PIAZZA DUOMO, MILAN

by Abellio

Milan, 7 March 2018

My wife and I frequently have to go up to Piazza Duomo, Cathedral Square, in Milan, where we visit a little store in the underground station to do our printing. We can’t be bothered to buy a home printer, and anyway we need excuses to leave the house – one of the early lessons of retirement.

Our usual route takes us through the back streets, coming out at the piazza’s north-east corner. This is the sight that greets us:

I’m very fond of this view, because it encapsulates something like a thousand years of Milan’s architectural history. There are some even older bits of architecture scattered around the centre of the city, but at this point in time they really are just bits – some mosaic-covered arches here and there, from Milan’s early Christian period, tucked away at the back of what were once 3rd-4th century basilicas; short stretches of the city’s Roman streets, preserved in odd corners of underground stations; that sort of thing. Milan’s visible architecture really only starts in the early 1000’s AD.

Which is more or less where I want to start unpicking my photo. I invite my readers to zoom in on the campanile poking up at the back of the photo.

This is the campanile of the church of San Gottardo, built around 1336 by order of Azzone Visconti, then Lord of Milan. Azzone dedicated the church to Saint Gotthard because this saint was invoked by those who suffered from gout and stones, and poor Azzone suffered from both. The campanile shows the typical details of the Gothic-Lombard style: red brick combined with white marble, the latter often used in a series of small columns at the top of the tower, but also used to pick out details. Here is the campanile from behind, where this lovely combination of red brick and white stone is seen clearly.

The campanile is particular in another way, in being octagonal. It is not unknown for campanili to take this shape, but the campanile of San Gottardo, in its slimness and height, is a particularly elegant example of the form. In its current format, the campanile has no clock, which is a pity because at Azzone’s orders it originally carried Milan’s (and probably Italy’s) first public clock. This caused so much excitement at the time that for centuries afterwards the area around the church was known as Quarter of the Hours.

Next in time is the massive white Duomo, the city’s cathedral, to the left in my photo.

Actually, the building took centuries to complete, so it’s a little difficult to know what century to assign it to. Going by overall style, we can say that it belongs to the late 14th, early 15th Century. And in fact the decision to build the Duomo was taken in 1386 – so some 50 years after San Gottardo was built – by the-then archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo. It was to take the place of a baptistery and two existing cathedrals – the “winter” cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore and the “summer” cathedral of Santa Tecla (a combination I have never heard of before). Antonio da Saluzzo was thinking big; he wanted a very large church worthy of the great city of Milan. But he was still thinking traditional; he had in mind a brick and marble church along the lines of San Gottardo. But that idea was nixed by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, who had just taken over the lordship of Milan (through a treacherous attack on his uncle Barnabò, who died shortly thereafter in prison; poisoned, it was whispered, by his nephew). Milan, ever since the Roman Empire, when it became the capital city for a while, looked north across the Alps towards the Empire’s border on the Rhine as well as south. Gian Galeazzo wanted to use the new cathedral to firmly anchor Milan to northern Europe through the use of its architectural styles, which at this point meant late gothic in the Rhenish-Bohemian style. Not only did that mean a different architectural style to the ones then in vogue in Italy, it meant a stone-faced building. So the Duomo that we see today is at its core Lombard, made essentially out of brick, but northern European in look because it is faced with stone. And what a lovely stone it is! A white marble with pinkish hues from the quarries of Candoglia close to Lake Maggiore.

To get the style he wanted, Gian Galeazzo imported French architects, who already then behaved in that typically French manner, poo-pooing on the building techniques of their Lombard masons and generally pissing them off. Neverthless, things moved along, and by the time Gian Galeazzo died in 1402 (but not before becoming the first duke of Milan by paying Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia, King of the Romans, 1,000 florins for the privilege), half the church was complete. At that point, the whole building programme ran out of steam. Things crawled along for another century and a half, until Cardinal Carlo Borromeo took over the archbishopric. There was a spurt of activity for several decades until his death, at which point worked slowed to a crawl again. There were endless arguments about what style the facade should have, and numerous designs were proposed, accepted, then abandoned (something which seems to have been a general problem in Italy, as an earlier post of mine attests). This photo shows what the Duomo looked like in about 1745.

