History of Milan

Mother Earth Travel > Italy > Milan > History

Today Milan gives the impression of being a very chaotic city with a lot of traffic, and full of people who are always in a hurry. However, you just have to leave the main streets to see that Milan has a fascinating past, and its present physionomy is the result of its history.

The first known inhabitants of Milan date back to the Bronze Age, but the first sign of it being an actual settlement of a reasonable size comes from the 4th century B.C.. This settlement is generally attributed to the Celts, or more precisely the Gauls. It seems that the name Milan -possibly meaning place in the middle - also dates back to the Celts, although it was later converted to Mediolanum. Milan is a very central place, lying at the centre of the Padana Plain, the largest plain in Northern Italy.

At the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. Milan was conquered by the Romans, and then became an autonomous province (a Municipium) under the control of Rome. It's importance grew considerably during the Imperial Age. Thanks to its geographical position it became a point on the road going to the North of the Italian Peninsula, and also an important military station in order to fend off the Barbarians from Northern Europe. It was an Imperial residence in the 3rd century A.D., and halfway through the 4th century it became the most important city in Europe, after Rome. Christianity spread rapidly through Mediolanum, and this made it one of the most important centres of the Christian religion. To this day, in the city's historical centre, you can still see some Roman remains, especially in Piazza Cordusio.

Milan's importance lessened with the decline of the Roman Empire, as did its centrality which ended with the invasion of the Longobardi in the 4th century. Its rebirth began after the start of the Carolingian domination in the 8th century A.D.. The Ambrosian rite was born at this time, and still exists today in the rites of the Roman Catholic Church. This demonstrates Milan's importance as a religious centre.

In the meantime, merchant life was developing, and led towards the period of the signoria, who gradually acqusited autonomy from the Empire, first with Ottone Visconti, and then with Matteo and Azzone. During this period Milan continued it's geographical expansion with a new city wall (this wall corrisponds to the Navigli circle in modern Milan). This new wall around the city included the six new entrance gates - today the memory, and in some cases, the remains, are still there, and annex some of the immediately surrounding hamlets into the city's outskirts. At some point in the 14th century, Milan acquired a canal system. This was both for defensive use - ditches around the walls - and for agricultural use. It was the birth of the Navigli (Canal) system, which still defines the city's physionomy today. In the 15th century power passed from the Visconti signoria to the Sforza signoria, with Francesco Sforza who became Duke of Milan.

A period of prosperity began at this time, along with the development of the crafts, merchant and agricultural sectors. Architectural features of this time include the Ospedale Maggiore (today this is the seat of the State University), the Lazzaretto (which holds the Rotonda della Besana where shows are held, and which is an open air cinema in the Summer), the Castello Sforzesco, which today is classed as a monument and holds many art collections, and various constructions by Bramante and Filarete.

In the 16th century, Milan found itself at the centre of a conflict between France and the House of Hapsburg. During this dark period of it's history, the Sforza family came and went, the continual battles weakened the city, which was finally reduced to a province under Spanish rule. Notwithstanding all of this, the Milaneses' pervaciousness enabled the city to obtain its own autonomous government and a restricted circle of noble families who controlled the economic and demographic expansion. One important figure of this time left his mark, that was Carlo Borromeo. He was the archbishop who consolidated the Ambrosian rite, and became a saint in the 17th century. The creation of the Ambrosian Library (which today also holds the Art Gallery Pinacoteca Ambrosiana) is due to his successor, Federico Borromeo. At the beginning of the 17th century the Black Death greatly reduced the city's population and caused another decline of the city, especially from the economic point of view. The main architectural sign of the 17th century is the construction of the new walls - The Spanish Walls - which today surround Milan's historical centre.

At the beginning of the 18th century power passed from the Spanish to the House of Hapsburg. Milan began a new phase of expansion, characterised by fiscal and ecclesiastical reform., which culminated in exceptionally rich cultural activity around 1770. Il Caffè (an Enlightenment newspaper), and Giusppe Piermarini's architecture, which included the restoration of several important buildings, as well building the Villa Reale at Monza, are examples of the cultural expansion of this period. The Library and the Brera Accademy were also born at this time. Milan fell under French control with Napoleon Bonaparte, and underwent a large demographic increase. It became the capital of the Cisalpine Republic and reaffirmed its cultural and economic importance. Napoleon's architectural and urbanistic program brought about the building of the "cerchia dei bastoni", also known as the ring road, a system of roads which today surrounds Milan's historical centre. New roads were built, based on Paris' road system, and these roads are still used today.

In the 19th century Milan fell under Austrian power again. This was not popular with the educated middle classes or, later, with the people in general. In 1848, during the Five Days of Milan, there was a popular insurrection which was curbed with violence. However a few years later, the changed political scene in the Italian Peninsula brought about the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy (1861).

Since the Unity of Italy, right up to the present day, Milan's development has been continuous, this has led to it being described as the moral capital of Italy. Milan has undergone a huge increase in size, that has sometimes seemed to be almost out of control. It has given the city new outskirts, which are sometimes crime ridden and badly designed.

The centre of Milan, as we know it today, dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when many areas outside Milan's centre were designed and rebuilt. The first workers' houses date back to this time, then in the Fascist period, "minimalist" houses were born, these fill the immediate outskirts, on great, tree-lined avenues.

After the war, following the massive immigration into Milan from the South of Italy, the so-called "dormitary districts" were built. These were huge appartment blocks with hardly any shops or services nearby. They were built with little funding and soon fell into direpair.

The big economic revival has made Milan into a rich and interesting city from many points of view. The "moral capital" of Italy, is without doubt very different from all the cities of art dotted around the country. It is the centre of economic activity in Italy. The Stock Exchange is based here. Milan's fame is also boosted by its role in the world of fashion, by the presence of many industries, the diffusion of the high-tech service sector, and by its cultural innovation.

Most of the Italian press is also based in Milan. One of the major TV networks - the largest private network in Italy - has its headquarters at the gates of Milan. It has become an internationally renowned city for its economic activity, and many students and business men from all over the world come here to study and work. Milan's size has remained reasonably contained, without its hinterland it has one and a half million inhabitants, these become four million if you count all the areas covered by the underground.