Leonardo, architectural study - Ashburnham Codex- 2037, paper 4r.

Leonardo, architectural study - Ashburnham Codex- 2037, paper 4r.

More than simply a symbol of Milan, the Duomo is the city's very soul, its topographical, spiritual and affective heart. Part of the relationship between Milan and its Cathedral has its roots in the scope of enterprise that was undertaken in building something so prodigiously monumental. Over 16 generations of masons, architects and artists worked on the Duomo, each contributing to its evolution, making this one of the most most interesting and heterogeneous constructions in Europe. The cornerstone of the Duomo was laid in 1386 by Archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo on the site of what was once the church of Santa Maria Maggiore and in the vicinity of the baptistery of San Giovanni alle Fonti, both founded by St Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan, in the 4th century (the ruins of the baptistery are still visible beneath Piazza Duomo). In a break from the local taste of the time and as a means of enhancing the dynastic prestige of the Visconti, the cathedral was built in the Gothic International style using the precious marble of Candoglia, transported via canal from the quarries above Lake Maggiore directly to the construction site. By the time Leonardo arrived at the court of the Sforza, the Duomo had been under construction for over a century and although already in use, was still far from being the ornate building we know today. The apsidal area had been completed and Pope Martin V had consecrated the high alter in 1418.

At this time the Sforza family were faced with the difficult task of erecting the crossing tower surmounting the intersection of the nave, chancel and transept. They called on the skills of the court architects, who included Bramante, Francesco di Giorgio Martini and naturally Leonardo da Vinci. Despite the prestige of the architects at hand the crossing tower was constructed with Lombard forms on the basis of plans drawn up by Amadeo and Dolcebuono (1490-1500). Following a period of relative inactivity, work started once again under the Archbishop St. Carlo Borromeo in year 1567, who brought to bear his power by imposing his architect, Pellegrino Tibaldi. The work done in this period was mainly internal and brought the church closer to the cannons dictated by the Council of Trent. Greater emphasis was placed on the altar and choir, underlining the centrality of the Eucharist and the word of the priest. A style more reminiscent of Rome was preferred to the Gothic for the construction of the facade (the facade you admire today was completed in 1813 by Carlo Amati). Lasting in all half a millennium, the construction of the Cathedral was to all effects a grossly drawn out affair. In fact, in Milan anything that seems to go on endlessly is compared to the 'building of the Duomo'. Its sheer size is equally staggering: 158m in length and 93m in breadth, standing at over 108m at its highest point, the Duomo is the world's third largest cathedral. It is adorned by more than 3400 intricately sculpted statues and by an abundance of laced stonework and soaring spires, which still today dominate the skyline of Milan.

Did you know that?

The Duomo is home to what may well be the worlds oldest lift, the “Nivola”. Built in the 16 hundreds and reputedly invented by Leonardo da Vinci, this cloud shaped lift adorned by cherubs and angles affords access to the Cathedral's most sacred possession, the relic of the holy nail. Once a year on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the Cardinal of Milan climbs aboard the Nivola and is hoisted forty metres above the heads of the faithful to retrieve the holy relic.