As readers can see, not only was the facade of the Duomo a mess, the cathedral itself didn’t yet have that forest of spires which give the building its distinctive look today. It took Napoleon to get the city to make the final push to get over the finish line. In 1805, he wanted to be crowned King of Italy in the cathedral and he wanted it to look worthy of this solemn ceremony. He made the rash promise that the French State would pay for the final works. This never actually happened, but the promise that someone else would pay galvanized the community and by 1819, when this painting was made, the Duomo looked pretty much how it is today.

Work still continued, and strictly speaking even today it is not finished; there are places where statues are still missing. But when the final door in the facade was installed in 1965, a mere 600 years after work was started, the Duomo was officially declared to be finished. Oof!

Next in time, we have the building standing in front of the campanile of San Gottardo.

Unfortunately, because of the city government’s bizarre idea of planting palm trees in the piazza, one can now hardly see the building in question from where I took my photo, so let me insert here another photo which I lifted from the internet.

This is the so-called Palazzo Reale, the Royal Palace, although it almost never had royalty staying there. Since the earliest times, this was the area where the government buildings of the Comune and then the Duchy stood. As rulers of Milan and the surrounding territories succeeded each other – the Viscontis, the Sforzas, the French, the Spaniards, the Austrians, the French again under Napoleon, back to the Austrians once Napoleon was safely locked away on St. Helena – they or the Governors they sent added, demolished, changed, extended, and remodeled the government buildings and the lodgings they inherited to fit their needs and their egos. You would think that the result would be a hodgepodge, but actually a remodeling carried out in the 1760s gave the building its defining characteristics both inside and out. The facade that we see in my photo, the first example of the neoclassical style in Milan, is the fruit of that remodeling. Its architect, Giuseppe Piermarini, had a really hard time with the work. His purported client was Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Este, a younger son of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (and brother to Marie-Antoinette, who lost her head in the French Revolution). Maria Theresa had packed him off to Milan to marry Beatrice d’Este and to be Vienna’s governor of Lombardy. Ferdinand had dreams of Piermarini building him a residence worthy of his status (at least as he saw it) and a building that would rival the other stately piles going up around Europe (he particularly wanted to compete with his elder brother’s Schönbrunn summer palace in Vienna). But Piermarini’s real client, because she was paying the bills, was Maria Theresa. She was famously cheeseparing and anyway didn’t see her younger son’s position in quite as grand a light as he did. She just wanted him to suitably represent the Austrian Empire in Lombardy and to leave all the decision-making to Vienna. Somehow Piermarini managed to satisfy everyone without getting the sack or having a nervous breakdown and came up with the austerely elegant building that we see today.

The building experienced numerous further vicissitudes. Its moment of greatest glory was under Napoleon, when Milan was the capital of the Kingdom of northern Italy. After the Austrians came back in 1815, Milan went back to being capital of just Lombardy. With Italian unification, the building was handed over to the House of Savoy, but they rarely used it and eventually sold it to the municipality. It got badly damaged during a bombing raid in World War II. It now houses various museums and exhibition spaces.

Then we go to the building on the far right of my photo.

This was part of a rebuilding campaign decided on in 1860 in the wake of Italian unification. In their enthusiasm, the city fathers proclaimed their intention of radically redesigning the piazza in front of the Duomo, making it bigger and grander, and of creating a new major avenue to celebrate King Victor Emmanuel II, first king of the newly-united Italy. I suspect this urban remodeling plan was also seen as a way of cleaning up some embarrassingly leprous zones of the city centre. For instance, putting up the building in my photo, the southern Palazzo dei Portici, allowed the municipality to clear away a whole neigbourhood located there which went by the name of Rebecchino and which was full of petty criminals and other louche types who preyed on the pilgrims and other assorted tourists who visited the Duomo. The remodeling of the piazza in front of the Duomo took from 1865 to 1873. Its most famous element, which you can’t see in my photo, is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, which runs from Piazza del Duomo to the piazza in front of the Scala theatre.

