Leonardo: the genius in Milan
  • Europe /
  • Italy /
  • Milan

A unique tour for a special person. Explore Milan through the eyes of Leonardo da Vinci.

The symbol of Milan
View from the cathedral spires
Duomo of Milan (by Sergio Boscaino, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr)
Santo Stefano's dockyard
Highlighted in blue the ancient water channels (Astronomi di Brera, 1814)

View from the cathedral spires

A majestic view opens up before our eyes at the end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. We can finally admire the Duomo, an imposing Gothic structure, the symbol of Milan. With its endless white spires, it is a true icon worthy of a visit at least once in a lifetime. 

Piazza Duomo was originally occupied by two churches that were later demolished to make way for the construction of what is now the largest church in Italy. 

The construction of the Duomo started around 1386 CE and was a long history of art and manufacture, lasting more than six hundred years. Works began in a historical period characterised by Gothic art, and the Milan Cathedral was also conceived in this style. However, instead of the traditional Lombard brick, architects of that time decided to use the Candoglia marble, a real artistic revolution. 

One of the members of the Visconti family, lords of Milan before the Sforzas, began realising the colossal project. His name was Gian Galeazzo Visconti, who founded in 1387 CE an actual enterprise known as the ‘Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo’, intended to follow up with the construction of such an impressive building. Gian Galeazzo summoned the most skilled engineers, sculptors, and artists from all over Europe to make this ambitious project memorable for years to come. 

Among others, Leonardo is one of the reasons why this mammoth beauty displays all its splendour today. As previously mentioned, da Vinci devised and optimised the system of dams, making Milanese navigation more efficient. This urbanistic upgrade improved the Milanese canal network, supporting the transportation of the cathedral’s marble.

The stone originates from the Alps, near Lake Maggiore, not far from Milan. The river courses departing from the lake in the direction of Milan were used for transportation. Once they reached the city’s outskirts, barges loaded with marble could pass through Milan’s Navigli canals. In addition, engineers created a small lake called “Santo Stefano” to facilitate the handling of marble blocks. This dockyard stood a few streets away from the Duomo so boats loaded with the heavy material could get as close as possible to the building site of the new cathedral.

Leonardo contributed about a century after the Veneranda Fabbrica was established. During the years when Leonardo stayed in Milan, the cathedral’s construction was at a critical stage. Da Vinci, therefore, proposed in 1487 CE to break the deadlock that was preventing the work from progressing.

The challenge was the problematic construction of the Tibirium, the external structure covering the curved surface of the dome. 

As stated in the archive of the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo, Leonardo was paid to construct a wooden prototype of the Tibirium. 

With this model, Leonardo attempted to propose a solution to the problem, but, perhaps due to doubts about feasibility on a full scale, Da Vinci withdrew from the project. As a result, all that remains are a few sketches and drawings of Leonardo, now contained in the Codex Atlanticus and Trivulzano, collections of Da Vinci’s writings of various kinds.

The Tiburium was finally completed only between the 17th and 18th centuries CE, with the laying of the golden “Madonnina” statue in 1774 CE.

The precious construction material of the Dome has a naturally reddish colouring due to the widespread presence of iron oxide within the marble. Thanks to these coloured veins, the Duomo shows its beauty even in the smallest details.


1. Water dams

2. The statue

3. Leonardo’s museum

4. The symbol of Milan

5. Experiments

6. The castle

7. Santa Maria Delle Grazie

8. The masterpiece

9. Leonardo’s vineyard

10. The art gallery

11. A creativity that will last forever