If you’re ever in Milan and find yourself short of cash, you might try to get something “a ufo”. Nothing to do with objects of the unidentified flying kind, this old Milanese expression means to get something for free, inspired by the AUF stamps seen on board many boats which floated down the navigli a long time ago.
The abbreviation AUF derives from the Latin “Ad Usum Fabricae” roughly translated as “Used For Construction” which excluded certain goods from the heavy duties usually charged by the dukedom’s customs officers. AUF was stamped on huge marble blocks which travelled from the Candoglia caves in the Alps, across Lake Maggiore, down the Ticino River and finally along the navigli to be delivered to a small artificial lake used exclusively for a rather important construction site in the centre of Milan.
The unique cream, pink and grey-hued marble is still transported today – even though nowadays the lake only exists in the road name “Via Laghetto” – to preserve Milan’s most recognisable symbol. In case you haven’t already guessed, we’re talking about the Duomo.
Construction began in 1386 in conjunction with Gian Galeazzo Visconti’s appointment as Duke of Milan. The Duke’s intention was to give the Duomo to the Milanese noble and working classes as a gift following the suffering they endured under his tyrannous predecessor – Barnabò.
Building started with the apse, and then extended from east to west until a small section was consecrated in 1418. Construction continued through the years until the Duomo was finally completed at beginning of the 19th century meaning the entire process took just over 600 years – making La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona look like a five-minute job!
The lengthy construction process accounts for the somewhat confused mix of architectural designs, which has led to much controversy over the style of our iconic monument. Whatever your personal opinion might be, no visitor to Milan can leave without seeing the Duomo; the world’s fifth biggest cathedral and Milan’s undisputed mascot.
To offer the public a deeper understanding of the Duomo’s history and an insight into the craftsmanship and maintenance of its complex exterior and all that lies within, the Grande Museo del Duomo and the Archivio della Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo have once again opened their doors to the world. Both venues were inaugurated on a very symbolic date in a very symbolic year, on 4th November to commemorate Saint Carlo Borromeo (who lies in the Duomo’s crypt) and this year, exactly 1700 years since the Edict of Milan was signed in 313.
Just a stone’s throw away from the Duomo, the museum is situated in Palazzo Reale. Visitors can take a fascinating walk through 2000 square metres of exhibition space where a carefully chosen selection of objects charts different aspects of the Duomo’s history through the ages.
The tour begins with items from the precious “Tesoro” including ancient golden chalices, ostensories, ivory diptychs and a splendid mitre intricately decorated with colourful hummingbird feathers.
As you would expect, statues are an important feature, from test pieces in plaster to small pillar top statues to a collection of the grotesque water-drainage gargoyles. Seeing them up close gives you the opportunity to examine the details as well as a better perception of their size. The best example is in the room dedicated to the Madonnina (the Milanese nickname for the statue of the Virgin Mary on the Duomo’s tallest spire) where you will see the beautiful wooden portrait of the actual statue and an old iron structure which was once the statue’s interior. The imposing four metre frame puts the “tiny” Madonnina (as we see her from the ground) into real perspective.
After winding your way past paintings, stained glass windows, door panels and tapestries, the tour finishes with the unmissable and appropriately named “Modellone”, the magnificent 1:22 wooden scale model of the Duomo who just like her big sister, took a long time to finish – three centuries to be precise!
The “Modellone” and the Duomo facade
as it could have been built according to one of the preceding projects
Whilst the museum presents its works of art as a visual testament to the Duomo’s history, for the bookworms among you, the Archivio della Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo (Piazza Duomo, 20) presents the documentary account. Located in the headquarters of the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo – the organisation set up in conjunction with the launch of the construction of the Duomo, the archive’s extraordinary collection has been fully reorganised and refurbished offering the public access to an astonishing 950 metres of documents including 14,000 folders and binders, 40,000 images, 5,000 pictures and 5,000 large manuscript books. The important paperwork includes all the administrative records relating to the Duomo’s construction, maintenance and management from the laying of the first stone to the present day.
The collection includes stand out pieces such as the signed document which guaranteed the exclusive “UFO” use of the marble from Candoglia for the Duomo and the invoice given to Leonardo Da Vinci from the late 1480s for a design he submitted for the architectural “lantern” on top of the cupola, to name just a couple.
Access to these testimonies of the Duomo’s history provide an important historical background to our famous cathedral and a vital introduction to everyone visiting the Duomo, even to those who have already seen the cathedral; offering a fresh perspective of the city’s most famous symbol providing a deeper understanding and the opportunity to appreciate it with renewed curiosity.