What we are telling you today is a story in which marble and flesh intermingle until they blend. On the one hand is the stone, the prime construction material for the Duomo, on the other hand men who, with their creative skills, shape and make beautiful the hardest elements of nature, marble.
This is the story of the Marble Cutters' Workshop, the direct heir to what was originally known as the “Cassina”*. A workshop, the only place where the blocks of marble transported down from the Candoglia Quarries are rough hewn and then sculpted, here the Fabbrica very painstakingly and devotedly maintains a sophisticated sculpture technique that has not changed since 1387, training careful and competent personnel for a job that is certainly not easy, and requires expertise and ability. The workshop is now equipped with modern technological systems, and is located in Via Brunetti, in the Certosa area, on the outskirts of Milan, but its history takes us back through the centuries, to the first stones of the Cathedral.
A WORKSHOP SET UP ON THE CANALSIDE
Indeed, right from the beginning, a well-equipped workshop for the stone masons and sculptors began to be established around the Duomo since the blocks of marble could only be turned into architectural elements, decorations and statues on site, directly in contact with the Cathedral, based on the measurements and models produced by the various artists with precise reference to the structure that was being erected. The site of the Marble Cutters' Workshop in contact with the Cathedral changed several times in the course of the centuries, responding to the needs for transport of the materials and to the city's development plan: from the Darsena (or Dock) near Porta Genova - where there is still a plaque in Via Arena commemorating the authorisation dated 24 October 1387 by Gian Galeazzo Visconti to the Fabbrica to unload the marble without paying any taxes (giving rise to the expression “A.U.F.” – Ad usum Fabricae, which later entered the local dialect as “a ufo”, that is free of charge) - to other sites always along the circle of the inner Naviglio or canal.
In order to avoid storing materials along the banks of the Naviglio Grande and to allow the barges to continue their journey up to the Duomo building site, a special connection to the inner Naviglio was created, using an ingenious system of locks to which Leonardo da Vinci made a partial but decisive contribution. This allowed the barges to arrive directly at the small basin near Santo Stefano in Brolo and from there to the building site more quickly and at less expense.
The opening and extension of the Navigli, the widening of the canals, the construction of quays for loading and unloading, the regulation of the level of the water was a very important part of the duties of the Fabbrica, which led to the solving of quite complex technical and hydraulic problems and provided the conditions for inspired solutions that would serve the whole city of Milan. The waterways in fact became the lifeblood for the construction and progress of the building of the Duomo, made possible by the exemplary government of the waterways as a means for communication and a source of irrigation.
FROM THE NAVIGLIO TO VIA BRUNETTI: THE CONSTANT QUEST FOR EXCELLENCE AND INNOVATION
The relationship between the Marble Cutters' Workshop and the Duomo was intense and almost physical, up until 2 January 1789, when the Supreme Council of the Government of the Fabbrica decided to move “the workshops of the marmorini (marble cutters)” from Piazza di Camposanto to the “Santa Redegonda neighbourhood”, along the north side of the Duomo. In 1886, it was then moved to Via Carducci to the site of the former Church of San Gerolamo, later exchanged in 1923 with a plot along Viale Gorizia on the Darsena, with the idea of reinstating the ancient method of transport along the waterways. It was a romantic dream, but it foundered with the permanent covering over of the Navigli and, above all, when a close-knit network of railways was set up and circulation of road vehicles increased, leading to the replacement of barges and boats with lorries and vans. This last change then led to the transfer of the Marble Cutters' Workshop to its present site, near the entrance to the motorway leading to Candoglia, where up to the present day marble is still processed to replace deteriorated or damaged items on the Cathedral. This service is made possible by the specialised personnel that could be defined as untiring, under the leadership of a workshop manager reporting directly to the Management of the Veneranda Fabbrica, in daily communication with the Quarries and with the Duomo Construction site. Here, marble cutters and stone masons each day learn to face the challenges of a unique job, drawing from the store of knowledge and excellence handed down through the centuries, from generation to generation. The times and the places change, but the Marble Cutters' Workshop always remains loyal to its history and its mission.
* “Solajo astregato (paved floor), which must serve the engineers of the Fabbrica as the place where drawings are made”, Annals of the Fabbrica del Duomo, vol. I, page 177.