On 13th of September just as on every 13th September for the last four hundred years, an ancient ceremony was reenacted inside the Duomo. The tradition began in 1576 during an epidemic of the bubonic plague when Archbishop Carlo Borromeo organized a procession from the Duomo cathedral to the church of San Celso to pray for the end of the disease.
What many people don’t know is that inside the Duomo cathedral, by the ceiling near the entrance to the right, not normally visible as it is protected by a white cover; a strange contraption is preserved. It most likely dates back to the early seventeenth century when Milan was dominated by the Spaniards.
It consists of a large basket made from sheet metal measuring three metres long by three metres wide and weighing about eight pounds. It is artistically wrapped in a canvas cover which was painted in 1612 by Paolo Camillo Landriani, an artist who was very active in Milan in the late Renaissance and famous enough to be nick-named “Little Duke”.
Federico Borromeo, the archbishop at the time and Carlo’s nephew, ordered him to decorate this strange container to look like a cloud and then paint angels and cherubs wrapped up in fluffy clouds on it. Then an ingenious system operated by ropes and pulleys connected to a dual winch – perhaps designed by Leonardo – operated by over 20 men from the roof of the Duomo, was used to hoist the heavy cloud 45 meters up along the apse of the cathedral until it touched the ceiling of the Duomo.All this was to help the five priests and the archbishop of Milan to reach the cathedral ceiling to fetch an artistic shrine that contains two precious Christian relics that are usually kept in a display case made in the shape of a cross, always lit and highlighted by a small red light.
The shrine and the holy nail
Since then, history repeats itself every 13th September when this bizarre elevator, nicknamed Nivola – the ancient word for cloud, enveloped by even more abundant clouds of incense, allows the bishop to take the glass shrine down, place it on the altar and then take it to the ceremony inside the cathedral.
Today the Nivola is operated by a complex system of electric winches, it has been restored several times over the years and its unique ritual is an integral part of the culture and religion of the people of Milan.
Anyone wondering why there are two relics in the Duomo of Milan that were originally preserved in Palestine, might be interested to know that the emperor Constantine received them as a gift from his mother Helena, who discovered the fragments from the Cross and the nails from the Crucifixion in the year 326 in Jerusalem together with the sarcophagus and the remains of the three kings which were kept in the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio. St. Ambrose , the Archbishop of Milan, preserved these holy pieces in the ancient Basilica of Santa Tecla, where they remained until the church was demolished to make way for the construction of the Duomo.
The story of Constantine, his mother and Ambrose is explained in further detail in a newly published book called Milano Capitale (Milan the Capital) written by the author Silvia Francescato. The book is a detailed description of the history and heritage of Milan revealing many of its hidden treasures. The book will soon be released in English and several other European languages but for now is only available in Italian from the Kindle or Kobo store.