Milan Cathedral – Italy

This Cathedral, admired through long ages, termed in its own city, whose artists bear no mean name, the eighth wonder of the world, is described by a modern critic as exhibiting nothing better than a heap of unmeaning ornaments. It is easy to use this general censure, and call this wonderful structure a ” Gothic chaos;” but the expression is ill applied—it is a noble remnant of Gothic splendour, and well worthy the expense and pains which Buonaparte bestowed upon it. The square in which it stands is partly occupied by a splendid official house, built of brick and stucco, with Doric columns, and of good architecture; but yet ill suited to the Cathedral, to which all should be made subservient. The other sides of the square are at least such as do not distract the eye. They consist of a line of ancient buildings, supported upon slender ill-fashioned Gothic pillars, under the arcades of which run a range of poor-looking shops.

The meanness of the adjacent buildings, their antique form, the extreme narrowness of the streets, correspond with the antiquity, and, in the contrast, give splendour to the structure of the great Cathedral, whose central spire, towering high in rich and fantastic Gothic, is seen from the moment you approach the city, rising beautiful and gay, over the bright green foliage of the fine trees that adorn the public walks.

At the first building of this Cathedral, there was no want of prayers, provisions, miracles, and donations; but, great as these were, the work at this hour is unfinished. Like the city, it has had its revolutions. St Ambrose was its first bishop, Attila its first destroyer; and after being rebuilt, at vast expense, by the citizens, it was again destroyed by fire. After this, Frederic the First, afraid lest the Milanese should possess themselves of the belfry, one of the most superb in Italy, threw it down, and nearly buried the church under its ruins. It was partially rebuilt by Lanfranc, who excited such enthusiasm in this most popular enterprize, (it being then styled, a church for the Mother of God,) that valuable donations poured in from every quarter, the poorest in-habitant contributing his mite; while the high born, the noble ladies, and matrons, brought their jewels and richest ornaments as offerings. In the fourteenth century, John Galeazzo Visconti, first Duke of Milan, who had poisoned his uncle, and his wife’s father, began with zeal to rebuild the Cathedral, as a sacrifice for sin, and a peace-offering to Heaven for his crimes. Quarries of marble, and stores of riches, were prepared for the accomplishment of this holy work; which was begun after designs given by Campiglione, Nugaut, and other French as well as Italian artists. At a later period, this great work devolved on Pellegrini, an architect who, in many other undertakings, evinced taste and skill; but, on this occasion, by changing the original plan, and casting the great front with modern doors and windows, he destroyed the unity of character in the exterior of the edifice, without improving the aspect within, which is dark, mean, and paltry.

A private individual, to make peace with Heaven on his death-bed, left a donation of 230,000 crowns to finish Pellegrini’s plan; but this great bequest was wasted, and the work still unaccomplished; insomuch, that be-fore the French Revolution, there remained, of all the riches devoted to it, only the inadequate sum of 60,000 francs. Buonaparte, ever delighted with any project which might bring celebrity to his name, furnished the necessary funds, to build the portal, and supply the ornaments which were wanting; and thus the edifice is nearly completed.

Let others say what they will, of the innumerable ornaments, the fantastic pinnacles, the whole army, as one critic terms them, of saints and martyrs, (and the host is respectable, amounting, it is said, to much more than four thousand,) I cannot but admire this building, not merely as the finest piece extant of ancient architecture, in a style now abandoned; but as in itself truly magnificent.

The side of this immense temple, the largest in Europe, except St Peter’s and St Sophia, presents itself obliquely as you enter the square; the great western front being seen in fine perspective. A broad flight of steps leads up to the front portals, and five gates open, on either side, to the five parts, (i. e. the nave and four aisles,) into which the body of the church is divided. From the sides of the gates run up a sort of columns, like buttresses, terminating in the most beautiful pinnacles, richly decorated with statues, placed not only along their whole length, but upon the top of each spiry point. Rich, curious, antique, and splendid, are the appropriate terms to be used in describing them; although, were it not for the respect inspired for ancient times, and some mixture of reverence for the religious feelings which guided the founders of this Cathedral, this profusion of ornament might certainly be condemned as childish. The effect, however, is gorgeous; but nothing can be truly grand, or noble, that is not simple; and we contemplate the rich and varied embellishments before us, with feelings somewhat akin to those with which we admire the beauty of a curious antique cabinet. The pedestals of these Gothic pillars are enriched with basso relievo, as are also the doors: the consoles are supported by Caryatides of the size of life; and the pillars are adorned with statues in the niches. Many of these basso relievos and statues are in the finest style; and were executed by various Italian masters.

