The Duomo di Milano

The Italian word duomo means cathedral, but when you hear the word, your thoughts would automatically go to the Duomo di Milano and with good reason: it is the fifth largest church in the world and second largest cathedral, and perhaps the best known cathedral (or duomo). It also took almost 500 years to complete, with contruction started back in the late 14th century. We actually have to thank Napoleon Bonaparte for speeding up the completion of its facade, since he wanted the cathedral completed before his coronation as king of Italy – to this end, he proclaimed that all expenses will be shouldered by the treasury of France. Needless to say, with the guarantee of reimbursement, construction was completed in less than a decade.

The duomo stands out from other churches I’ve been to because of the Candoglia marble facade. Plus, it has many turrets and spires instead of towers, and many marble statues adorning its walls, entrances, and many corners. However, you can tell that construction was never really finished as there are still blank blocks waiting to be carved into gargoyles or statues.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is a very beautiful building whether you visit it early morning with little light coming from the sun just rising from the horizon, or midday with the full light of the sun almost making the church too bright for the naked eye, or evening with the soft light from the nearby lampposts rendering it almost ethereal against a backdrop of dark skies.

It’s quite romantic, minus the crowd that never seems to dissipate.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI used to think that those movies showing tourists feeding flocks of pigeon at the piazza were exaggerations until I got to experience it myself. There are many sellers who will try to sell bread for you to feed the pigeons with but my friends and I brought our own and this made them a bit upset and some of them got quite rude. It’s a good thing there were five of us so we just huddled together and walked away whenever the sellers would try to approach us.
IMG_4073The side of the duomo reminds me of the Notre Dame in Paris, maybe because of the similar window panels.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMassive as it is on the outside, it feels even bigger inside given the floor to ceiling height. And the thick marble pillars all contribute to the Gothic theme of the cathedral.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABuilt in the early 20th century, the organ of the duomo is the largest in Italy, and one of the 15 largest in the whole world. It is made of several organs scattered inside the duomo.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARecognized as the most famous statue in the cathedral, this artwork of Marco d’agrate (circa 16th century) shows St. Bartholomew with his flayed skin over his shoulders. As per tradition, St. Bartholomew was martyred in Albania, skinned alive and then crucified. I can’t imagine how much suffering he must have endured to have the skin stripped off his body and then crucified. The status itself is quite disturbing enough without you knowing the history behind it.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are various sarcophagi inside the duomo, especially of former archbishops. While I am fine loking at sarcophagi and marvelling at their usually intricate designs, I can’t help but be creeped out by glass coffins.
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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are well-maintained crypts under the duomo and oftentimes, private masses are being held there.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn one of its crypts, underneath the main altar itself, is the sarcophagus of Saint Charles Borromeo, a member of the Medici family, one of the most powerful families during the Renaissance. Though born an aristocract, he was actively involved in the reformation of the church, helping establish seminaries during his time.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe duomo was undergoing restoration works during our visit – all that marble probably needs a good cleaning what with hundreds of years worth of pollution. Austerity measures implemented by the government included budget cuts to the city’s cultural funds, and this probably forced the duomo’s administration to get creative: they launched this adopt a gargoyle initiative where patrons can “adopt” one of the gargoyles and have their names carved underneath, in exchange for donations. This donation will then be used for the maintenance of the gargoyles they’ve adopted. In fairness, the duomo is one of the best kept churches I’ve been to in Europe (a lot are really old and felt abandoned). I am quite saddened though that beautiful old churches such as the duomo, which are great treasures not just of Catholics but of the entire human population, now have to fend for themselves and beg for alms just to survive.

I didn’t get the chance to go up the duomo and see the Madonna statue up close and get a 360-degree view of Milan, but hey – that just means I should include it in my next trip, right?

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Basilica of San Lorenzo and the Roman Columns in Milan

Built sometime between the 4th and 5th centuries, the Basilica of San Lorenzo is one of the oldest churches in Milan; even the names of the persons behind this structure have been lost, and the exact dates and purpose for building it is unknown. Regardless, it is one of the most intriguing churches I’ve been to – and definitely the least crowded. I was the only tourist!

I wasn’t able to get a nice photo of the facade because it was barricaded (no point taking photos when all I can show you are steel bars). Plus, I ran into a group of goths dressed in leather, spikes and dark lips and I hightailed out of the place after that (I fear the living more than I fear ghosts or monsters – I am a practical person after all) so all I can show you is the back, which opens up into a park previously used for, among others, public executions. Nowadays, it’s a nice hangout for exercise, picnics or just walking your dog.

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Upon entering the place, I was immediately greeted by an eerie silence, darkness, and a cold draft of air. Seriously, this is the most spooky church I’ve been too, even though it’s very beautiful and solemn.

The church is quite unique in that it is a bit circular as opposed to the usual cross-shaped structure and there are many rooms and a chapel off to the side, though most are off limits. For a church that appears to me to have very few parishioners (most probably because the Duomo of Milan is just 10-15 minutes away and I spied two more churches in between the two), it is well maintained and clean, although the air feels damp.

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Several of the church’s pillars are recycled – they used some of the columns from the ruins of a Roman amphitheater just outside the basilica which gives the impression that the church is much older, and contributes to its appeal. For some reason though, they used the pillars upside down so that the carved cornices are at the foot of the post instead of at the top.

