La Fabbrica del Duomo – Milan, Italy

La Fabbrica del Duomo
Milan, Italy

Up on the roof at Milan's Duomo
Up on the roof at Milan’s Duomo
If you have a fear of heights, then climbing to the rooftop of Milan’s Duomo is not for you. But if you crave breathtaking views of spires, gargoyles and flying buttresses that make up the third largest church in Christendom, then this should be at the top of your list when visiting Milan.

The easiest way to the rooftop is by elevator. You can also take the stairs. From the first landing there are more steps to climb to reach the roof above the central nave of the cathedral. Don’t look down until you have planted your feet firmly on slanted roof. On a clear day you can see the city reach out into the distance. But the best view is of flying buttresses elaborately decorated with tracery, the forest of spires, the hundreds of statues, enclosed spiral staircases and the gilded copper La Madonnina (Little Madonna) towering above it all. There’s enough to keep your interest level high.

The Gothic-style Duomo was begun in 1386 and took over four hundred years to complete. It took so long to finish the job that the Milanese have coined a phrase “la fabbrica del Duomo” to refer to anything that takes forever to get done. The Duomo is built on top of layers of civilizations including a Roman bath from the first century BC, a baptistery from AD 287 and a basilica from the 4th century AD. These excavations are a quick study of the history of this city which was once called Mediolanum. Fifty-two columns support the interior of the Duomo and some of the most beautiful and colorful stained glass windows adorn the apse.

Facing the Piazza del Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II with its curved steel-reinforced glass ceiling and dome. Chic stores with tempting displays that scream “buy me” beckon shoppers. Cafés here have some of the best seats for people watching. The Galleria’s northwest entrance opens to the Piazza dell’Opera where a statue of Leonardo da Vinci looks over the square. Da Vinci was a long-time resident of Milan where he painted the Last Supper in the refectory of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie and frescoed the ceiling of the Sala delle Asse in the Castello Sforzesco.

The popularity of the book, Da Vinci Code, has made it difficult to see the restored mural of the Last Supper. This masterpiece was already disintegrating when Leonardo was working on it from 1495 to 1498. By experimenting with oil paint on semi-dry plaster, he had inadvertently caused the rapid deterioration of his own work.

Statue of Leonardo da Vinci
Statue of Leonardo da Vinci
A true Renaissance man, Leonardo was also an inventor and scientist. Hence his constant experimentation with matter. At the Science and Technology Museum you can view models of Leonardo’s inventions as well as his sketch of the Vitruvian man. There is also a sample of his famous “right to left” handwriting. It helps to read it using a mirror.

The Castello Sforzesco was originally a fortress. Da Vinci designed its defenses as consulting engineer to Duke Ludovico Sforza who ruled Milan from 1480 to 1499. On the vaulted ceiling of the Sala delle Asse, there are traces of Leonardo’s original work among the branches of a mulberry tree that stretch across the ceiling in wild profusion. This was discovered in the 19th century after the whitewash covering the ceiling was peeled off. In another room of the castle is Michaelangelo’s Rondanini Pieta which he was carving when he died at the age of 89. There is poetic justice to find these works in one place by two contemporaries and competitors who clearly felt disdain for the other (if art historians are to be believed).

Along with its cultural treasures, Milan offers the latest in the rag trade as the capital of haute couture. The shops of famous designers are found on the toney streets of Via della Spiga and Via Montenapoleone. Many visitors are drawn to the area for some heavy duty shopping at the boutiques of Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, and Mario Bucellati, among others. But don’t worry if the prices here are a little steep. Head to Corso Buenos Aires or Via Gregoriana where you’ll find stylish clothes and accessories with more reasonable price tags.

From the lofty spires of the Duomo to the subterranean excavations of earlier civilizations, Milan at street level pulsates to the beat of business and industry. It is the economic hub of the country due in part to its hard working denizens. In this fast-paced environment, there is no room for “la fabbrica del Duomo”.

In the company of gargoyles
In the company of gargoyles
Where to stay: The four-star Hotel Galles is conveniently located on Corso Buenos Aires and around the corner from the metro stop, Lima. Their web address is

Where to eat: My favorite restaurant in Milan is Farinella Mediterranean Pizza which is in the area across from Sforzesco Castle. I enjoyed their risotto with zucchini and shrimp. I also appreciated the way they prepared the vegetables – fresh and crisp (unlike many European restaurants that tend to overcook vegetables). Address is Largo Cairoli, metro stop Cairoli. Next door to the Galleria is a building with several restaurants and a food store. Ciao Restaurant serves salads and hot meals, cafeteria style. Some tables have views of the Piazza del Duomo.

Last Supper Museum information: Viewing the Last Supper requires reservations. On a recent visit, tickets were sold out a month in advance. Check and for tickets.