Milan and the Changing Role of Public Art: Part 1

Since joining my town’s Public Art Advisory Board, I’ve spent some time pondering public art.  What is the point?  Why do our governments spend tax-payers’ money this way?  And how has time impacted the overall purpose?

Two years ago, my aerospace work brought me to Milan.  I only had a couple of hours to explore, but snapped enough pics that the difference in public art between “then” and “now” became pretty clear!

I asked my late-afternoon cab-driver to drop me off “somewhere touristy”.  My intention was to walk and get some exercise, but at one point I turned a corner and gasped – in front of me was (what I now know is) Milan’s famous Duomo – one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever randomly stumbled across.  🙂

Milan's Duomo
See how proud I look? Like I’m the first person to discover one of the most famous cathedrals in the world!

The Duomo was started in 1386 and took an impressive 500 years to build.  Those amazing arches and ornate carvings stand as a testament to Italy’s architectural prowess over that time – but I was most taken with the statues.

The Duomo is decorated with more than 3,400 statues plus extra figures and gargoyles.  Check out some of my favourite shots:



Who are all of these people?  Saints for sure – the most famous statue of all is the one of St. Bartholomew, in the top right above.  Look closely and you can see that he’s actually holding his own skin, as a reminder to us that he was flayed as he was martyred.  Yeouch.

But you’ll also find prominent Italians from throughout the build period: Galileo, Arnolfo, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Andrea Pisano, Petrarca, Dante, Ambrogio, Guido Monaco, Palestrina, Beato Angelico, Leonardo, Raffaello, Orcagna, Giotto, and even the Pope.

So, archaically speaking, what is the point of public art?

  • Commemoration of important citizens
  • A show of architectural/engineering power and wealth
  • Place-Making and autonomy for a city that was competing, politically, with Rome at the time
  • And a reminder of religious (Christian) duty


Be good, citizens!

In my next post, I’ll talk about what I saw in Milan’s current public art.   But in the meantime, share your thoughts!  What have you seen in historic public art that moved you?  Did I miss any pertinent categories above?

‘Til next time,


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  2. Milan and the Changing Role of Public Art: Part 2


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