The Duomo in Milano has been flabbergasting people for centuries, and not always in the good way.
According to John Ruskin, the Victorian-era art critic, the cathedral stole “from every style in the world; and every style spoiled.”
Oscar Wilde was of much the same opinion: “The Cathedral is an awful failure. Outside the design is monstrous and inartistic. The over-elaborated details stuck high up where no one can see them; everything is vile in it; it is, however, imposing and gigantic as a failure, through its great size and elaborate execution.”
We’ll need some ice for that burn.
Mark Twain, upon his visit to the Milano Duomo, wrote: “What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems …a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath! … They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St. Peter’s at Rome. I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands.”
I knew I liked that guy.
There is historical precedent for the attitudes of Ruskin and Wilde: Namely, there was no one architect that built or designed the Duomo. It took almost 600 years to build, and was therefore passed from one head architect to the next. Construction on the current Duomo began in 1386, after the cathedral that had been standing on that spot was irreparably damaged in a fire (in true Italian style, it took the city of Milano about 300 years to decide to fix it and gain funding). The natural result of such a long building process is that designs changed along the way. Instead of starting over completely when a new style came into fashion, the builders simply changed styles mid-project and moved on. This continued until the Duomo was finally completed in 1965.
I, myself, am in agreement with Mark Twain about – well, most things really, but this in particular. The Milano Duomo defies being put into one architectural category, surely, but is all the better for it. The carvings on the front are enough to keep a body that has basic knowledge of Christianity engaged for a good while – while you’re studying the stories hewn out of the marble, you might even notice that it’s not pure white, nor is the color uniform. Between the color shifts and the dynamic stonework, your eye is constantly moving, trying to take everything in. Usually, your eye is moving upwards.
Inside, the Duomo is just the same kind of artistic and architectural mishmash as the outside. Tall pillars, intricately carved statues, and flamboyantly colored stained glass all mix together in a way that I feel should be obnoxious – I am a firm believer that there can be too many things going on inside a church at once. However, it’s not. It’s rather like stepping into a time capsule: All the best from the different eras of the Duomo’s construction are fused together inside. For me, the most interesting thing inside (aside from Jesus, of course) was the massive stained glass window behind the high altar. You’ll have to follow the ambulatory all the way around the back in order to see it.
As great as the front and the inside are, the roof is the place to be. Oscar Wilde got one thing right: There is an absurd amount of detail very high up on the Duomo. He was wrong, however, in his assumption that no one would ever see it. The terraces, as they’re called, are open to the public on any day that has good weather, and they’re well worth the climb to the top (for a little extra money, you can take the elevator).
Visiting the Duomo: An admission fee is charged if you’re visiting the Duomo, although if you’d like to attend mass, you may go inside for free (you will not be able to go into the archaeological area downstairs, the crypt, or the terraces). The ticket to go inside the Duomo and up to the terraces in the elevator is 15 euros, and the price to go inside and up to the terraces by stairs is 11 euros. If heights aren’t your thing and you only want to go inside, admission is 2 euros.
Be prepared to open any and all bags before going anywhere near the Duomo, whether it’s inside or the terraces. When I was there, security was wanding visitors as well.