Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Longlist: Milan Cathedral

What's the Longlist? It's the list for all the other great man-made spectacles in the world that haven't quite made my shortlist. I don't feel the need to research them or visit them, but as long as this blog is about the world's best man-made structures, they deserve some kind of mention. Today, Milan Cathedral.

Milan Cathedral - which can be found in Milan, as you might imagine - is pretty unlucky not to have made my shortlist. Plenty of other cathedrals have, and for good reason, but by the time I came across Milan Cathedral I already had a bumper list of premier cathedrals. Did I need another one? If I was looking for a list of the top 100 buildings in the world, or the top 7 cathedrals in the world, then certainly I'd have included it. But I knew it wasn't going to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and upon visiting the city in June, I was relieved to be right.

That's not to say that Milan Cathedral isn't excellent. Dripping in spires and Gothic eccentricity, it manages something that most churches and cathedrals don't - it's distinctive. Typically, Gothic cathedrals are dominated by a preposterously grand facade, laden in sculpture, with a tower or two crowning. Milan Cathedral has the sculpture, but crucially it doesn't have the towers. The facade takes a different form. It's still grand, but it has a very different look, more house-shaped, with the triangular gable at the front, then an astonishing amount of statues-on-spires running along the sides of the cathedral. It's so pointy, it looks like a Gothic hedgehog.

It's possible to get a closer look at the spikes of this Gothic hedgehog. Most cathedrals allow you to climb their towers, but in the absence of any towers, Milan Cathedral instead allows you to climb on the roof. Right on top of it! It's great fun. I am very partial to climbing up towers of any sort, but probably clambering across Milan Cathedral's roof is the most fun of all. You begin on the terraces that run along the side and rear of the building, ducking under the flying buttresses, and finish on the sloped roof. Nowhere else have I ever been so close to the topmost architectural details.

Why is Milan Cathedral different from other Gothic cathedrals, and different from other Italian ones too? Probably, it's because for most of Milan Cathedral's history, nobody knew what they were doing. Wikipedia lists an amazing amount of architects and engineers involved - 78, I count. St Paul's Cathedral, by comparison, had just the one. But then, St Paul's took just 45 years to build; Milan Cathedral took 597.

Naturally, that wasn't 597 years of continuous hard graft. Milan Cathedral is built upon a very historic site. Originally called Mediolanum, Milan was a Roman city (the Romans weren't the founders, but they made it their own) and the site of today's cathedral is smack in the centre of the old city. Probably a Roman basilica was once there, but the earliest archaeological evidence uncovered is of a 4th Century Christian baptistery. This turned into a 5th Century Christian basilica and continued to evolve through various incarnations until 1386. In 1386, the new Lord of Milan (years later, he turned himself into the first Duke of Milan, because why the hell not?), a man called Gian Galeazzo Visconti, decided he wanted to build a giant new cathedral as a reward to the people of the city for their patience during hard times. His uncle and predecessor, Barnabo, had been behaving like a dick, waging war and raising taxes and just being generally unpleasant until Gian Galeazzo had put him in prison and poisoned him. That might seem harsh but you didn't meet the man - some people really are better off poisoned. A nice new cathedral would make everything ok, reckoned Gian Galeazzo, and he whipped the city up into a frenzy of enthusiasm, with lots of generations donations quickly flowing in.

Gian Galeazzo fancied himself as a bit of a mover, and so he was keen to follow the latest European trends. To dismay of all the Italophiles - which is most of Italy - he appointed a French engineer and wanted a French Gothic style. Things started well. Despite a different French architect swanning on by and proclaiming the whole thing was rubbish and would collapse, by 1402 it was about half done and hadn't collapsed. That's pretty fast going for an old time cathedral. But 1402 was also the year than Gian Galeazzo died - and things ground to a halt from thereon in.

