The poetic, inspirational motif of many Meneghini Almanacs was the Madonnina, “newly gilt” and shining like the sun.
But “gilding the Madonnina of the Duomo of Milan” isn’t an easy task, as reported in the Milanese edition of the Corriere della Sera newspaper on 19 August 1939. Gilding objects in the immobile, still air of a workshop is something done every day, but gilding at over one hundred metres up, where the wind is strong and the heights are dizzying, where those who suffer from horror vacui dare not go, is another story.
If the sheets of gold were to fly away for a gust of air? If the wind carried with it, who knows where, those golden pages without lines? If passers-by at Piazza Duomo were to see the sheets of gold destined for the Madonnina suddenly fluttering all about? It’s not a joke, as one might think…Do you know what the ideal time is to begin such a job? Six in the morning; when the weather is nice and a sovereign stillness rules the air. At that hour, when only early risers are out of the house, and in the Duomo only worshippers faithful to antelucan hours, can one begin to dress the Madonnina in gold.
1830 marked the first gilding of her cloak, with 156 “booklets” (libretti in Italian) of 25 sheets each, all in pure gold.
By 12 March 1939, people were eager for the “re-gilding”. At the time, those who looked up to the top of the Duomo no longer saw the shimmering reflection of the sun on the loving likeness of Milanese protection, as she has been eulogised in nostalgic poetry. A rather dark patina obfuscated the splendour of her golden mantle: “an interplay of shadows”, a clouding and flaking of the gilding in a few points due to dust, in others due to airborne pollutants and weather which created stains and deposits. Even a bolt of lightning which struck shortly before had “insulted” the thin mordant gilding over the copper (the gold, in light-as-air sheets, was applied over the surface and in the folds of the modelling, after coating with a suitable adhesive mixture).
The previous gilding dates to 1906, the year of the World’s Fair. In anticipation of an exceptional influx of foreigners who would surely head all the way up to the main spire, the technical management of the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo carried out studies, stabilisation projects, reinforcements, cleanings and, finally, the gilding.
On 7 September 1939, the press announced a true “Festival of Lights” for the eve of the feast of Mary, the perfect chance to bathe the great spire, the same one where the Madonnina was to shine in her new golden coating, in radiance. The pages of the daily papers reported on the proceedings at the construction yard, recounting the non-stop progress of the work: from the scraping of the old, worn-out gold layer, to the application of the new coating. Upon completion of the last phases, they would have proceeded with the removal of the scaffolding which caged the statue, a cloud of iron, leaving only those necessary as a reinforcement for the internal supporting tie-rods (the same ones since 1774) and for a restoration of the marble steps up to the summit.
Such labour-intensive work would have required diligent consultation of the seismic graphs on the spire’s second circular terrace, which drew diagrams through the point of a needle affixed to a long, hanging pendulum within the hollow body of the Madonnina, but which never detected oscillations over the norm.
In addition, before liberating the Madonnina from the scaffolding, Cardinal Schuster announced his desire to place the relics of the Holy Cross, the Virgin Mary, Saint Ambrose and Saint Charles in the Madonnina’s mantle with a scroll whose Latin inscription he was to dictate. The relics were then inserted in “a small box secured by rings within the volutes of the gilded cloak, along with the scroll, sealed within a crystal tube”.
On 7 September at 6 pm, after the gilding had been completed, to the sound of a trumpet, the statue of the Madonnina was unveiled upon the command of the cardinal, who blessed the statue and led a prayer from the Ambrosian Rite for the defence and protection of Milan, concluding with a blessing of all the faithful in attendance.
At the inspiring ceremony there was, from the churchyard and the vicinity of the Duomo, a crowd that, after the unveiling of the statue, broke out in displays of festive surprise and rejoicing, even applauding.