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As was my custom, I lit a candle and prayed for happiness, success and good health for myself and my loved ones, and, cliche as it may sound, world peace. Then I adropped a couple of euros in the donation box…

…which made one hell of a ruckus I probably woke up the entire church. Hahaha!

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Anyway, probably hearing my coins, the lone caretaker (not a hunchback, thank heavens) suddenly appeared behind me. He was very nice especially when he realized I was by myself, pointing out the most interesting spots and explaining their history to me. We did have a rocky start because I couldn’t understand what he was trying to tell me at first – that I had to pay an entrance fee to get into the the other parts of the church. How we managed to communicate with only Italian words (he appears to speak zero English and I know just enough to get by) leaves me baffled to this day.

One of the most interesting parts of the basilica is the octagonal chapel of St. Aquilino, which has retained its original structure and can be accessed via a “pincer-shaped” entrance to the south of the main church. The chapel used terracotta ducts and the original dome (which is one of the oldest parts of the church, at 1,600 years old) is hemispherical. Inside is a succession of semi-circular and rectangular niches with Byzantine mosaics at the ceiling. Some of the mosaics are in badly worn out, and in some cases, have fallen out that y0u are left with the artist’s drawings, but nevertheless, the walls are still very pretty.

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Here’s a close up of the mosaic above the first entryway. In some parts, you can clearly see that there must have been various mosaics or paintings that have each been painted over during its long existence, so I can only imagine how hard it must be to reconstruct and restore these walls.

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There are various color schemes as well – this room obviously had blue for its motif.

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The last room immediately before the rooms where Saint Aquilino’s remains are kept, has perhaps the most beautifully preserved mosaics in the chapel and is the third spookiest place in the church, what with all those eerie spotlights casting an ethereal glow over everrything – and yes, the only light from outside are coming from those windows.

 

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Another mosaic close-up, this one of Jesus surrounded by the Apostles:

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This one, where almost only the drawing is left, can be found in one of the alcoves on the opposite wall but I could not figure out (or research on the net) what it’s supposed to be. Can you spy that rectangular slab or marble? I saw several of them in the room and while I couldn’t find any inscription, I think these are the tombs of various members of the imperial family as it served as the imperial mausoleum when it was initially built.

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 The next room is the 2nd scariest place – I was by this time, about ten meters from the only entrance/exit of the chapel and I was the only living soul in the place so my goosebumps were literally jumping off my skin. I almost turned around since I didn’t want to get close to the coffin but the caretaker was again right behind me, prodding me to move forward. He was actually starting to give me the creeps as well – less than a minutes after telling me to go into the next room, when I turned around, he was gone. Either he vanished into thin air, or he ran really fast.

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Ah, but the sight inside is a marvel with its carved, painted and gilded ceiling, the fresco by Carlo Urbino behind the ark and the silver ark itself created by Carlo Garavaglia, all very exquisitely done.

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I was by this point scared out of my wits and would gladly have ignored the fact that there was a flight of stairs behind the ark were it not for the caretaker who magically popped up again to hold my hand and take me to the top step of the stairs. I wanted to tell him, no, I am already fine with what I’ve seen so far, but, he wouldn’t take no for an answer.  I was so scared he would lock the gates behind me once I’ve descended though I was comforted by the fact that my friends all knew where I was, plus, my curiosity got the better of me.

And what do you know? Such a treasure! Seems that underneath the chapel is an ongoing excavation – from this photo, you can see a glimpse of the church’s foundation (or perhaps the ruin of the old complex), back from Roman times! I didn’t dare go further than this though since the cold, airless feeling was getting to me and I rushed back to the chapel and headed straight for the main church.

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Seeing as I was the only tourist, the caretaker told me he would show me a room that is off-limits to the public – I could tell based on the tone of his voice and the fact that the door had a big off limits sign. Hahaha!

Inside are various religious treasure (which I didn’t photograph – I assumed that similar to Manila, taking pictures of such things are generally not allowed), and the best of all was this old baptistry – for the “ninos”and “ninas” as the caretaker put it.

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I was so happy to have been given that exclusive tour I almost berated myself for being suspicious of the caretaker. Hahaha! But I was more than relieved to finally walk out of the basilica and into the direct heat of the sun (and I still can’t shake off the feeling that he was a ghost or something, or that he walked at lightning speed).

The Basilica of San Lorenzo is part of the Basilicas Park, where the Basilica of Saint Eustorgio (where the tomb of the three Magis are) and the Colonne di San Lorenzo can also be found. I didn’t get to Saint Eustorgio (I didn’t have time to visit both so I chose the one which I felt was more historically and architecturally significant) but the columns were right out front of the Basilica of San Lorenzo and cannot be missed. It is the most well-know Roman ruins in Milan, with the columns dating from the 2nd century, taken from old baths and temples.

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A lot of people also gather here, with some musicians and dancers offering free entertainment during the early summer evenings, and crowds waiting perhaps for the clubs nearby to open pass the time here so it can get pretty crowded and smoky. If you’re planning to take a nice photo, I would suggest you visit early in the morning.

There are a couple of other old churches nearby but time was too short. I will write next about the Duomo, which I visited several times during our stay in Milan.