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Centuries of mechanical engineering: cranes and scaffolding amongst the documents of the Archives

The Document of the Month, June 2017

The very recent creation of the complex scaffolding erected in the dome of the Duomo (described in the Restoration Journal) this month offers the starting point for going back in time to discover, amongst the documents in the Archives, similar great enterprises. The building of the Cathedral in fact, immediately posed very great challenges to the engineers in the late 14th century and, in the centuries that followed, the complexity of the building work did not lessen those challenges.

One of the main demands that the Fabbrica had to face up to in each age was that of making lifting machinery. A chapter of this long story is preserved in a folder for the years 1865-1890 that is significantly entitled “Crane for lifting marble blocks for the Duomo” (AD, Lavori Duomo cart. 75, fasc.1).

The papers begin with an interesting report dated 30 November 1865 by Ing. Vandoni, Architect for the Fabbrica, regarding a problem that was in a manner of speaking “aesthetic”, and that is the scaffolding on the Duomo: in fact, the Council of the Veneranda Fabbrica, in a previous meeting, had defined the scaffolding as “greatly detrimental to the beauty and majesty of the Cathedral” and had requested that the Architect should suggest a solution. Vandoni, replying to the Council's request significantly expressed himself in the following words:

“This equipment, although by nature temporary, may be said to be perpetual, because the work will certainly not be completed in just a few years and because restoration work is likely to continue as long as the Cathedral remains standing, given that it is such a large building with such delicate ornamental parts.”

The proposals put forward each time were described in a series of subsequent reports, and included the construction of metal cranes to replace the bulky wooden scaffolding. For the design of this equipment, the Fabbrica enlisted the help of several mechanical engineers teaching at what was then the Higher Technical School, the institution which later became the Politecnico di Milano with which the Fabbrica continues to work constantly.

As in the 19th century, the Fabbrica now has to deal with the need to preserve the building and its appearance. The restoration projects involve the most advanced research institutes, to best respond to the needs of this great Cathedral, the home of the Milanese and the international symbol of the city.

The Archives and the Library are open for consultation from Tuesday to Friday, from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm, only by appointment.