On a Copper Colossus

What if I told you the largest statue in the world for several centuries was a copper statue near Milan, Italy? It’s true. The statue’s skeleton is an intricate system of iron and brick with the copper sheathing overlaying it. It stands over 11 stories tall including the plinth, and it took over 80 years to build.

What is this colossus? Well, that’s part of this story. You see, there was a Catholic Archbishop and Cardinal by the name of Carlo Borromeo who died in 1584. He was famous for having been one of the leaders of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Most people don’t know much about this important Catholic answer to Luther’s (and others’) calls for reforming of the Catholic faith. Borromeo did much more than merely fight against those reformers; he led the way in calling for abuses within the church to be ended and demanded that changes–many of the same changes the reformers wanted–be made within the church hierarchy and practices. This was seen as radical by many within Catholicism, but Borromeo had the support of some powerful people who realized that if the church were to last long-term, that changes must be made (or at least appear to be made).

When he died, there was a push for him to be canonized as a saint for his work in calling for a return to the core tenants of Christianity. His beatification and canonization came in the early 1600s. Thus, to honor this man, a large statue in the countryside near Milan, his town, was commissioned and built over most of the 17th Century. One of the best designers of that day was called in to handle the job, and money was donated by public and private entities in huge wads to finance it. The statue of Borromeo is large enough for people to walk up inside it and look out over the lake it sits beside. While the copper sheathing is incredibly thin, the iron and brick support system make it immovable even in the highest winds.

The statue depicts the Cardinal cradling a book in his left arm and holding his right arm up in a blessing. The book represents the learning that Borromeo promoted throughout his lifetime; he wanted to make certain that the church was on the forefront of learning, which was, in his mind, a key to understanding and wisdom. Since its erection three centuries ago, the huge metal sculpture has been one of the Milan area’s greatest tourist attractions.

You might be wondering what significance this huge metal statue has for us today. Well, let’s revisit it and see what you pick up. Large copper statue. Book in left hand. Right arm raised. Large enough for people to go inside and to look out from the top. Standing on a plinth.

Yes, now you have it. When the artist, Auguste Bartholdi, wanted to design a large statue in a similar pose, he traveled to Milan to perform a detailed inspection on the construction design of this colossus. He then returned to France and worked with Gustave Eiffel to make the only copper statue in the world that, to this day, is larger than the one of Cardinal Borromeo.

The Statue of Liberty.


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