For centuries, work progressed, but very very slowly. Bits and pieces appeared, but it was piecemeal. In 1571, an Italian architect called Pellegrino Pellegrini was appointed. Never trust a man whose surname is plural of his forename, that's a maxim I live by, and Pellegrini decided he didn't want the cathedral to be French, he wanted it to be Italian, so redesigned the entire thing in a way that would look more Roman Classical and Renaissance. Some of the interior was done like this and there were grand plans for the facade, but just as things seemed to go back then, everyone then got sidetracked and it never happened. Yet it demonstrates that by now most people were saying, "Why the hell are we building a French Gothic cathedral in Milan?"

The spire went up, finally, in 1762 and is the highest point, at 108.5 metres. Soon after, in 1805, big things were to happen. Napoleon had rolled in and taken over, and whatever you might accuse Napoleon of, he wasn't a man content to just sit back and watch the world go by. Just before he crowned himself king of Italy inside the cathedral, he ordered the thing to be finished pronto and promised he'd pay for it all. Work rushed ahead and the facade was completed seven years later. Napoleon never did pay for it, however, as he got side-tracked fighting Russia and eventually dying in exile.

The cathedral still wasn't done. Remarkably, it wasn't formally completed until 1965! And even then there remains unfinished and uncarved blocks waiting to be sculpted. But I think everyone in Milan is now fed up of building the thing, especially as it's so old that it's a major feat just to maintain it. It went through some major restorations that finished in 2009, meaning it was nice and bright and clean for our visit last year. As a fund-raising initiative, as of a few years ago you can adopt one of the 135 gargoyles, for around €100,000 each, and get your name inscribed under it. They also charge €2 to take photos of the interior, as I discovered upon being approached by a lady when I tried to cheekily take one for free. I was trying to be stealthy - eyes like a hawk! I duly paid the €2 and felt compelled to get my money's worth.

I really like the interior, although it's not as distinctive as the exterior. Nonetheless, it's pleasingly atmospheric and gloomy. The statue in the second last photo is a 16th Century one of St Bartholomew, a martyr who is said to have been skinned alive and crucified upside-down in the 4th Century. The statue thus captures him without his skin, although the right way up at least, looking reflective. I'm not sure if reflective is the pose I'd be striking fresh from having my skin pulled from my body, but then I suppose that's why I'm not a saint.

Milan Cathedral is said to be the largest Gothic and second largest cathedral in the world (Seville Cathedral is the largest, and we're not counting basilicas like St Peter's here). That's quite a claim, although it's based on the overall floor area. There is apparently a 40,000 capacity. I have to say, it didn't seem especially big for me. Sure, it takes up a large area, although not so much larger than other big cathedrals, but more significantly, the facade is only 65 metres high. Other cathedral facades, with their bell towers, are often twice that or more. Why did Milan never build any bell towers for its cathedral? I'm not sure, perhaps they just never got round to it. Cologne Cathedral's facade is a whopping 157 metres high, meaning that it looks truly mighty when you gaze up upon it. Milan Cathedral on the other hand looks surprisingly petite.

It does damage though. Just ask Silvio Berluscon. In 2009, when he was still prime minister, somebody chucked a souvenir model of the cathedral at him, causing him some injury to his nose and mouth. Poor Silvio. I've been unable to ascertain whether the assailant got his model back - I suspect not. I happen to own a similar such model but would never throw it at a head of state. What a waste.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked Milan cathedral when I visited it (although I didn't go up to the roof). I think the lack of bell towers makes it more original - in fact their absence means that they don't detract from all those pointy bits which in my opinion are what define the whole thing.

    I had no idea that many people had their reservations about the fact that it was in gothic style - as you point out, there seems to be a bit of the old "well that's not how we do things round here!" going on. Also perhaps the fact that it took so long to build could have been a factor. As I am sure you are aware, by the end of the middle ages, gothic began to be looked down upon as a bit old-fashioned.

    Actually that reminds me of something else. Over a year ago, I bought a new suit, but still haven't got round to shortening the trousers. I do worry that by the time I get them done, it will be hopelessly out of fashion and I'll end up turning up to work looking like someone who's stepped out of a time machine; as if someone came to work today wearing a suit with wide lapels and flares, complete with kipper tie.


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