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The Cathedral Of Milan

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The Cathedral absorbs the attention of every traveller who visits Milan. It dominates the town, standing in the centre as its chief attraction and marvel. To it one hastens immediately on arriving, even on a night when there is no moon, to grasp at least a few of its outlines.

The piazza del Duomo, irregular enough in its form, is bordered with houses of which it is customary to speak ill; the guide never omits telling the traveller that these should be razed to make this a symmetrical square in the Rivoli taste. I am not of this opinion. These houses with their massive pillars and their saffron-coloured awnings standing opposite to some irregular buildings of unequal height, make a very good setting for the Cathedral. Edifices often lose more than they gain by not being obstructed: I have been convinced of this by several Gothic monuments, the effect of which was not spoiled by the stalls and the ruins which had gathered around them, as might have been believed; this is not, however, the case with the Cathedral, which is perfectly isolated; but I think that nothing is more favourable to a palace, a church, or any regularly constructed building than to be surrounded by heterogeneous buildings which bring out the proportions of the noble order.

When we look at the Cathedral from the square, the effect is ravishing: the whiteness of the marble, standing out from the blue of the sky, strikes you first; one would say that an immense piece of silver lace had been placed against a background of lapis lazuli. This is the first impression, and it will also be the last memory. Whenever I think of the Duomo of Milan, it always appears like this. The Cathedral is one of those rare Gothic churches of Italy, yet this Gothic resembles ours but little. We do not find here that sombre faith, that disquieting mystery, those dark depths, those severe forms, that darting up from earth towards the sky, that character of austerity which repudiates beauty as too sensual and only selects from a subject what is necessary to bring you a step nearer to God; this is a Gothic full of elegance, grace, and brilliancy, which one dreams of for fairy palaces and with which one could build alcazars and mosques as well as a Catholic temple. The delicacy in its enormous proportions and its whiteness make it look like a glacier with its thousand needles, or a gigantic concretion of stalactites; it is difficult to believe it the work of man.

The design of the facade is of the simplest: it is an angle sharp as the gable-end of an ordinary house and bordered with marble lace, resting upon a wall without any fore-part, of no distinct order of architecture, pierced by five doors and eight windows and striped with six groups of columns with fillets, or rather mouldings which end in hollowed out points surmounted by statues and filled in their interstices with brackets and niches supporting and sheltering figures of angels, saints, and patriarchs. Back of these spring out from innumerable fillets, like the pipes of a basaltic grotto, forests of little steeples, pinnacles, minarets, and needles of white marble, while the central spire which resembles frost-work, crystallized in the air, rises in the azure to a terrific height and places the Virgin, who is standing upon its tip with her foot on a crescent, within two steps of Heaven. In the middle of the facade these words are inscribed: Mariae nascenti, the dedication of the Cathedral.

Begun by Jean Galeas Visconti, continued by Ludovico le More, the basilica of Milan was finished by Napoleon. It is the largest church known after Saint Peter's in Rome. The interior is of a majestic and noble simplicity: rows of columns in pairs form five naves. Notwithstanding their actual mass, these groups of columns have a lightness of effect on account of the grace of their shafts. Above the capitals of the pillars there is a kind of gallery, perforated and carved, where statues of saints are placed; then the mouldings continue until they unite at the summit of the vault, which is ornamented with trefoils and Gothic knots made with such perfection that they would deceive the eye, if the plaster, which has fallen in places, did not reveal the naked stone.

In the centre of the cross an opening, surrounded by a balustrade, allows you to look down into the crypt, where the remains of Saint Charles Borromeo rest in a crystal coffin covered with plates of silver. Saint Charles Borromeo is the most revered saint of the district. His virtues and his conduct during the plague in Milan made him popular, and his memory is always kept alive.

