18 December 2011

LIFE: All Duked Out

SARONNO, Italy - There was an article in the newspaper the other day about the restoration of the wooden model of the Duomo that was built when the Cathedral was under construction. At some point it will be displayed at the Duomo museum. The key words here are 'at some point'. Whenever a public project seems to be taking a little longer to finish than the locals think it should, they shake their heads and say, “here we go again, another Fabbrica del Duomo – which translated loosely means “oh no, here we go again, another never ending project, just like the Cathedral of Milan.”  
 Milan's Piazza Duomo Today
The Duomo of Milan was started in 1387 by the Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, and was ‘officially’ completed in the mid-1960’s when the massive bronze doors were finally installed. No, you didn’t read that wrong – it really did take 579 years to complete the project. And truth be known, work on the enormous structure has never really stopped. With four million people passing through those bronze doors every year there is always something, either inside or out, that needs to be repaired or replaced, especially if it is made of marble. 
A Partial Detail of the Exterior
The Duomo is built of marble that comes from the private quarry of the late Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti. He stipulated that the marble from his quarry should be used exclusively for the construction of the Duomo. That was back in the 14th century, and the rule still holds.

After prying the enormous rough blocks of marble from the side of the mountains near Lago Maggiore in Piedmonte, the blocks were moved from the quarry to the lake, and then loaded onto special barges. They floated from the lake to the Ticino River, down the river and into Milan using the vast canal system that existed in the city at that time. The blocks of marble were delivered to a small lake that was near the Duomo building site and then transferred on a type of sled pulled by mules. That lake by the way, was paved over and is now called Via Laghetto, Lake Street.
 Close up of Some of the Statue Topped Spires
In the 14th century, when construction of the Duomo began, Italy was not a country as we think of a country today, but a collection of city states. Each area was ruled independently which meant that goods passing from one dukedom, or Duchy, to another were subject to custom duty. Of course Dukes had special privileges and in order to avoid payment on the large number of marble laden barges that passed from Piedmont to Lombardy daily, the words: “ad usum fabricate operis,” Latin for 'destined for the Duke’s building site, were painted on the sides of the Duke’s barges. Those four little words meant that he paid no import duty to the Duke of Savoy, who controlled Piedmont.   
Painting of One of Milan's Many Canals
It wasn’t long before the words “ad usum fabricate operis” were shortened to AUF, and you still hear the old Milanese using the expression “a ufo” to indicate something is free, or more to the point, "non ce' niente a ufo", nothing is free.

For the hundreds of years the Duomo was under construction, the center of Milan resembled a giant ant hill – workers scurrying here and there, climbing scaffolds, chipping stones, mixing mortar and running and fetching stones and slate for the artisans. 

The operational and financial areas of the project was managed by the Vereranda Fabbrica del Duomo, specifically created by Duke Gian Galeazo to oversee the construction of the Duomo and to manage the project finances. Today, Angel Caioia, the current president of the Vereranda Fabbrica del Duomo, heads a seven member Board of Directors and oversees the Fabbrica’s 130 employees, who still perform many of the same duties as their 14th century predecessors did.
Fabbrica Workers Restoring the Wooden Model of the Cathedral
It was a massive project, larger than any seen before. So large in fact that one of the unique problems the engineers faced was how to raise the massive stones needed to complete the top of the Duomo. They decided to get some outside help, so they called in a French architect. When he saw the size and scope of the project, the Duomo is 354 feet tall (108 meters), he threw up his hands and declared all the work done up until the time he arrived on the scene as in pericolo di ruina – in peril of ruin, and according to him it had been done sine science, without science, whatever that means.
He proved to be full of hot air, but his caustic comments did push Galeazzo’s engineers to improve their instruments and techniques and work on the Duomo not only continued, but actually picked up speed. When Gian Galeazzo died of the Black Plague in 1402, almost half of the cathedral had been completed, but with the Duke gone the project stalled due to a lack of funds and ideas.
The Work is Slow and Exacting
By 1447 Milan had come under the rule of the Sforza family. Under the first Sforza, Francesco, the nave and aisles were completed up to the sixth bay. Forty years later, when his son Lodovico Sforza, better known as Il Moro, took control of the Dukedom, the octagonal cupola was completed and the interior decorated with four series of fifteen statues each, each statue portraying a saint or a prophet, and characters from the Bible. Stained glass windows, telling the story of Milan’s patron saint, Saint Ambrogio, were installed behind the great apse.

In May of 1519 the Fabbrica commissioned a wooden model of the still uncompleted Duomo to be built. Engineers and architects have always made use of models as it is the easiest way to check the relationship between shapes and functions and to verify possible proportional or volume faults of large construction projects. At that time the Duomo had an apse, a transept, an incomplete dome lantern and the first 5-6 spans of the naves which extended from the transept towards the fa├žade. As the Duomo changed, the model was also changed so the   representation of the project was always true. Just carving the 3,400 statues that decorate the Duomo, must have taken years.
Every Piece is Checked

When the large dome above the transept proved to be a challenging construction problem, Leonardo da Vinci, who was working for Duke Lodovico at the time, was called in as a consultant. While he was solving that problem, Leonardo  took the time to design a complicated pulley system to raise and lower a basket which holds a Santo Chiodo, a Holy Nail from the true cross, the most important religious relic owned by the Archdiocese of Milan. 

This relic is believed to be one of the two nails of the Crucifixion discovered by Saint Helena in the Holy Land in 326 Ad. Many people believe the nail came to Milan during the Crusades, in the 12th or 13th century. A special mass, called the Rito della Nivola is still held every year in mid -September and the nail is lowered and raised using the same pulley system designed by Leonardo da Vinci. 

If you stand in the middle aisle of the Duomo and look up, above the altar, you will see a tiny red light. That light indicates the location of the Holy Nail. 

The first religious service was held in the Duomo in 1402. It was the funeral of Duke Gian Galeazzo. Work continued throughout the rest of the 15th century, and the Duomo opened for regular worship in 1418.  

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