Milan History

Milan Cathedral and part of the huge Cathedral Square, Duomo di Milano in Piazza Duomo
Milan Cathedral and part of Cathedral Square

Origins and Roman Times

Milan is presumed to have been founded by a Celtic population from the Gaul west of the Alps, modern-day France, the Insubri, around the 6th century BC, and it became their most important city. It was then, in 222 BC, conquered by the Romans, who called it Mediolanum, which means “in the middle of the plain” but it was probably reproducing its original Gaelic name. Milan is in fact in a central position in the Pianura Padana, Italy’s largest plain which occupies the north of the country south of the Alps.

Milan became a major city, important for economic, military and strategic reasons, until it was made capital of the Western Roman Empire in 286 AD. It was in Milan that the Emperor Constantine of the West, along with Licinius of the East, proclaimed religious toleration for Christianity in the Roman Empire and the end of religious persecutions with the Edict of Milan in 313.


Milan - ancient statue overlooking modern city skyline
Milan old and new

Christian and Longobard Milan

The city became the most important centre for the new religion and the Western Church during the time of the bishop Ambrose (Ambrogio in Italian), who became patron saint of Milan and still is. It was here that Saint Augustine converted to Christianity in 386 and was baptised the following year.

Many Milanese churches, including Sant’Ambrogio, San Lorenzo and Sant’Eustorgio, were founded in early Christian times.

Milan then followed the fate of the Roman Empire, and the city’s importance decreased with the decline of the latter. Milan was sacked by barbaric hordes from the North. The invasion of the Longobards in the 6th century marked the end of Milan as capital of the region, replaced by Pavia except for a brief period, but produced a new vitality combining Roman and barbaric elements. The Longobard kingdom, spanning two centuries, gave its name to the region of Lombardy.

Free City, Visconti and Sforza

Like many other Northern Italian cities, in the Middle Ages Milan became a “libero comune” (a free city governing itself), independent from the Holy Roman Empire. In the 11-12th centuries the Comune di Milano was economically stronger, autonomous and gave itself a democratic type of government. In this period the Palazzo della Ragione (Palace of Reason) was built, seat of the new power.

Milan became the battleground for aristocratic familes to gain control over the city. This is the period known in Italian history as the age of the “signorie”, lordships on towns and cities. First the Visconti family ruled Milan, and then, in the mid-1400s, the Sforza family. Francesco Sforza becomes Duke of Milan, and a new period of prosperity begins in agriculture, crafts, commerce. We are now already in the Renaissance age, and the Sforza period corresponds to one of the highest times of artistic development and production in Milan.

Milan - Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper fresco in Santa Maria delle Grazie Refectory
Milan – Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper fresco
in Santa Maria delle Grazie Refectory

Among the many artists called to work here were the great architect Donato Bramante and Leonardo da Vinci. The Cathedral (Duomo in Italian) and the Castello Sforzesco, originally built by the Viscontis, were further developed, the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the Lazzaretto and the Ospedale Maggiore, today housing Milan State University, were built.

Leonardo left many important signs in Milan, prominent among which the splendid fresco in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the Last Supper (Il Cenacolo in Italian) (see picture).


The foreign dominations: Spain, France, Austria

Milan - Pinacoteca di Brera, one of the world's greatest art galleries
Milan – Pinacoteca di Brera, one of the world’s greatest art galleries

In the early 1500s, Northern Italy became one of the battlefields between the French and Spanish monarchies. Spain eventually prevailed, and Milan was under its dominion for almost two centuries, from 1535 to 1713. During this unhappy time a new tragedy struck Milan in 1630: the plague. Despite that, the cultural life of the city was revived by the religious figures of cardinals Carlo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan, later made saint, and his successor Federico Borromeo. The latter founded the Ambrosian Library (Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Italian), named after Saint Ambrose, which today also houses the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. The Palazzo dei Gesuiti which is now Accademia di Brera was also built.

