Visiting the Grand Cathedrals of Italy
It should come as no surprise to even the most casual traveler that Italy is home to some of the world’s grandest and most beautiful churches. They can be found across the country from Sicily in the south to the most northern reaches of the country. Built centuries ago without the modern tools of today, the craftsmanship and attention to detail are unlike anything built in the modern era. Designed by the greatest architects of their time, and often built over periods lasting from decades to centuries, these cathedrals stand today much as they did in medieval times. While they are all still a place to worship, many contain amazing works of art drawing visitors from around the world. The seven cathedrals listed here are only the ones that I have had an opportunity to personally visit, certainly there are others waiting to be explored and enjoyed.
7 Grandest Cathedrals in Italy
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
Cathedral of Milan
St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice
Duomo of Florence
Cathedral of Siena
Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily
Cathedral of Pisa
1. St. Peter’s Basilica
The granddaddy of them all certainly has to be St. Peter’s Basilica. It is the largest church in the world, by a large margin. But that is just the start of the countless amazing facts of this magnificent cathedral. Designed by the likes of Bernini, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno, and Donato Bramante, St. Peter’s Basilica is considered to be the center of Christendom and certainly one of the holiest sites in the world. Its magnificent altar, designed by Bernini, is thought to sit directly above the burial site of the cathedral's namesake, Saint Peter.
The church itself contains countless great works of art including Michelangelo’s Pieta’, Bernini's Chair of Saint Peter, and the huge sculpted bronze canopy above the altar. The adjacent Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel make this one of the world’s great pilgrimage destinations for visitors of any faith. Venture below the altar to view the Vatican Grotto where 91 popes are interred or take the Scavi Tour down to the necropolis where the burial site of Saint Peter is thought to be. A trip to the cupola of the cathedral gives a stunning view of St. Peter’s Square and an unobstructed glimpse of the rooftops of Rome.
2. Cathedral of Milan
Prior to visiting the Duomo of Milan I knew that it was spectacular, friends and family had already been there and I had of course seen pictures of it, but I must say this is one beautiful cathedral. The exquisite detail of the exterior with its 135 spires, countless statues, and the Gold Madonna gracing the top of the cathedral make this one of the most visually stunning cathedrals in the world. And no visit is complete without a visit to the rooftop terrace for one of Milan’s most scenic views. Do not skip this, you will surely regret it. Before you cringe at the thought of climbing all the way to the top, rest assured that there is an elevator to whisk you quickly to the terrace.
Construction on the Duomo of Milan was first begun with a groundbreaking in 1386 and wasn’t officially completed until 1965. That’s almost 600 years in the making! Even today you will see scaffolding on the Duomo as these grand cathedrals are in a near-constant state of repair and restoration. The Duomo of Milan is officially the largest cathedral in Italy as the larger St. Peter’s Basilica is technically located in Vatican City. If you visit Milan you will not want to miss seeing the cathedral and trekking up to the roof for the spectacular view.
I never weary of great churches. It is my favorite kind of mountain scenery. Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral.— Robert Lewis Stevenson
3. St. Mark’s Basilica
Who has not dreamed of visiting romantic Venice and visiting its famous Piazza San Marco? Sitting prominently in Italy’s most famous square, guarded by the Horses of Saint Mark, is the church of Venice, St. Mark’s Basilica. Its Byzantine-inspired exterior offers five arched portals and a series of five domes. As stunning as the exterior is, the inside of the cathedral is literally paved with golden mosaics. A close examination of the work will certainly have you wondering who on earth was capable of doing this and how long did it take? While many of the mosaics have been repaired or restored due to a 15th-century fire, about one-third of what you see today is considered to be original work from the 11th century.
I think you will certainly walk away from your visit to St. Mark’s Cathedral with an appreciation for the craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into the construction of this exquisite symbol of Venetian power and wealth. With lines that seem to never end, you would be wise to consider a skip-the-line ticket or perhaps even a private tour to enhance your experience.
