Last week I took a train to Milan for the day to see some friends who were visiting. Neither had been to Milan before and while site-seeing was not their top priority, I insisted we at least see the cathedral. “It’s one of the largest cathedrals in the world and the only Gothic cathedral in Italy!” I told them. But I didn’t follow the very advice I have given students hundreds of times for countless summers. It was so nice that day that I left my shawl at my friend’s hotel and arrived at the cathedral in a skirt with nothing to cover my legs. Milan is rather strict about who enters their cathedral (a police guard checks each person’s attire before letting them in). Unlike other churches, however, they do not provide a little cape to wear (the cape or poncho of shame, as we call it). So I walked up to the door, got the look over, and that was it. I couldn’t go in. I sent my friend inside and stood outside to wait. Then a funny thing happened: I looked up at the facade. And I mean really looked, maybe for the first time.
While the building itself was begun at the end of the 14th century, the facade, like many church facades in Italy, was not started until much later. Though a series of attempts and design competitions were held, the final version was not begun until the 17th century and wasn’t finished until the 19th, and only then by order of Napoleon. Due to the extensive length of time it took to complete this building and its facade, there were many architectural visions involved that, at times, also clashed. For example, under the archbishop Carlo Borromeo in the 16th century, there was an attempt at a Classical Roman redesign of the gothic structure. A Baroque design for the facade was begun but quickly interrupted by the archbishop’s death. The new patron and his chosen architect opted to return it to its original Gothic splendor. As late as the 20th century, some of these less Gothic elements on the facade were replaced to make it fit more accurately within traditional Gothic style. However, in this photograph we continue to see the unusual blend of Gothic architectural details, as seen in the pointed arches and decorative elements, with figures, such as the two men supporting the base of the two piers, that are clearly Baroque. It may be this uncommon combination of styles over centuries that give the facade such an enduringly unique appearance. One that I am so glad I had the opportunity to fully take in.
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