The Duomo (cathedral) of Milan

   - darkometer rating:  2 -
Normally rather the top mainstream tourist attraction in Milan, but the Duomo (cathedral) also surprises with a number of details that are rather dark in nature.  
More background info: It's such a world-famous site, the world's fifth largest church  and regarded by many as one of the most spectacular, I do not need to waste many words here. You can read up on basic stats and general artistic appraisals of the building elsewhere ad infinitum. 
What is of some importance here is the fact that much of what makes the character of this particular cathedral, namely its exceedingly rich ornamentation and thousands of sculptures, is actually quite young. Though the church building as such was begun in the Middle Ages, these finishing touches date only from the 19th century for the most part, some bits weren't even finished until the 1960s. 
This may explain some of the flamboyant stonemasonry to be found here … I doubt they could have got away with some of it in earlier periods ...
What there is to see: Not only the devil is in the detail. This particular house of God is at least as defined by its details as His great adversary is said to be. But why should Milan's Duomo appear on these pages of dark tourism if it is so clearly the city's top mainstream tourist attraction? Well, it is those details. Some of them at least.
I was already aware of some strange fantasy animal/monster depictions around the doors on the main front facade (look out for that strangely web-footed wriggling “animal” with the impossibly long neck, munching a leaf). But I was stunned to find so much more, and so much of such a graphic, brutal nature!
I counted at least three beheading scenes, various other forms of death, numerous acts of brutal torture, monsters and humanoid faces that could have jumped straight out of a horror movie set, scenes bordering on the obscene, others just on the absurd. 
Keep your eyes open and you can spot a lot of weird stuff adorning the cathedral's outer facade. 
And then there's the inside. The cavernous main nave is eye-poppingly huge, and so are the massive columns supporting the roof. The ceilings appear carved, but that is said to be a case of trompe l'oeil (optical illusion through painting). It's hard not to fall for it, though. 
Beneath the altar is a crypt in which a glass coffin allegedly contains the remains of the saint San Carlo Borromeo – though they are so dressed up (including a golden face mask) that you can't see any of these. 
Between the crypt and the exit (and stairs to the roof) stands a very strange statue of a man who appears to have been skinned! You can see muscles, blood vessels and tendons – except for the on the belly. The face too appears to have been spared the  skinning but looks old and withered. The eyes stare wearily into empty space. 
For many, taking the stairs (or the lift) up to go for a walk on the roof of the cathedral is considered an extra must-do. I did not, though, partly because I hadn't reserved a ticket online ahead of time and also because I found it quite expensive. 
So instead I went back outside and explored the outer facade from street level a bit more … one group of statues I found quite shockingly suggestive, given all the recent allegations the Catholic Church has had to deal with. It's a sculpture group with a smugly grinning priest together with a naked child looking up in admiration and a semi-naked adolescent who's leaning his head on the priest's shoulder as if in a post-coital daze. (And is there bit of bondage going on too? The left arm seems to be tied up behind his back …) When you see this you have to ask yourself, how could anybody ever have been so surprised about all those stories of  sexual exploitation and child abuse in the church? 
All in all I thought that Milan's Duomo featured enough dark and bizarre details to earn itself a chapter here on Do go and check it out – it really is very different from most other church buildings!
Location: bang in the pivotal centre point of Milan, and thus impossible to miss. 
Co-ordinates and Google maps locator:
45°27'51.1"N 9°11'30.8"E
Access and costs: very easy to get to; free, except for roof access (and the museum). 
Details: finding the Duomo, couldn't be easier: a) its location is as central as it could possibly get, and it has its own metro station. And once you turn onto the Piazza del Duomo it's plain impossible to overlook the thing. Spotting all the interesting details takes just a little more alertness and observation skills (see above).
The cathedral as such is obviously enough freely accessible at all times; the interior can also be seen for free, unless some concert, special mass or event is taking place. Unlike in so many other churches in Italy there isn't even a sign forbidding photography. The only rule is to dress and behave halfway appropriately. 
Access to the roof does cost admission, though. The regular ticket price when using the stairs is 8.50 EUR (under 12-year-olds 4.50), and when using the lift it's 13.50 EUR (9.50 for the under 12s); the museum costs 2.50 EUR admission on its own, and if you buy a combined “Duomo Pass” you get a discount of 0.50 EUR. You can (and probably should ) pre-purchase tickets online (see booking/ 
Time required: about an hour – more if you also want to go on the roof. 
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Milan
The nearest prime dark-tourist attraction to the Duomo is the bone chapel of San Bernardino alle Ossa, which is just a few minutes' walk from the rear of the cathedral to the east.
In the other direction, on the first Piazza west of the cathedral, Piazza Mercanti, you can take a quick look at the memorials to the resistance (see under Milan).
And just opposite the cathedral to the south is the Museo del Novecento, housed in a Palazzo (dell'Arengario) designed in the fascist era (but only completed after WWII), from where Mussolini would have addressed the masses. Today, it instead houses a museum of modern art. From its huge windows on the upper floors you can get excellent views of the Duomo.    
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The Doumo sits right in the heart of Milan's old town centre and thus couldn't be in a more touristy location. Right opposite is the most stunning shopping arcade of shopping-crazy Milan, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. More prime fashion and design shopping can be found in the side streets around this arcade and especially further north and west, while right next door facing the Duomo's northern facade is one of Milan's top department stores (La Rinascente). 
At the other end of the Galleria Vittorio Emanulele II you can find Milan's second (or third?) most well-known sight, the Scala opera house … though from the outside it doesn't look like anything so special (so either go on a tour or buy a ticket for a performance to see the glorious interior).   
See also under Milan in general.