Milan - Teatro alla Scala
Milan – Teatro alla Scala

The great wars fought in Europe at the turn of the 18th century resulted in Milan’s falling under the control of the Austrian imperial dinasty of the Habsburg. This is a new period of progress, especially in the second half of the 18th century under the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, with renewed activity and development in all fields: economy, government, education, science and in particular the arts and culture, culminating in an age of extremely rich and vibrant cultural activity around 1770, at the time of the Enlightenment or so-called or rather misnamed “Age of Reason”. The newspaper Il Caffè, belonging to the Enlightenment movement, was founded. Many private aristocratic palaces were built, as well as Villa Reale in Monza, a masterpiece of 1700s architecture, Teatro alla Scala (see picture above), the most famous opera theatre on the globe, and Palazzo Reale. And both Biblioteca and Accademia di Brera were born.

With Napoleon Bonaparte Milan falls under the French dominion, during which period it became capital first of the Repubblica Cisalpina (“Republic this side of the Alps”) and then of the so called Regno Italico, comprising most of Northern Italy. The Napoleonic period gave the city an architectural and urban planning programme, with the building of the circonvallazione, a ring system of avenues and thoroughfares encircling the historical centre, based on Paris model, which is still in use.

After Napoleon’s fall, the new European asset decided at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 placed Milan under Austria again with the Lombardo-Veneto Kingdom, comprising Lombardy and the broad Venice region, but this time the Habsburg Empire, which became Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867, was not ruled by enlightened reformers any more. Whereas in the Napoleonic period Milan had been pervaded by an atmosphere of Italian national unity, the Austrian foreign minister Metternich claimed Italy to be a “geographic expression”. Neither the working classes nor the “enlightened” bourgeoise liked the new rulers.

Milan - Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, named after the King of Italy after unification of the country
Milan – Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, named after Victor Emmanuel II, first King of Italy

The Italian Kingdom

In 1848, the year when Europe was on fire, when all over the continent popular insurrections were fought against the old order, Milan’s population staged a particularly courageous, intense battle, named the Cinque Giornate di Milano after the five days of its duration, bloodily repressed. But times had changed. Only a few years later, after the Second War of Independence of the Risorgimento, the long struggle for Italian unity and independence, in 1859, Milan became part of the Regno di Sardegna (Sardinia Kingdom) of the Savoy dinasty, which in 1861 became the Regno d’Italia. At long last Italy was a united kingdom with Victor Emmanuel II.

Milan played a crucial role in the new state. Economically, it soon became its most important industrial and financial centre, where the Italian Stock Exchange, the Borsa, established in 1808, is based. The unification of Italy opened new markets to the great productive city. Banks and insurance companies opened their headquarters in Milan. And this is where, in 1883, the first electric power station of continental Europe started operating, near the Duomo in via Santa Radegonda.

Milan’s prosperity, unrivalled in the rest of Italy, attracted a mass immigration especially from the poorer, mostly agricultural Southern regions of the country. This great population growth created new social tensions between the locals and the newcomers from the South, disparagingly called “terroni”.

To house this growing population, myriads of tower blocks of flats were built in the suburbs of the city (the “periferia”), giving rise to new suburban neighbourhoods and districts (“quartieri periferici”), sometimes unregulated or badly planned. Meanwhile, the first working class houses with their characteristic railings overlooking the inner yards (“case di ringhiera”) were built at the edge of the historical centre. After the second world war and in the 1960s, when immigration grew even bigger due to the economic boom, many so-called “quartieri dormitorio” (dormitory suburbs) were born: huge housing estates of flats, with few or no services and shops, cheaply built, slum-like.


Milan international centre of fashion
Milan today

The 20th-21st Centuries

In the 20th century Milan was central in Italy’s history. It hosted the Esposizione Universale in 1906. The Italian Socialist Party’s official newspaper L’Avanti was published in Milan, and the fascist movement was also founded here in 1919.

Milan was at the forefront of the anti-fascist and anti-nazi war, and it became later the city that more than any other is a symbol of the Resistenza, the Italian fight against fascism, so much so that the 25th April, which in Italy is celebrated as “Festa Nazionale della Liberazione” or Liberation Day, is in memory of the general partisan insurrection of 25th April 1945 which led to the liberation of Milan from fascism.

After World War II, the city was one of the driving forces in Italy’s economic, political and cultural reconstruction.

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Photo credits: Pixabay