Italy is famous for its cuisine, nature and of course architecture, ranging from Ancient Roman ruins to modern marvels. With its religious roots as old as the dawn of modern civilisation, it’s no wonder that some of Italy’s most remarkable sites to visit are cathedrals, with their rich history and outward magnificence.
Many of Italy’s cathedrals (almost all of which are Roman Catholic) were built during the medieval period, but were renovated in later centuries. Indeed the oldest cathedral in Rome may look like a baroque palace now, but actually has its origins in Late Antiquity.
Here we explore 10 of the most significant Italian cathedrals.
Florence Cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore), often called the ‘Duomo’, is an iconic site in Italy, built from September 1296 and consecrated by Pope Eugenius IV on 25 March 1436.
From its lavish use of marble to its status as the fourth largest church in Europe, Florence Cathedral was always intended to be vast and impressive. In fact, its initial designer, Arnolfo di Cambio wanted it to be the world’s largest church of the Roman Catholic faith, and funded by the incredibly wealthy and influential Medici family, this was not far out of reach.
The magnificent Naples Cathedral, translated as Duomo di Napoli, was initially commissioned by King Charles I of Anjou in 1294 and took almost 30 years to complete.
Whilst originally a 13th to 14th century church, earthquakes and other factors have meant that Naples Cathedral has undergone a series of renovations and rebuilding projects. This is demonstrated by the fact that its façade dates to the 19th century.
The Pisa Cathedral Complex, known simply as Cathedral Square (Piazza del Duomo), houses one of the world’s most celebrated ecclesiastical landscapes. In addition to the cathedral itself, the Pisa Cathedral Complex includes a church, a baptistery, a cemetery and one very famous campanile or bell tower – better known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
While its leaning tower may have stolen the spotlight somewhat, the Pisa Cathedral Complex is exceptional in its own right, having been described by UNESCO as ‘an outstanding example of medieval Christian architecture.’
It was originally founded in 828 AD, after the relics of the patron saint Mark the evangelist were brought, or reportedly stolen, from Alexandria. At this time it was a temporary building forming part of the palace of the Doge Giustiniano Particiaco. Saint Mark’s Basilica has since undergone a series of transformations.
Monreale Cathedral (Duomo Monreale) in Sicily is a fine example of Norman architecture. Constructed from 1172 under King William II and completed a few years later, Monreale Cathedral certainly met this monarch’s desire to create a magnificent church to rival any other, particularly that of Palatine.
Every detail of Monreale Cathedral was carefully designed and even the columns of its cloisters are adorned with incredibly elaborate carvings. Norman symbols can be found throughout, including many depictions of griffins and lions.
6. Milan Cathedral
The Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica of the Nativity of Saint Mary is one of the most magnificent buildings in Milan. It took almost six centuries for the cathedral to be completed. Construction started in 1386 and would not be finished until 1965. Its massive size makes Milan Cathedral one of the largest Christian churches in the world.
Because of its long building period, the structure incorporated multiple different styles throughout the ages, with it being describes as ‘…a mixture of Perpendicular with Flamboyant…’. Not everybody has been an admirer of the cathedral, with Oscar Wilde commenting: ‘Outside the design is monstrous and inartistic.’
7. Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran
This Roman cathedral serves as the seat of the bishop of Rome, the pope. It is the oldest public church in the city, with the building dating back to 324 AD, standing over the remains of an ancient Roman fort. Following a long period of decay and heavy damage, the structure was rebuilt in the 16th century. Its current façade was completed in 1735.
The cathedral is famously the home to the ‘Scala Sancta’ (Holy Stairs), which form the staircase which once led to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. They were transported to Rome during the 4th century AD.
8. Cagliari Cathedral
Located on the Italian island of Sardinia, this beautiful cathedral was completed in 1258. Originally designed in the Pisan-Romanesque style, it was renovated along Baroque styles, before receiving its now Neo-Romanesque style façade in the 1930s.
One of the most significant artistic treasures of Cagliari Cathedral is the ambo of Guglielmo, originally sculpted for Pisa Cathedral in the 12th century. The highly decorated mausoleum of King Martin I of Sicily is another standout that visitors should not miss.
Palermo Cathedral features a mix of different architectural styles, due to a long history of additions, alterations and restorations. It was built by Walter Ophamil (aka Gualtiero Offamiglio and Walter of the Mill), the Anglo-Norman archbishop of Palermo and King William II’s minister in 1184.
The archbishop’s main aim was to surpass the glory of the magnificent cathedral of nearby Monreale, and the Palermo Duomo became an architectural battleground for “The Battle of the Two Cathedrals.”
Befitting the fact that it was originally built over the site of a mosque (which itself had been a church beforehand), Palermo Cathedral also has hints of Islamic influences.
10. Siena Cathedral
Designed and constructed between 1215 and 1263, the cathedral is one of the most striking features of the city of Siena, combining elements from French Gothic, Tuscan Romanesque and Classical architecture.
Its marble floors are some of the most ornate in all of Italy, while the works of Bernini, Donatello and the young Michelangelo enrich the interior.