The last of Italy’s great Gothic structures, Milan’s magnificent Duomo wasn’t built overnight—begun by the ruling Visconti family in 1368, it took five centuries to complete. It was consecrated in 1418, but the enormous dome wasn’t added until the 16th century, and the Duomo was not deemed completed until its mammoth cast-bronze doors were finally finished in 1965. Today it is the fourth largest church in the world (after St. Peter’s in Rome, Seville’s Cathedral, and a relatively new one in Ivory Coast), with 135 marble spires, a stunning triangular facade, and 3,400-some statues and gargoyles flanking the massive yet surprisingly airy, fanciful exterior. The domed roof is topped by a 5m (16-ft.) gilded figure of the Virgin Mary, known as La Madonnina and regarded as Milan’s lucky mascot.
The cathedral dominates the vast, traffic-free Piazza del Duomo. Its cavernous interior, lit by brilliant stained glass windows, seats 40,000 but is usually quite serene, divided into five aisles by a forest of 52 columns. Side chapels are dotted with Renaissance and Mannerist tombs. The poet Shelley used to sit and read Dante amid monuments that include a gruesomely graphic statue of St. Bartholomew Flayer. Another British visitor, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, rhapsodized about the view from the roof.
In the crypt, the Battistero di San Giovanni alle Fonti reveals remaints of the octagonal 4th-century foundations of an earlier church that stood here, which is almost certainly where Sant’Ambrogio—patron saint and Bishop of Milan in a.d. 374—christened the great missionary St. Augustine. Pride of place in the crypt goes to the ornate gilded tomb of San Carlo Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan and leader of the Counter-Reformation, who died in 1584. Entrance to the crypt is included in admission to the Museo del Duomo, though opening times may be different.