The streets of Milan either radiate from the Duomo di Milano, or circle around it, indicating the huge cathedral’s importance to the citizens of what was once the Roman city of Mediolanum. This was formerly the site where Saint Ambrose built his basilica in the 5th century. When fire burned down the original structure in 1075, it was rebuilt as the Duomo. Today it continues to dominate the Milanese cityscape, with its 135 spires and 3,400 statues. It is the second largest Catholic cathedral in the world, and the heart of a Milan holiday.
From the outside, the Duomo is a huge, imposing structure, generally made of bricks faced with marble from the quarries donated by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, a 15th century Milanese leader who nearly became ruler of all northern Italy. The roof is dominated by pinnacles, punctuated by groups of spires topped with statues.
It is just as impressive inside the cathedral. Five great doors open up to five wide naves that all lead to the altar, and the windows behind the choir area are said to be the largest in the world. The 19th century American writer Mark Twain was so awe-struck by the Duomo’s beauty that when told that it ranked second to St. Peter’s in Rome, he wrote, “I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands,” in his travelogue Innocents Abroad.
A climb up the roof provides the opportunity to marvel at the Gothic spires and sculptures, and to take in spectacular views of Milan. Visitors can climb up the north side stairs, or pay extra to take the elevator. Excavations beneath the cathedral have also revealed the ancient basilica where St. Ambrose was said to have baptised his student Augustine.