The whole beauty of this edifice may be said to be external; its interior being sombre, cheerless, and vast, without grandeur. As the pillars, terminating in needle-like points, are numerous, the spaces allotted to the windows are very small, and, consequently, the stream of light within falls obliquely and scantily. The lights admitted betwixt the five external columns of the nave, are thin small stripes, rising high and narrow, and the great window, unlike those of Westminster, York, and Salisbury, which are of grand and noble expanse, has a mean appearance. The broad refulgent light, which should have poured in from the great gate, on the sane tuary, is intercepted by the high altar, while a Gothic screen, covered with every species of ornament, ever carved in stone, or wood, shuts up entirely the further prospect, and thus conceals what ought to be the most beautiful and attractive part of every Cathedral.

The sanctuary, which is done after a design of Pellegrini, is the only truly fine and simple piece of architecture in the interior of the building. It forms a semicircular dome, supported by four pilasters, having enrichments corresponding with those of the rest of the Church; a unity very important in producing general effect, the want of which is particularly felt in the construction of the columns, supporting and separating the five great parallel divisions, which are of Grecian architecture, harmonizing little with the general character of the edifice, and of such incredible height, that, as you survey them, you despair that the eye will ever reach to the capitals.

At the first view of this vast edifice, the mind feels a sort of impatience and confusion of thought, from not being able to catch at once the great architectural lines, so as to conceive the whole composition—a sensation arising from the characteristic features that distinguish Greek and Saracenic architecture. In the first, with the exception of the supporting columns and pillars, the whole lies in great conspicuous horizontal lines, as the beams, friezes, cornices, ceilings, &c.—in the latter all stands vertically, the terminations and ornaments spiral and upright; the frieze, cornice, or beams, which compose the uniting lines in the Grecian, being formed, in the Saracenic, by the union and junction of closing arches; hence the lines of the Gothic are vertical, those of the Grecian horizontal. Any one slightly surveying the front of a Gothic Church must make this observation. Therefore the great question of taste on this subject seems to be, whether thin spiral, and perpendicular; or solid square, horizontal lines, are to be preferred. The former, perhaps, are the more pleasing for rich and splendid ornaments, the latter for the grand and imposing

The Black Chapel or Crypt of this Cathedral is very grand; the stairs leading to it truly superb. The small under-ground Church below the great altar, is often, as in this edifice, the most impressive, as it is always the most melancholy, part of the building; here it was that, in the times of persecution and danger, the Christians assembled to seek safety, or to pray for their murdered or martyred saints. Its low arched roof, and ancient thick square pillars, are fine. I found the priests performing morning service.

San Carlo Borromeo lies here enrobed in rich silks, and placed in a splendid silver sarcophagus. They were employed in preparing a new set of tombs, or rather in embellishing those of a long line of bishops. How silent and still this house of death, and how impressive ! It has light, but it is one of their religious ordinances that lamps should be kept burning perpetually.

There is certainly something impressive in this symbol, supposed to represent purity. Often, in vast and splendid churches, my eye has been insensibly attracted to some distant corner, by the small clear flame of a solitary lamp. Unnoticed, yet continual, in the glare of day, at midnight, or the early dawn, still it burns, an emblem of time and eternity.

It was in the Cathedral of Milan, that the service, according to the rites of St Ambrose, was first performed; the chief peculiarity of which seems to be, that while in other churches the priests alone sing; in those of this city, the priests and the people sing alternately: and this is done with the professed design of interesting the congregation in the service, and of keeping them attentive.

In baptism they quite immerse the head; and at the administration of the Holy Communion, the elements are carried by ten old men and ten old women, clothed in black, the head covered with white linen, reaching to the girdle.

In the sanctuary of this Cathedral there are four statues, one of which, that of St Bartolomeo, never fails to attract attention, and obtain for the statuary that praise, which his modest, or, perhaps, rather vain, inscription affects to disclaim. ” Non me Praxiteles, sed Marcus fecit Agrates,” the usual rejoinder to which is, ” Al-though not surpassing the Greek artist, it is very fine !” Nevertheless the work is altogether ludicrous, the composition base, and the execution wretched. The figure is not represented as if prepared for martyrdom, nor agitated as if touched with the sacrilegious knife: it stands already flayed, a complete upright statue, a great staring form, with the hands and fingers spread abroad, the eyeballs strained, and the features and muscles of the face in strings. The whole anatomy, or what this Praxiteles was pleased to imagine anatomy, of the human body, from the shoulders to the finger points, is displayed by removing the skin, which is left hanging in shreds; the skin of the head hanging behind the head, the skin of the arm and leg hanging in like manner from each limb. Such is the odious and ridiculous figure, which stands in the sanctuary of the church, exhibiting itself in the tripping posture of a dancing-master, as if demanding praise from the strangers who are carried to view it. I declare, on the faith of one not unacquainted with art, nor with anatomy, that there is nothing of real anatomy, no not the slightest representation of it, in this grotesque figure; and unless strangers are to admire the graceful attitude and composed manner of a being under circumstances so excruciating, they can see nothing to cause admiration.