07 December 2014

LIFE: Up in a Cloud

CHIAVARI, Italy – The city of Milan does a pretty good job of promoting itself. It’s easy to find information on what’s going on in the city whether its street fairs or trade fairs or even which restaurants and bars are the current “hot” spots. And then there is the Milan the Milanese kind of keep to themselves – it’s not that they are keeping secrets, it’s just that they don’t talk about some things as much as they talk about others. The Rite of the Nivola is a good example.
Rito della Nivola, Milan, Italy
In all the years I lived in Milan I never knew that one of Christianity’s most important relics – the Santo Chiodo - a nail from the True Cross – is in the Duomo of Milan.  It is kept in a reliquary in the apse near the main altar. You can’t see it when you are in the Duomo but you can see the little red light above the altar that shows where it is kept.

This relic is believed to have been discovered by Saint Helena in the Holy Land in 326 AD, and many experts believe it was brought to Milan in the 12th or 13th century during the Crusades. What we know for sure is it was in the Duomo in 1461. It was first brought to the attention of the public by the Bishop of Milan, Charles Borromeo, during a procession in 1577 when he was asking for Divine Intervention from the Black Plague. Divine intervention was definitely needed. Millions of Italians had already died from the plague and before they figured out a way to combat it, it had killed more than 20 million people, over 60 percent of the entire population of Europe.
Altar, Duomo of Milan
One of the reasons the Rito della Nivola isn’t better known is that even if people hear the name, it isn’t clear what the rite is all about. Unless you know the story, it is just about impossible to connect the Rito to the Holy Nail, or the plague or St. Charles Borromeo or even Milan for that matter. It does seem a bit odd that the rite isn’t named after the Holy Nail, instead of after the reliquary that holds it and the contraption that lifts it up to the apse.

That’s not to say the reliquary isn’t beautifully decorated with cherubs and angels and looks like large cloud when it is being raised or lowered in the Duomo. It does, and that cloud like appearance is where the rite gets its name as nivola is, or was at the time, Milanese dialect for cloud.
 St. Charles Boromeo 
As for Leonardo da Vinci’s involvement in the project, the best guess is that he designed, or at the least conceived of, the complicated pulley system that carries the Nivola up into the apse.  Da Vinci was working for Ludovico (il Moro), the Duke of Milan, at the time and records show he was called in as a consultant on a difficult construction problem the builders were having with the dome of the Duomo.  So it is entirely plausible that he could, and would, design a system that could carry a heavy basket-like structure 147 feet up on the air. It was just the kind off thing da Vinci did best. 

To raise and lower the basket which was 9 feet (3 meters) long and weighed 1,700 lbs (800 kilos), it took about two dozen men. They were positioned on the roof of the Duomo, no doubt hanging on to the ropes of the pulley system for dear life, charged with lowering the Nivola down to a spot in front of the altar. Two weeks later they were back for the more difficult task of raising it up again. Now the pulley system has been mechanized so the entire operation is much less stressful but the schedule is pretty much the same.
 Duomo of Milan
There are only two days a year that you can see the Nivola, the day the Holy Nail is taken from the case, usually on September 14th, and two weeks later when it is put back. The ceremony is open to the public but you have to make a reservation through the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo offices.  

Duomo di Milano Contact Info
Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo
Via Arcivescovado 1 – 20122 Milano 
tel +39 02 72022656
fax +39 02 72022419
Office Hours: dal lunedì al venerdì h. 9.30-13.00; 14.30-17.30, Closed Saturday and Sunday email: info@duomomilano.it  

Duomo Info Point
Via Arcivescovado  1 – 20122 Milano
tel +39 02 72023375 - fax +39 02 72022419
Hours Duomo Info Point: Monday-Saturday h. 9.30 -5.30.
Sundays 11.00 alle 3.00


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