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At the centre of the Piazza del Duomo stands the Duomo di Milano. This cathedral is a genuine Gothic masterpiece with more than 3,500 statues of saints, animals and monsters, and 135 towers stretching towards the heavens. Construction of this immense place of worship took some 600 years and work was still being carried out on the uppermost sections and portals as recently as 1950.
It was Bishop Antonio da Saluzzo who first commissioned the construction of the cathedral in 1386. The building work was a European co-production during the early years, with the project leadership changing hands between French, German and Italian master builders. This inevitably led to delays as they all had different visions for the cathedral’s construction. Around 1400, work began in earnest but the cathedral would take centuries longer to complete.
Every now and then the construction work ceased for long periods – for as long as a century on a couple of occasions. Then Napoleon Bonaparte came, he saw and conquered Milan, and ensured that the front façade was completed within 7 years. The work was financed by the French state but this was not a completely selfless act on Napoleon’s behalf; he wanted to be crowned king of Italy in the cathedral. And Napoleon would not be Napoleon if he had not succeeded. Opposite the cathedral is a large statue of the diminutive Frenchman on horseback. Later, his image was also placed on one of the 135 towers in gratitude for his generosity.
Soaring skywards, the pointed towers are one of the most recognisable attributes of the Gothic architectural style and no other cathedral in the world has as many towers as the Duomo. As well as being positioned along the edges of the cathedral, these towers also cover the whole roof and form almost a crown around the main tower. This features the Madonnina, or the little Madonna: a 14-metre tall statue of the Virgin Mary. The statue is made from copper and finished with 3,900 pieces of gold leaf.
Many of the towers are richly decorated with ornaments and statues. The best way to see them is from the Duomo’s roof. The lift is the easiest way to get there but the stairs have more charm. The climb upstairs passes between the towers and offers the most attractive views along the way. You can see Milan’s tallest skyscraper, the bombastic train station, Stazione Centrale, and even the Alps on a clear day. Once you reach the top and stand in the middle of all the towers, it’s as if you’ve entered a small village.