4. The Duomo of Florence
Started in 1296 and not completed until 1436, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is widely known simply as the Duomo. This massive, Gothic church was constructed using green and pink marble with a white border, and it gives the exterior a very unique look compared to other Italian cathedrals. To this day, its 148-foot diameter brick dome remains the largest masonry dome ever constructed and is the centerpiece and defining image of Florence.
The front façade of the cathedral is graced with three huge bronze doors each depicting scenes from the life of the Madonna. Once inside you will be surprised at the vast emptiness of the church, but it does contain enough prized works of art to keep you focused until you reach the rear of the church where you can gaze up at the dome. Here you will see an elaborate depiction of the Last Judgement, and for an up-close look at the work of art consider a climb to the cupola. Unlike some of Italy’s other grand cathedrals, the Duomo of Florence does not have an elevator, so you will have to endure the 463 steps to the top. Your effort will be greatly rewarded with not only a look at the frescoes of the dome but a stunning view of the rooftops of Florence. From this vantage point you can look down on the dome and you will certainly wonder how on earth Filippo Brunelleschi managed to accomplish this.
The Duomo complex also includes the Baptistery and Giotto’s bell tower. To climb the dome you will need to make a reservation or take a tour of the Duomo, which includes a trip to the rooftop terrace and cupola. Definitely another experience not to be missed.
5. Cathedral of Siena
While many visitors to Siena will flock to the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s most famous square, to bask in the shadow of the Torre del Mangia, they often overlook its magnificent cathedral. With its beautiful black and white marble gracing the exterior and interior, its stunning mosaic marble floor, and the soaring 77-meter high bell tower, the Gothic Cathedral of Siena has much to offer those who venture away from the Il Campo.
To the right of the cathedral, you will see an odd-looking wall, which was actually the unfinished façade of an addition to the church. Due to the Black Death in 1348 construction was halted and never finished. From the placement of the wall, you can see that the addition would have more than doubled the size of the church. Never-the-less, the cathedral remains an impressive example of artistic craftsmanship and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
6. Cathedral of Pisa
Let’s face it; everyone wants to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s an incredible tourist attraction, although modestly overblown in my opinion. Yet right there in the same complex, rarely ever given any mention or just due, is the stunning Cathedral of Pisa. I wonder how many visitors to Pisa have even noticed the cathedral; surely it is hard to miss.
While construction began in 1063 and was completed in 1092, the cathedral was not consecrated until September 1118. What many visitors may not realize is that much like the Leaning Tower, the cathedral is also slowly sinking. While not as clearly obvious as the tower, you may notice a difference in the level of the floors as you tour the interior of the church. The Cathedral of Pisa is part of the Piazza del Duomo and includes the adjacent Baptistry, the Bell Tower, and the Monumental Cemetery.
7. Cathedral of Monreale
In the northwest corner of Sicily, in the hills above Palermo is the Cathedral of Monreale. Combining a perfect blend of Byzantine and Norman craftsmanship, this cathedral is renowned for its magnificent golden mosaics. Built by William II between 1170 and 1189, the interior of Monreale will amaze you as every wall is covered in handcrafted golden mosaics. What is even more noteworthy is that it was all accomplished in just a few years between 1179 and 1182. It is estimated that over 2,200 kg of pure gold were used to craft the mosaics, which certainly makes this a national treasure of Italy.
While you will be in absolute awe of the interior of this church do not miss a trip through the Treasury and to the Cloister. And, as is usually the case a trip to the rooftop terrace for the view of Palermo and the coast of Sicily is not to be missed. I cannot stress this enough, do not skip a visit to Monreale if your travels take you to Sicily. Monreale is accessible from many points in Palermo and is just a 10-minute bus ride away.
I hope you enjoyed this tour through seven of Italy’s grandest cathedrals? Of course, there are many others waiting to be explored, and I look forward to experiencing them all in due time. Always remember that these are places of worship so dress appropriately, be respectful, and enjoy the journey. And, as most of these cathedrals have rooftop terraces be sure to check out the views as they are always stunning and give you a unique perspective of the surrounding area.
Ciao for now!
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© 2018 Bill De Giulio