When admiring the Duomo's spectacular façade, the eyes of both worshippers and tourists cannot help but linger on the monumental inscription located above the central window, an inscription which is there to remind everyone that the Cathedral is dedicated to Santa Maria Nascente (St. Mary of the Nativity). On occasion of the upcoming Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and patron saint day of the Duomo, celebrated on September 8th, we take this opportunity to retrace the history of this epigraph.
As early as the 17th century there was discussion regarding what inscription would be displayed on the soon-to-be-built cathedral, already dedicated to Santa Maria Nascente. Many proposals were put forth, but none were used. It wasn't until two centuries later, after the completion of the façade according to Napoleon's wishes for his coronation, that the Duomo finally received its dedication, according to a document preserved in the archives of the Veneranda Fabbrica (AS file 481 folder 66).
In chapter 30 of the historical archive, which contains the correspondence with the government administrations and departments, there is a special section dedicated to the relationship with the Ministry of Worship, a government body created by Napoleon and overseen by religious organizations, including the Veneranda Fabbrica. It is to this ministry, presided over at the time by Giovanni Bovara, that the leaders of the Veneranda Fabbrica turned in September of 1810 to request the approval of the proposed inscription created by Stefano Bonsignori, the erudite bishop of Faenza, himself particularly close to the French regime as well. The bishop had given the Fabbrica three options:
Deo et Mariae Nascenti,
Deo Sacrum in honorem Mariae Nascentis,
yet expressed his strong preference for the final one. Minister Bovara preferred this option as well and subsequently urged his council members to second this choice and to create and put in place the inscription "…so that the façade may finally be completed».
Nevertheless, in November of 1810 the Fabbrica's administration was forced to notify the ministry of the impossibility of its choice due to the excessive length of the epigraph which, when set within the dedicated space, was too small to be legible from a distance and did not, in terms of "grandeur", meet expectations. Upon further consultation Bishop Bonsignori expressed his preference for the more concise option Mariae Nascenti, which, clearly less cumbersome, was more in keeping with the majesty of the Cathedral's façade without losing significance. So once again the Fabbrica's administration turned to the Ministry of Worship for final approval of this solution. According to the annals, vol. VI pg. 277, the Minister gave his approval on 19 December 1810.
It is thus that the Duomo received its dedicatory inscription, there to remind everyone that the construction of the Cathedral was always intended by the people of Milan to be a hymn of praise to the Virgin and a request for her protection.