Scaling the heights – soaring above the rooftops of Milan’s Duomo cathedral

Scaling the heights – soaring above the rooftops of Milan’s Duomo cathedral

It’s well-nigh unthinkable to envisage a trip to Milan without catching at least a glimpse of its number one attraction, the jaw-dropping cathedral in the very centre of the city. The Duomo is to Milano what Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, all rolled into one. It would be virtually impossible to give it a miss in any case: all the main streets radiate from this point, a posse of tram and metro lines converge here, and it’s right on the doorstep of the equally impressive Galleria Vittorio Emanuele covered passage, which is lined with the fashion capital’s most prestigious flagship boutiques and is one of the busiest spots for visitors and locals alike. This is definitely a case in point suggesting that all roads don’t necessarily lead to Rome…

Photo by Shona Galt

You could of course decide not to take a turn inside the cathedral and hunt down its legendary red eye high up in the rafters, or choose not to scale the heights and gaze out over the whole city while doffing your cap to the Madonnina statue perched right on the top of the tallest spire, but it would be a great pity not to experience it first-hand. Some forward planning is a bit of a must to avoid the eternally lengthy queues to enter the cathedral, and visiting with an expert guide does makes a world of difference to avoid missing out on those fine details you wouldn’t be able to spot if going solo.

Photo by Shona Galt

So what’s so special about the Duomo? Apart from its claim to fame for being the third largest church in Europe after the Vatican and Seville’s cathedral (and the fourth biggest in the world if you include the basilica in Brazil), it’s also one of the greatest labours of love in history. Compared to the two centuries it took to construct Notre Dame, the Italian equivalent saw 600 painstaking years roll by before its official completion, including a ‘face lift’ on the façade by none other than Napoleon himself in the early 1800s prior to his coronation there.

So many inauspicious deaths were caused over the early centuries due to the dedicated builders falling from a great height that a tailor-made cemetery was built across the way at the time, firmly painting the notion of “devotion to the job” in a whole new light. Nowadays, it’s still not an occupation for the faint-hearted and watching the skilled workmen swinging from one vertiginous spire to another in their hard hats is quite something to behold. The Candoglia marble is fragile and discolours over time, which means that just as soon as one façade has been cleaned and any of the vulnerable spires or statues on that section have been restored or replaced, there will always be another area that needs attention. It’s easy to see why many joke that being taken on to work at the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo means you have a post for life.

Photo © Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano

One of the most incongruous moments of my recent visit to the rooftops was unexpectedly seeing one of the onsite project managers scale up the side of a closed off part of the façade in his safety helmet, then nonchalantly leap over a piece of scaffolding – an absurdly perilous-looking act to the uninitiated – before crossing over to the other side of the roof, every inch as if he were merely jumping over a puddle in the street. I inwardly took my hard hat off to him in silent awe as he wryly tipped his head to one side and said with a grin, “there’s no rest for the wicked, eh”.

Everything is larger than life up here, and the facts and figures are all part and parcel of the charms of this over-sized historical monument. As you make your way closer and closer to the heavens, you can’t help but wonder how ever it was possible to complete this herculean task. With 96 life-like gargoyles, 135 up-standing spires and a flabbergasting 3,400 different statues, Il Duomo may not be named as one of the seven wonders of the world, but it is a breath-taking sight, especially up close.

We would have definitely been able to admire the panorama with its mix of old and very modern architecture all by ourselves, as well as spotting the award-winning environmentally-friendly Bosco Verticale towers on the horizon and even the snow-capped peaks of the Alps in the hazy distance, but visiting the rooftops with our guide Elena was a game-changer. Without her, much would have been lost in translation – and we would most likely have spent half of the morning baking in the sun at ground level and standing in that very long line far down below.

Whisked to the front of the fast-track queue for access to the first floor via a small but speedy lift, we were able to get a perfect potted history of the cathedral’s lengthy history in record time. Of course, what we would really have liked would have been to keep Elena with us for the rest of the day, but during the three hours we spent together at the Domo and exploring nearby we learnt far more than we would have been able to glean from poring over the guide books. Even more invaluable, she was able to point out certain details on the many sculptures we would never have picked out by ourselves. Without her, we would never have detected the sun and moon sculptures hidden half way up to the summit or spotted the clusters of life-like artichokes and leaves chiselled in the marble, not to mention the small, seemingly out of place bust of Mussolini secreted away behind one of the narrow staircases.

I could not recommend a privately guided tour more highly if either time is of the essence, or you want to see the hidden extras that you’d be hard pressed to uncover without the help of an expert eye. If you are travelling with children it’s even better: what is potentially yet another boring monument to traipse around becomes an engaging treasure hunt, as your offspring take on the challenge of trying to find out where the crouching frog is lurking amidst the biblical figures, or discover the incongruous tennis racquet and boxing gloves sculpted into the staircase and count the stone monkeys scurrying up a spire en route to the top, where the benign Madonnina looks down over you and the whole city with open arms.

It’s hard to drag yourself away from the pinnacle, but is well worth taking a turn inside the cathedral once back on ground level. Apart from the immensely impressive stained-glass windows and a trip down to the crypt to pay homage to the city’s historic model of propriety, Cardinal Borromeo, don’t miss the extraordinary and rather gruesome statue of “Saint Bartholomew skinned” close to the main entrance. From a distance, it looks as though the tortured soul is draping a cloak around his body. On closer inspection, it turns out to be his own flayed skin…

Photo by Shona Galt

For real amateurs of all things ecclesiastical, you might also wish to take a spin around the adjoining cathedral museum, with its beautifully curated exhibition of many of the original statues that have been replaced over time, as well as a stunning oval room displaying a kaleidoscopic overview of century-old stained glass panes dating. Before you leave, don’t forget to take a closer look at the Duomo’s majestic front doors, the central ones dedicated entirely to female figures and depicting the story of the life of Mary. If it’s lunchtime or even anywhere near happy hour, you could then do a lot worse than heading up to the seventh floor of the Rinascente department store right across the way for a restorative drink or meal on the terrace. It’s bound to be jam-packed (and please note that on a sunny day the wasps can be very aggravating), but at least you’ll be able to enjoy the fabulous 360° panoramic view, including a bird’s-eye view of the Duomo opposite, while you wait to be seated.


Way to go : whether you prefer to visit the cathedral on foot, by lift, or by using the Fast Track system, it is highly recommended that you plan to go early, especially if you are visiting during the summer months. Apart from the heat, it also gets excessively busy the later in the day you arrive, which can make manoeuvring the crowds pretty unpleasant. Even if you do elect to use the lift to the first level, the rooftops are accessed by some very narrow corridors, and there is a steep heady staircase to get to the summit, so sensible shoes have never been more welcome and don’t forget to carry bottled water with you, in case you do find yourselves queuing on the way back down. It is recommended that you visit the roof first, as you can then access the inside of the cathedral directly once you descend, and thus avoid having to join the queues at the front entrance. For more details and assistance organising your visit in advance or to reserve your private tour, please contact [email protected] for further information.


All photos by Nicola Collarile unless otherwise indicated.