In March 1967, a lightning rod was damaged by a thunderbolt, an event which brought the specialists of the Veneranda Fabbrica to carry out a careful inspection of the statue, with inevitable results. The inner shell of the Madonnina was gravely corroded by smog; the entire structure, exposed to the natural effects of the atmosphere for nearly two centuries, had rusted; and in recent years the frame of the sculpture had to contend not only with the humidity, but also with the acidic gases which the city’s air was particularly full of. The pollution had deeply deteriorated the gilding from 1936, protected mainly with waterproof tarps during WWII, so as to eliminate its glimmering reflection and thus avoid the danger of being recognised by enemy aircraft. The only parts still in a satisfactory condition were the shaped pieces of remarkably thick copper sheets which form the shell of the sculpture.
Considering the situation, the Madonnina was subjected to a radical intervention: the extraction of the ancient iron frame, substituting it with a new one in stainless steel, an operation with a 11,400-lira price tag. As for the gilding, after coming to an agreement with the state authorities, it was later decided to proceed with a refurbishing of the most damaged parts, including the hands, which had been struck by lightning, burning the gold leaf which covered them.
“The Madonnina descends from the top of the Duomo”, “The Madonnina on holiday until early September”, “Entrusted to the hands of restorers”, are just a few of the headlines and sub-headers from June 1967; the specialists at the Veneranda Fabbrica managed, in a few hours, to remove the copper bolts and the rivets to proceed, after its dismantling, with a careful examination of the details which made the replacement of the structure’s frame necessary, perfect up until 1961 and protected by a layer of minium. In five years, the smog had corroded the structure, a sign of the progressive, worrying rate of pollution in the city.
On 26 July of the same year, the technicians and specialists at the Veneranda Fabbrica, suspended at more than one hundred metres above ground on vertigo-inducing frame scaffolding, had already begun the re-assembly: a new skeleton, a total structural framework of over 600 kg, protected by special coatings, and 29 pieces bolted on, newly gilt with 5,750 8X8 cm sheets of gold, for an overall weight of 265 grams.
On 17 August 1967, the Milan edition of the Corriere della Sera confirmed, coinciding with the Nativity of Mary, the restoration of the Madonnina’s lighting system following the most recent gilding: “The Madonnina shines, illuminated atop the Duomo”. The event marked a fundamental moment for the Fabbrica and for the statue which has been a golden symbol of Milan since 1774.
The inner structure, restored in 1967, underwent innovative inspections again in preparation for Expo Milano in 2012, a year in which the Veneranda Fabbrica planned a robust restoration scheme, opening 18 construction yards.
In the autumn, a few embossed copper elements which made up the base of the statue were dismantled to verify their structural soundness.
It proved to be in good condition, so it was simply protected. The outer surface, however, displayed broad swaths of decay due to the presence of by-products from the corrosion of the copper and from the disintegration of the gold leaf coating. The copper was cleaned, protected with the application of a coloured acrylic medium and, lastly, finished with a layer of 999.9/1000 gold leaf. In the areas subject to the greatest deterioration, multiple layers of gilding were applied.
The intervention involved 398 work hours by a specialist restorer working at the height of the statue, partially suspended, and just as many work hours for the support staff, in addition to the use of 350 grams of gold.
In 2013 and 2014, restoration continued on the Main Spire, where the work done on the statue of the Madonnina in the pinnacle and the upper/central parts was complete. The work was carried out covering a section of over 30 metres in height.
For three years starting in 2012, a collaboration with the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Politecnico di Milano gathered monitoring data and provided access to said data from computers found in the construction yard and remotely, allowing all actions to be carried out safely. Scientific and structural studies were also carried out to evaluate the structure’s behaviour upon completion of the restoration, with comparative studies of the dynamic behaviour of the structure before, during and after the work, which provided reassuring information on the choices made during the restoration work and on the response of the structural areas where the interventions were completed.
This was followed by a 3-D definition of all the parts making up the whole (more than 6,000 blocks) with an update of the work carried out and with a connection to and collecting of photographic documentation and materials from the construction yard. A cutting-edge computer system was implemented, allowing for interactivity between the three-dimensional model, data from the technical office and the construction yard, and documentation from the archive.
The Great Construction Yards of the Veneranda Fabbrica, active without pause for more than six centuries, continue to work on the monument every day with attentive care and a sense of responsibility. The ancient knowledge of the craftsmen who have worked here generation after generation is combined with today’s most sophisticated technology for the processing of stone and the conservation of the Duomo.