Milan Explorer > History of Milan
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Milan History

Settled early in the 4th century BC following the occupation of the northern Etruscan territories by Gauls, Milan was acquired by the Romans in 222BC and given the name Mediolanum. It slowly grew in importance over the centuries under the stability of Roman rule and in 293 AD became the capital of the Western Roman Empire, the Roman Fort in Milan is now the site of the Duomo! It was the site in 313AD of the crucial Edict of Tolerance to Christianity, a ruling by Constantine and Licinius that would shape the future of the world. Appropriately, the centrality of Milan to Christians’ freedom to worship is most beautifully represented by Il Duomo in the heart of the city, the stunning cathedral that took nearly five hundred years to complete and is the fourth largest church in the world.

With the declining influence of Rome, Milan entered a long period of change. It was conquered in turn by Visigoths, Huns, Ostrogoths and Longobards, after whom Lombardy was named. Then in 774 the irrepressible Charlemagne proclaimed himself the first King of Lombardy in a symbolic territorial statement of intent and Milan became a key part of the Holy Roman Empire.

Milan’s vital location on the plains of the Po valley below the Southern Alps had led to it being not only a vital territorial possession, but also a centre for trade and commerce, which has of course continued to this day. However, it has also meant that time and again it has been shaped by events in the rest of Europe.

Early Middle Ages

After being sacked by Frederick I Barbarossa in 1162, Milan re-emerged to become a central force in the fledgling League of Lombardy in 1167. Sixteen years later, following the Peace of Constance, Milan became a Duchy. Over time, some of the leading troubadours of the 13th century would assume the role of Podestá at the head of the city commune. Then in 1259, Martino della Torre took hold of the city declaring himself a dictator and introduced ambitious reforms. Initially popular, these plans had the effect of nearly bankrupting the city and following a revolt led by the nobility the city was plunged into a decade of civil disturbance. Eventually, Ottone Visconti, appointed Archbishop by Pope Urban IV, emerged victorious.

For just under two hundred years, the Visconti ruled Milan through unsettled times and trading rivalry with Florence and Venice, with whom there had been great competition in arts, armour manufacturing, wool trade and silk since the 13th century. Luxury goods became a speciality of Milan, especially jewellery and clothing. Then, in 1447, following the death of the heirless Filippo Visconti, the Ambrosian Republic was briefly created. To the forefront of this soon came the late Visconti’s son-in-law Francesco Sforza, whose dynasty would make Milan one of the leading cities of the Italian (and European) Renaissance.

Like today, Milan was at the cutting edge of European culture and business. The Sforza castle was a contemporary court of considerable renown and ambitious municipal projects were undertaken. The court employed the architect Bramante and, most famously, the young Leonardo da Vinci. Still on display today in the Santa Maria delle Grazia is the recently restored painting of the Last Supper that Leonardo created for Duke Ludovico Sforza. Ludovico was an important duke who also encouraged agricultural development and the growth of the silk industry.

The Later Middle Ages

Toward the end of the 15th century Milan was taken by the French armies under Louis XII and then in 1525 passed into the control of Habsburg. In 1556 the rule was passed on to the Spanish side of the Habsburg Empire. These were not years that saw Milan at its greatest, becoming as it did a provincial backwater administered by foreigners and no longer the glorious Duchy it had been. Milan was also devastated by the arrival of plague in 1629. Its arrival was blamed on troop movements in the Thirty Years’ War and within two years almost half the population of 130,000 was lost to the disease.

In 1701 the city was briefly regained by the French before being passed once again into the hands of the Austrian Hapsburgs – after the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, the whole of Lombardy passed into Austrian hands. Milan really began to take off at this point, with a revitalised economic, cultural and administrative life and many architectural improvements under the authority of Austrian Empress Maria Teresa. The remainder of the century saw the building of the Accademia di Brera and the world-famous La Scala theatre.

19th Century

In the course of the 19th century Nationalist politics took Europe to boiling point. Having conquered Lombardy in 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte held it as King of Italy until 1815, when the congress of Vienna returned it to Austrian rule. It was now that Milan really began to flourish again as an artistic centre, particularly in the theatre and music. Rossini, Bellini and Verdi all premiered operas at La Scala, and Mozart was a regular visitor to the city, composing several works there.

However, tensions against Austrian suzerainty were mounting and in 1848, amongst the turmoil of European revolution Milan rebelled in an episode known as the Five Days of Milan. This haphazardly-conducted uprising was successful in knocking back the Austrian forces for several months. However, rule over Lombardy and Milan for Austria was soon reinstated under the command of Joseph Radetzky.

A decade later, Sardinian and French aggrandisement under Vittorio Emanuele II and Napoleon III led to the creation of the Kingdom of Piedmont, which in 1861 would become the Kingdom of Italy as we know it today.

The Moral Capital

Although Rome, with its symbolic history, was chosen as the capital of modern Italy, in many ways Milan was a worthy alternative and it is indeed regarded by many as the moral capital of the country. The creation of Italy served to heighten the city’s advantages as a commercial centre. Rail and later road building projects began, highlighting Milan’s importance at the crossroads of northern Italy. Great city projects were also started, including the building of the magnificent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (named in honour of the first king of Italy), that links Piazza Il Duomo to La Scala. With its iron and glass dome, this covered shopping mall remains the heart of Milan’s shopping experience. The Cimiterio Monumentale and San Gottardo tunnel also stem from this period.

The unification of Italy served to heighten Milan’s advantages as a commercial centre. Major railway, and later road, projects began, emphasising the significance of its location at the crossroads of northern Italy. Already a powerhouse of industry, the growth of the banking system led to Milan becoming perhaps the most important financial centre on mainland Europe. With this economic prosperity came a population boom and the expansion of the city.

Milan’s colourful story continued in the 20th century. In 1919, newspaper editor Benito Mussolini began to organise his fascist Blackshirts in Milan, thus giving birth to the movement that was to grip Italian politics for nearly thirty years. It was from here that Mussolini began his march on Rome in 1922, legally seizing power. Of course, his body would eventually be returned Milan under very different circumstances, hanging upside down in the Piazzale Lareto.

Milan was badly damaged by Allied bombing whilst under German occupation in the Second World War and unfortunately lost many of its remaining historical buildings. With that recurring Milanese insubordination it was liberated by the Italian resistance movement even before the arrival of Americans in 1943. It soon began to rebuild again and returned to prominence as a business centre. The economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s led to immigration on an unprecedented scale from southern Italy and especially the Far East. Today Milan is the most international of Italian cities.

Present Day

And the future looks to be as colourful as the designs of the city’s famous fashion houses. The city that produced Silvio Berlusconi also houses the Borsa Italiana stock exchange, 40,000 university students and large industrial areas, highlighting the economic, intellectual and political importance of the city that works hard. Yet it also plays hard and is a hotspot of recreation. The glamour of the Monza Formula One, the famous Fashion Week, as well as the San Siro with its two fanatically supported football teams AC Milan and Internazionale, mean Milan is a bustling catwalk of hip activity and success.

Policy developments designed to reduce the city’s humidity and pollution problems have begun to make significant headway and the city is beginning to reap the benefits. This is further emphasised by the ongoing regeneration works, modernising the physical aspects of the city to complement the forward-looking ethos.  Expo 2015 will be an appropriate occasion to display this rebirth, as is the bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games.

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