A High-Maintenance Relationship for 637 Years, but Milan’s Duomo Is Still Adored

The care for Milan’s cathedral has been nonstop since 1386, but despite the constant need for refurbishment, the beloved landmark’s hold on the city is unbreakable.

Milan’s cathedral, or Duomo, in the center of Italy’s fashion and financial capital

MILAN — Even in a city with La Scala, the glorious opera house, Milan’s cathedral unquestionably reigns as the most beloved landmark in Italy’s fashion and financial capital.

But the Duomo, as it’s known, has also been an extraordinarily high maintenance icon for six centuries, demanding constant care essentially since construction began in 1386.

The cathedral, along with the 3,400 or so statues and carvings adorning its countless nooks and crannies, and its buttresses and pinnacles and spires, is crafted from rare pink-hued marble mined from a single quarry on the slopes of the Alps, some 60 miles to the north.

The stone’s unique physical and chemical characteristics make it particularly beautiful. But the stunning coloration also comes with a flaw: The marble is particularly fragile.

“The marble can shatter suddenly,” said Francesco Canali, the site manager for the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo, the association that has been responsible for the restoration and preservation of the monument since 1387. Veins in the marble contain traces of ferrous materials, and when they, or the iron pins placed through the centuries to link the stones together, oxidize, they expand and shatter the marble into “little pieces or even chunks,” Mr. Canali explained.

Climate change, and pollution, are adding to the challenges.

“Interaction with the environment has left profound consequences,” said Mr. Canali, an engineer by training.

The record-breaking heat waves of recent summers mean that the differences in temperature between the parts of the cathedral most exposed to the sun, and those in shadow to the north, can put additional stress on the monument.

Pollutants like nitric oxide and sulfur dioxide build up black crusts on the marble, “like tartar that preludes cavities in teeth,” Mr. Canali said.

The Duomo is one of Milan’s most beloved landmarks

Until the 1960s, the marble statue of the biblical king, carved by an unknown sculptor in the first half of the 16th century, had adorned the Gothic-style Duomo in the center of the city. But after languishing in a restoration workshop for decades, part of the statue’s repair was paid for by a Milan-based adhesives and chemical products company.

“We thought that a Milanese company just had to have a little piece of the Duomo, so it seemed like a wonderful and symbolic project,” said Veronica Squinzi, the chief executive of the company, Mapei.

Officially, the cathedral was finished in 1965, 579 years after it was started, explaining the Italian saying for something that is never ending: “è come la fabbrica del Duomo,” or “like the construction of the Cathedral.”

But the continuing need for marble for repair work has been good news for the quarry in Candoglia, a hamlet of 200 people, which has managed to stay operational thanks to its sole customer.

“There’s always plenty of work,” said Marco Scolari, who oversees the Candoglia quarry and its marble restoration laboratories, of which there are two, one in Candoglia, the other in Milan.

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Experts at the Veneranda Fabbrica closely monitor the Duomo’s structural well-being, with the entire monument wired with sensors that provide constant digital measurements of varying kinds, “like a constantly working electrocardiogram,” Mr. Canali said.

Twice a year, too, the cathedral’s statuary and decorative elements are given a physical checkup by specialized workers who swing from cranes, inspecting them for fractures and fissures.

When repairs are necessary, the marble is now pre-worked by machines, but specialized training is still necessary for the stone workers called on to replicate the handiwork of long-dead sculptors. “The human hand is essential,” Mr. Scolari said.

Fabio Belloni, a stone carver at the Milan laboratory, said he had once worked on a single block on the facade of the Duomo for 18 months.

“You have to know the material, where to put your hands, there can be no margin for error,” Mr. Belloni said. “You need patience,” he added, and one wrong move “could betray months of work.”

A large part of the decorative stonework on the Duomo dates to the past two centuries, a flurry of activity that followed the completion of the facade — that Napoleon Bonaparte insisted be done by 1805, so he’d have an appropriate setting for his crowning as king of Italy.

The Milanese of the time didn’t embrace that facade, but it didn’t stop them from loving their cathedral. The work of the Veneranda Fabbrica was subsidized for years by the donations and legacies of wealthy Milanese, but also by locals of more modest means who would drop valuables in boxes on the construction site that would then be auctioned off.

A detailed view of the cathedral’s spires and buttresses, crafted from a pink-hued marble.
The cathedral has about 3,400 statues and carvings among its buttresses, pinnacles and spires

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