At the entrance of the choir upon a grille which supports a crucifix, surrounded by angels in adoration, we read the following inscription framed in wood: Attendite ad petram unde excisi estis. On each side there are two magnificent pulpits of wood, supported by superb bronze figures and ornamented with silver bas-reliefs, the subjects of which are their least value. The organs, placed not far from the pulpits, have fine paintings by Procacini, if my memory does not deceive me, for shutters; above the choir there is a Road to the Cross, sculptured by Andrea Biffi and several other Milanese sculptors. The weeping angels, which mark the stations, have a great variety of attitudes and are charming, although their grace is somewhat effeminate.

The general impression is simple and religious; a soft light invites you to reflection; the large pillars spring to the vault with a movement full of vitality and faith; not a single detail is here to destroy the majesty of the whole. There is no overcharging and no surfeit of luxury: the lines follow each other from one end to the other, and the design of the edifice is understood in a single glance. The superb elegance of the exterior seems but a veil for mystery and humility within; the blatant hymn of marble makes you lower your voice and speak in a hushed tone: the exterior, by reason of its lightness and whiteness, is, perhaps, Pagan; the interior is, most assuredly, Christian.

In the corner of a nave, just before ascending the dome, we glance at a tomb filled with allegorical figures cast in bronze by the Cavalier Aretin after Michael Angelo in a bold and superb style. You arrive straightway on the roof of the church after climbing a stairway decorated at every angle with prohibitive, or threatening inscriptions, which do not speak well in favour of the Italians' piety or sense of propriety.

This roof all bristling with steeples and ribbed with flying buttresses at the sides, which form corridors in perspective, is made of great slabs of marble, like the rest of the edifice. Even at this point it is higher than the highest monuments of the city. A bas-relief of the finest execution is sunk in each buttress; each steeple is peopled with twenty-five statues. I do not believe there is another place in the world that holds in the same amount of space so large a number of sculptured figures. One could make an important city with the marble population of the Cathedral statues. Six thousand, seven hundred and sixteen have been counted. I have heard of a church in the Morea painted in the Byzantine style by the monks of Mount Athos, which did not contain less than three thousand figures. This is as nothing in comparison to the Cathedral of Milan. With regard to persons painted and sculptured, I have often had this dream - that if ever I were invested with magical power I would animate all the figures created by art in granite, in stone, in wood, and on canvas and people with them a country which would be a realization of the landscapes in the pictures. The sculptured multitude of this Cathedral bring back this fantasy. Among these statues there is one by Canova, a Saint Sebastian, lodged in an aiguille, and an Eve by Cristoforo Gobi, of such a charming and sensual grace that it is a little astonishing to see her in such a place. However, she is very beautiful, and the birds of the sky do not appear to be scandalized by her Edenesque costume.

From this platform there unfolds an immense panorama: you see the Alps and the Apennines, the vast plains of Lombardy, and with a glass you can regulate your watch from the dial of the church of Monza, whose stripes of black and white stones may be distinguished...

The ascent of the spire, which is perforated and open to the light, is not at all dangerous, although it may affect people who are subject to vertigo. Frail stairways wind through the towers and lead you to a balcony, above which there is nothing but the cap of the spire and the statue which crowns the edifice.

I will not try to describe this gigantic basilica in detail. A volume would be needed for its monograph. As a mere artist I must be content with a general view and a personal impression. After one has descended into the street and has made the tour of the church one finds on the lateral facades and apses the same crowd of statues, the same multitude of bas-reliefs: it is a terrifying debauch of sculpture, an incredible heap of wonders.

Around the Cathedral all kinds of little industries prosper, stalls of second-hand booksellers, opticians selling their wares in the open air, and even a theatre of marionnettes, whose performances I promise myself not to miss. Human life with its trivialities swarms and stirs at the foot of this majestic edifice, which, like petrified fireworks, is bursting its white rockets in the sky; here, as everywhere, we find the same contrast of sublimity of idea and vulgarity of fact. The temple of the Saviour throws its shadow across the hut of Punchinellc.



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