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Bill Thayer

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[image ALT: An engraving of an idyllic scene of a rather low spired Gothic cathedral, seen from the side, framed by trees and verdure: nothing remotely like modern Milan.]

The great centre of interest at Milan must always be its glorious cathedral, a brick building, veneered with white marble. It was founded in 1387, by Gian-Galeazzo Visconti, on the site of a more ancient edifice, the original church on this site having been spoken of by S. Ambrose when writing to his sister Marcellina, as 'the great new basilica'.

Great variety of opinion exists as to the beauty of Milan Cathedral, and, as a whole, the general feeling will be, that the oftener you see it, the uglier it seems externally. But, as to the exquisite beauty and finish of its Gothic details all will agree, though, in order to appreciate these thoroughly, it will be necessary to mount to the roof, guarded by an army of statues, Wordsworth's

The ascent is also well worth while on account of the noble view of the Alpine ranges to be obtained from thence.

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The cathedral of Milan has been wonderfully contrived to bury millions of money in ornaments which are never to be seen. Whole quarries of marble have been manufactured here into statues, relievos, niches, and notches; and high sculpture has been squandered on objects which vanish individually in the mass. Were two or three thousand of these statues removed, the rest would regain their due importance, and the fabric itself would become more intelligible.

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A more unlucky combination of different styles or a clumsier misuse of ill-appropriated details could scarcely be imagined. Yet no other church, perhaps in Europe, leaves the same impression of the marvellous upon the fancy. The splendour of its pure white marble, blushing with the rose of evening or of dawn, radiant in noonday sunlight, and fabulously fairy-like beneath the moon and stars; the multitudes of statues sharply cut against a clear, blue sky, and gazing at the Alps across that memorable tract of plain; the immense space and light-irradiated gloom of the interior; the deep tone of the bells above at a vast distance, and the gorgeous colours of the painted glass, contribute to a scenic effect unparalleled in Christendom.

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Thayer's Notes:

What none of the above says is that the Gothic sculpture of Milan cathedral spans several centuries, extending well past anything strictly authentic: the last major items on the roof are from Napoleon's time — who loved it and was in fact responsible for its completion. A few small sculptures are even now being placed there from time to time as memorials. And yes, the roof is definitely what you want to see. (When I get my photos collected, expect a nice site here!)

This hotch-potch of styles is in fact what makes Symonds' judgment just about right, except for his appreciation of the ponderous and shapeless interior. More explicitly, the relation­ship of the "unlucky combination of styles" and of "impression of the marvellous upon the fancy" is one of cause and effect: the Duomo of Milan is the quintessential Romantic Gothic cathedral, what 19c Romanticism would have wanted them all to be. In France, it took Viollet-le‑Duc's sometimes atmospheric restorations to produce the same effect, but here it was organic, a continuation of a long process of building.

The Forsyth fellow, on the other hand, I view as utterly wrong-headed. Throw out the wasteful exuberance and even occasional bad taste, and you no longer have one of the great cathedrals of Europe. . . .

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Page updated: 13 Jan 00