But more significantly, I think, the whole piazza in front of the Duomo now has a harmony and elegance which it definitely lacked.

For once, a rebuilding programme decided by a municipal government has left us with something better than what it replaced, especially after a much later municipal government decided to ban advertising billboards on the building opposite the Duomo, Palazzo Carmini.

Which brings us to the final building in my photo, the one squeezed in between the Palazzo Reale and the Palazzo dei Portici.

Again, I think readers need another photo from closer by and without those silly palm trees in the way to appreciate the building.

It is a building in the Fascist style, the competition for its design being held in 1937 and construction of the winning design starting in 1938. I don’t know if there is a formal definition of the Fascist style, but these buildings tend to have a “Roman” look to them: the use of white stone facing and of semi-circular arches. They also tend to have little external decoration other than massive, heroic-looking statues and bas reliefs. I don’t know if De Chirico was a Fascist, but many of his paintings have such building in them.

This particular building goes by the name of Arengario, which is an old Italian word first used in the Middle Ages to describe municipal buildings. The root of the word, “aringare”, is the same as the English word “harangue”, and in fact Arengari were buildings from which the municipal authorities addressed (or perhaps harangued) the local citizenry. In later centuries, the term Arengario fell out of use, presumably because municipal authorities couldn’t be bothered any more with the direct democracy of addressing the people. But since the Fascists, Mussolini in the lead, liked to harangue the luckless populace, they brought the word back into use. As a result, a number of Facist-built Arengari, Milan being one of them, are to be found throughout Italy. I presume the idea was that the Fascist cadre would adress Milan’s citizenry drawn up in the piazza below.

The winning design actually had as its overall objective to balance the triumphal arch at the beginning of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele directly across the piazza, which is why there are two more-or-less identical buildings flanking the road which passes through them, rather than just the one you would need if all you were interested in was haranguing the crowds. The idea was that the road between the buildings would lead to another piazza (today Piazza Diaz) where the country’s modern (Fascist) companies would build their headquarters.

In the event, World War II intervened, construction was halted, what had been built was damaged during the bombing raid that damaged the Palazzo Reale next door, and the municipal authorities found themselves after the war with a damaged, unfinished Fascist building on their hands. The balcony from which the Fascist haranguing was meant to have taken place was quietly demolished and the rest of the buildings were completed by 1956. After various uses, the building next to the Palazzo Reale now houses Milan’s museum of 20th Century art. I highly recommend this museum to any of my readers who happen to be passing though Milan.

Well, that finishes my little tour of Piazza Duomo. Without wanting to sound too much like the local tourism office (which used to be housed in the Arengario), I highly recommend my readers who come to Italy to stop off in Milan before they hasten on to Florence, Rome, and Venice. A stop in Milan can be highly rewarding – in my case, it got me my wife.

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Overview and zoom-in photos: mine
San Gottardo: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_di_San_Gottardo_in_Corte
Duomo 1745 circa: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Milano#Contesto_urbanistico
Duomo 1819: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piazza_del_Duomo_(Milano)
Palazzo Reale: http://ciaomilano.it/e/sights/preale.asp
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galleria_Vittorio_Emanuele_II
Piazza del Duomo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRUXl0wyvLY
Palazzo Carmini, 1970s: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palazzo_Carminati
Arengario: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/339177415661775996/?lp=true
De Chirico painting: https://www.arteallimite.com/backup_2017/en/2016/07/la-pintura-metafisica-de-giorgio-de-chirico/