  • Duomo 01 - front facadeDuomo 01 - front facade
  • Duomo 02 - sculptures right to the very topDuomo 02 - sculptures right to the very top
  • Duomo 03 - doorDuomo 03 - door
  • Duomo 04 - graphic cruelty depictionDuomo 04 - graphic cruelty depiction
  • Duomo 05 - beatingDuomo 05 - beating
  • Duomo 06 - beheadingDuomo 06 - beheading
  • Duomo 07 - cut-throatDuomo 07 - cut-throat
  • Duomo 08 - head offDuomo 08 - head off
  • Duomo 09 - evil snakeDuomo 09 - evil snake
  • Duomo 10 - scary creatureDuomo 10 - scary creature
  • Duomo 11 - more scary creaturesDuomo 11 - more scary creatures
  • Duomo 12 - scary pigeonDuomo 12 - scary pigeon
  • Duomo 13 - scary facesDuomo 13 - scary faces
  • Duomo 14 - grappling for JesusDuomo 14 - grappling for Jesus
  • Duomo 15 - golden handshakeDuomo 15 - golden handshake
  • Duomo 16 - avert your eyesDuomo 16 - avert your eyes
  • Duomo 17 - modern fearsDuomo 17 - modern fears
  • Duomo 18 - inside the cathedralDuomo 18 - inside the cathedral
  • Duomo 19 - tall columnsDuomo 19 - tall columns
  • Duomo 20 - fake carved ceilingDuomo 20 - fake carved ceiling
  • Duomo 21 - in the cryptDuomo 21 - in the crypt
  • Duomo 22 - San Carlo BorromeoDuomo 22 - San Carlo Borromeo
  • Duomo 23 - cavernousDuomo 23 - cavernous
  • Duomo 24 - skinned manDuomo 24 - skinned man
  • Duomo 25 - stern lookDuomo 25 - stern look
  • Duomo 26 - now then, come into the bosom of the churchDuomo 26 - now then, come into the bosom of the church
  • Duomo 27 - back outsideDuomo 27 - back outside
  • Duomo 28 - detailDuomo 28 - detail
  • Duomo 29 - monster gargoylesDuomo 29 - monster gargoyles
  • Duomo 30 - man with clubDuomo 30 - man with club
  • Duomo 31 - wiping offDuomo 31 - wiping off
  • Duomo 32 - looking away in disgustDuomo 32 - looking away in disgust
  • Duomo 33 - now then, now thenDuomo 33 - now then, now then
  • Duomo 34 - dirty old cleric with leprosyDuomo 34 - dirty old cleric with leprosy
  • Duomo 35 - rehearsing HamletDuomo 35 - rehearsing Hamlet
  • Duomo 36 - scaffoldingDuomo 36 - scaffolding
  • Duomo 37 - reflectionDuomo 37 - reflection


©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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