian boxer to win the heavyweight title.
As per the Gothic tradition, on the terraces of the Milan Cathedral, you will find numerous representations of monstrous and demonic figures. This thing is not surprising because during the Middle Ages these “monsters” were placed on religious buildings to scare away “evil spirits”. The purpose was just to keep them outside from the churches but they were also used as a moral warning.
Finally, on the staircase that leads to the roof, you will see the faces of some characters of Italian history depicted including Vittorio Emanuele III, Mussolini, and Pope Pius IX.
Obviously there is also the statue of the Madonnina of Milan with all its secrets and curiosities.
Want to know more?
7 – Curiosities about the Madonnina in Milan
One of the things I asked myself when visiting Milan Cathedral was this:
But how did they raise the Madonnina up to that height, using the tools they had in the 18th century?
Well, I discovered that this precious gilded copper statue is actually hollow inside. Hoisting a heavier or larger statue would have been impossible, and for this reason, several more complex projects were discarded. The original framework is now visible in the “Museo del Duomo“, because the Madonnina was replaced in 1967 by a more resistant stainless steel one.
The numbers of the Madonnina are impressive!
The statue is covered with slabs for a total of about 400 kg while the internal structure weighs 584. It is exactly 4.16 meters high and it took 6750 gold sheets to cover it all during the last restoration.
But the curiosities about the Madonnina in Milan are certainly not finished here.
Looking closely, you will notice something really unusual: the little Madonna is holding a large halberd in her right hand!
How is it possible?
The halberd next to the “Madunin” actually has a much more practical function than you could imagine. It is, in fact, a masked lightning rod, but it also symbolizes the struggle of the church, of which Mary is the mother.
In the iconographic tradition you will never find the representation of the Virgin Mary with the halberd but this instrument, in heraldry, symbolizes the one who keeps watching. A role that the “Madonnina” has played for centuries.
To make this protective role even more evident, you should know that, until a few decades ago, no building in Milan could exceed the height of the “Madonnina”. For this reason, copies of the ancient statue are raised on the new skyscrapers that now arise in the city.
Finally, one last curiosity about Milan Cathedral and the Second World War.
During the last conflict, the citizens of Milan decided to cover the statue of the Virgin Mary with rags to prevent to be attacked by enemy fire. Thanks also to this genius idea, the Milan Cathedral suffered very few damages and only partial damage on the facade.
A real fortune!
8 – How to get to Milan Cathedral
Despite being one of the most important cities in Italy, Milan is relatively small and well served by public transport.
Therefore, if you arrive by car, I advise you to leave it outside the historic center and continue your visit to Milan using the Metro. The parking closest to Piazza Duomo are those of San Babila, Corso Vittorio Emanuele or Piazza Diaz.
If you arrive by train in Milan, you can easily reach the “Duomo” from the central station, using line 3 and get off at the Duomo stop.
From Piazza Cadorna instead, you can take line 1 and get off at the “Duomo stop”.
Are you planning to visit Milan and you need some other advice?
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