The Duomo is without a doubt the ultimate emblem of Milan. Here are some fun facts about the Lombard capital’s cathedral that you might not have known.
The Madonnina statue on the top of the Duomo is one of Milan’s most iconic symbols, as well as a prominent figure in the Instagram feeds of locals and visitors alike.
With its Gothic spires and majestic stained glass windows, the Duomo is an emblem of the city and its turmoil, as well as a monument of extraordinary beauty. To celebrate the splendor of Milan Cathedral here are six things that you may not have known about the Duomo of Milan.
1. Pagan Girl Power
The Duomo’s actual name is Santa Maria Nascente, consecrated in honor of the Blessed Mother, the most important female figure for Catholics. Prior to the Cathedral, a church once stood in this very spot that was dedicated to Belisama, the mysterious Celtic mother goddess. Over the centuries, the church was demolished and rebuilt several times but was always dedicated to prominent female figures such as Minerva and, later, Santa Tecla.
2. For all intents and purposes, the Duomo is the church of the Milanesi
The citizens of Milan hold the Madonnina near and dear to their hearts. The Milanesi wanted the cathedral built so badly that some of the wealthiest locals took an active part in the project by financing its construction. Gian Galeazzo Visconti himself, the first Duke of Milan, even provided the marble blocks with the distinct pink veins that make the Duomo so beautiful at any time of day, under any and every light.
The pink marble is linked to a phrase common among teenagers not only from Milan but from all over the boot: Uffa! This expression conveys disappointment, fatigue and annoyance, and comes from the very acronym found on the marble blocks “AUF”, or ad usum fabricae. Visconti himself affixed this acronym on the blocks so that the marble, which was imported from Lake Maggiore would not be subject to taxation. (For this reason, in Italian, the phrase “a ufo” means that you’re getting something for nothing). The acronym gave rise to the exclamation auf! which eventually became uffa!
4. An important relic
Among sarcophagi, crosses and tombstones (including one from when construction started in 1386), the naves of the Duomo contain a very important relic: a nail from Christ’s crucifixion. Legend has it that Saint Ambrose himself found it in the workshop of a blacksmith who, despite his hammering, could not make a scratch on it. The nail is kept in the cross-shaped tabernacle at the top of the vault over the right aisle.
5. A lightning conductor in disguise
Thanks to the halberd she holds proudly, the Madonnina presides over the city and the Duomo in a way that is more than symbolic. While the spear does help her ward off evil spirits and defeat demonic forces, it also helps her protect the Cathedral when weather conditions become unfavorable. The Madonna’s golden copper halberd is, in fact, a fully functional lightning conductor. While it’s okay to appeal to the salvific power of prayer, it is not good to be caught unprepared when adversities are meteorological.
6. Nothing taller
In Milan, no building can be taller than the Duomo’s Madonnina. This is not due to superstition, but rather a law that was passed in the 1930s. Might you be wondering about the Pirelli Tower? And the new skyscrapers like Isozaki Tower? The Madonnina of the Cathedral is 356 feet high, while the Isozaki Tower measures nearly 663. However, the law hasn’t been broken: A replica of the copper statue was placed on top of Isozaki Tower so that the Madonnina can always have the privilege of seeing Milan from the highest vantage point.
Sources: M. A. Beltramini, 101 cose da fare a Milano almeno una volta nella vita, Newton Compton Editori