I stepped onto the roof of the Milan Duomo yesterday morning and gasped out loud at the unexpected wonderland of spires, statues, flying buttresses, and gargoyles. I’ve taken many interesting and exciting tours, and I’ve seen many glorious views, but the view of the roof of the Milan Duomo may be my favorite ever. I haven’t seen the Grand Canyon except from an airplane, but I have climbed Uluru (Ayers Rock) in central Australia, which until yesterday was my favorite high place. Apparently on a clear day visitors can see the Italian Alps and the Apennines from the roof of the Duomo, but yesterday was cloudy and foggy (as usual in Milan), and I could see only a bit of the city. For the record, I didn’t climb the stairs to the roof; I took an elevator and had to climb only 50 steps or so to the top.
The Milan Duomo is the fifth largest cathedral in the world, after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome; the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady in Aparecida, Brazil; the Seville Cathedral in Spain; and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Construction began in 1386, and the Duomo was finished in 1810, shortly after it hosted the coronation of Napoleon as King of Italy. Final details were added after 1810, and the last gate was installed in 1965. Even now some blocks await carving as statues.
The exterior of this Gothic church has 135 spires, 2,245 (!) statues, 96 gargoyles, and a raft of flying buttresses, and it is covered in pink Candoglia marble. The copper statue of the Virgin Mary that crowns the cathedral is 14 feet high and dates from 1774. The interior has five naves; 52 pillars (each 100 feet tall); 914 (!) statues; and many tall, beautiful, stained-glass windows. The exterior is the cleanest of any old church I have ever seen!
I toured the interior of the Duomo, but I found it dark and gloomy compared to so many churches in Italy, probably because the day was so gloomy. The entire north wall was covered with tarps and scaffolding for repair work, and a huge piece of industrial equipment stood in the center of the nave. Furthermore, the desk to purchase a photo permission bracelet was mobbed, and I was unwilling to wait in such a long line, so I took NO photos inside the Duomo. That’s unheard of for me!
I went to Milan because I had an appointment there on Monday afternoon. Once I decided to go, I wanted desperately to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in the refectory of the ancient Dominican monastery adjacent to the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Grazie. I tried to get tickets online and even tried to book a couple of tours that included the painting, but I couldn’t. With little hope of success, I asked my hotel if the staff could get tickets for me. Lo and behold, they could, and I got to see the painting yesterday morning with a Japanese tour group and three nuns.
The process to see the painting is almost as interesting as the painting itself. Because of da Vinci’s experimentation with a dry plaster instead of the traditional wet plaster that is used for frescoes, the painting began to break down six years after it was completed in 1498. Humidity has always been a huge problem for the painting, and today only 25 people at a time are allowed into the refectory to view The Last Supper. Before my group entered the refectory, we had to be dehumidified by being enclosed in a series of three or four increasingly cooler (and less humid) rooms (all made of glass, thank goodness!). The refectory is large, and the painting is large (15 by 29 feet), so the visit never seemed crowded. I wasn’t able to take photos, so you’ll have to see the painting here. Miraculously, the painting survived when a bomb struck the refectory during World War II. The Last Supper had been sandbagged to prevent it from being struck by bomb splinters, and luckily, the wall on which it is painted kept standing.
P.S., Sorry for all the gray. That’s just how it was yesterday.