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The father of all donors: Marco Carelli

The first Spire of Milan Cathedral

29 January Jan 2020 0940 29 January 2020

The oldest spire of the Duomo was constructed in 1404, crowning the corner buttress of the sacristy to the north and is dedicated to the memory of Marco Carelli, benefactor of the Duomo and “father” of all the Veneranda Fabbrica donors. The spire is a typically Gothic architectural feature, roughly a pyramid with octagonal base, which became gradually more complicated and pointed between the middle of the 12th century and the end of the 13th century, reflecting an increasingly detailed knowledge of the laws of statics and the structure of materials. It is one of the most recognizable elements of the worldwide symbol of Milan and the skilled craftsmen working at the Cathedral construction site created a total of 135 spires.

But who was Marco Carelli? Undoubtedly the “father” par excellence of all the benefactors of the Duomo. He was probably born in Milan between 1320 and 1327. Renouncing his father’s inheritance, for reasons unknown to us, from a very young age he began an intense commercial activity, in which he was highly successful. His main centres of business were Milan, Venice and Bruges. He traded, alone or in partnership with his uncles and cousins, in a wide range of goods: wool, silk, cotton, leather, wax, powdered sugar, and also the produce of the land owned by him, which he had continuously expanded as his business developed. In addition to being a merchant, Carelli was also an active financier, making loans to important families, including the lords of Milan.

He married twice: firstly Giovannina Settala, who died in 1380-81, and then Flora de Liprandis (1386), who survived him and who received a number of bequests. He died in Venice in 1394. As he had no children, in his will dated 4 July 1393 and subsequent codicil of 26 January 1394, Carelli appointed Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo as his sole heir, thus becoming, given the size of his fortune – valued then at 35,000 ducats which today would correspond to approximately 30 million euro – the biggest benefactor of all time. The Fabbrica was required to establish a chantry with daily mass to be said for the repose of his soul at the altar to be erected ex novo in the Duomo and a commemoration on the first day of every month, which was to be officiated by the Metropolitan Chapter. He was buried in the chapel dedicated to him in the graveyard that was being built behind the apse of the Cathedral but was never completed. The construction site and the offices of Veneranda Fabbrica were established there instead, and the remains of Carelli were moved to the Duomo where they still rest. Numerous documents relating to Carelli are kept in the Archives of the Fabbrica: most of them concern the formation and extent of his fortune, and the detailed accounts kept by the Fabbrica after coming into possession of it.

Carelli’s generosity continues to live today in the fund-raising initiative Get your Spire, promoted by Veneranda Fabbrica to support the Cathedral restoration, inviting those who, like the fourteenth century merchant, wish to “write their name in history”, restoring strength and beauty to the worldwide symbol of the city.