walking tour: Florence, Rome, Milan, Venice, Naples


Milano Free Tour
Milano Free Tour


Milan, city, capital of Milano province (provincia) and of the region (regione) of Lombardy (Lombardia), northern Italy. It is the leading financial centre and the most prosperous manufacturing and commercial city of Italy.

The destiny of Milan, like that of many of the world’s great cities, remains something of a historical paradox. There are powerful factors supporting the argument that Milan should have become the capital of a unified Italy, and this is the belief of many Milanese, in spite of the fact that the unity of Italy was actually born in Turin, rather than in Milan, in 1870. Milan, nevertheless, is the most industrious and vital city to have achieved prominence since the ancient land of Italy became aware of itself as a modern nation-state. Area city, 70 square miles (182 square km); province, 765 square miles (1,980 square km). Pop. (2001) city, 1,256,211; province, 3,707,210; (2007 est.) city, 1,303,437; province, 3,884,481.

Character of the city


Aerial view of Milan, Italy.

The fact that Milan is at a distance from much of the rest of Italy, that it is peripheral in a geographic sense, does not explain its position of “second city,” a position it has always vainly fought. Indeed, some of the greatest European capitals are peripheral in this sense. Rather, Milan’s role was the consequence of the immense historical importance and the enormous accumulation of myths and symbols that conferred on Milan’s antagonist, Rome, an inevitable prestige. During the Risorgimento, the 19th-century movement for Italian unification, Rome became the heart of a future anticipated in the collective fantasies of the Italian people.

Tour the Italy’s financial capital Milan and observe its French Gothic and Neoclassical architecture

Introduction to Milan, with views of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the Duomo, and La ScalaSee all videos for this article

Yet although Rome remains the political capital of Italy, Milan has long been known as its “moral capital.” When the Milanese assert that their city is the moral capital, they not only express the ancient regionalism typical of all Italy and known as campanilismo (a reference to the church bell of each city), but they also refer to the city’s quality and values, historical as well as contemporary. And if the rest of Italy, Rome included, accepts this statement—or rather accepts the fact that the statement is made—it is because it is more than a simple claim. The claim is justified by contributions in every field—economic, cultural, and ideological—that the city of Milan, in modern times, and particularly since the unification of Italy, has made to the Italian state.

It was partly out of an opposition to the nature of Rome as a capital of government, and thereby the perceived capital of taxation, state spending, and political skullduggery, that Milan’s self-image as Italy’s moral capital was born. This notion was cemented in the late 19th century as an industrializing Milan set itself up as a capital of innovation, production, and efficiency—values the Milanese considered absent in Rome. The city’s sense of moral superiority—particularly the idea that the Milanese people were morally superior because of their positive work ethic—was reinforced as Milan ultimately became Italy’s centre of industry and finance, as well as the motor behind the country’s extraordinary economic development in the 20th century. Today Milan is the richest city in Italy and one of the richest in Europe.

Even though many intellectuals, writers, and artists have abandoned the city for Rome, Milan has succeeded in keeping alive an inquisitiveness and a spirit of polemic that involves not only itself and Rome but all other cities in Italy as well. The increased importance of the mass media in Italy, particularly of the Milan-based television networks, also has favoured the Milanese perspective—though this development has not damaged the poetic image of Rome nor reduced the prosaic character of Milan. Nevertheless, when one remembers that in the 19th century a writer such as Stendhal, one of the giants of French culture, wished to proclaim himself “Milanese” in his epitaph, one must indeed believe in the fascination Milan exerted then, and still does, and of which the city is fully conscious.

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Landscape of Milan

City site

Milan, Italy

Milan, Italy

Milan is set in the heart of the Po Basin of northern Italy, halfway across the immense plain spreading between the Ticino and Adda rivers. The site is 400 feet (122 metres) above sea level. To the north lies the great sweep of the southern flank of the Alps. Between this semicircle of mountains and the course traced by the Po River to the south, there lies a zone that is arid toward the north but swampy near the Po, where it turns into an expanse of marshy groves and rice fields. It is at the line of demarcation between these two areas, which are strongly differentiated, that Milan has risen, although now only swamplands mark the site of the ancient city. The earliest inhabitants reinforced their defenses by means of the small watercourses of the Sèveso, the Nirone, the Lambro, and the Olona.


Milan’s climate is continental, with damp, chilly winters and hot, humid summers. Snow falls between December and February, and springtime is generally rainy. In winter temperatures range between 30 and 50 °F (−1 and 10 °C) and in summer between 68 and 86 °F (20 and 30 °C). Characteristic of the Po Basin, fog often shrouds the city in winter. The removal of rice fields from the southern neighbourhoods and the closure of most of the city’s heavy industry have reduced the phenomenon. However, this has been offset somewhat by the growth of an almost uninterrupted built-up area around the city, which reduces local air circulation, and by the gray smog, or traffic-related air pollution, that often covers the city.

City layout

Each period of historical crisis, advance, and consolidation has been reflected in the organic structure of Milan. For a thousand years the core of the city was located just southwest of the present cathedral, the Duomo, and was made up of the rectangular, four-gated city of Mediolanum, with roads thrusting out from each gate to the surrounding countryside, together with an irregular outer defense consolidated in Carolingian times (8th–9th century). This core has influenced the city plan down to modern times.

Dynastic struggle and the imposition of transalpine authority (Spanish, Austrian, and French) brought further changes. The city was razed in 1162, and afterward an enlarged oval was constructed—the course of its outer walls is still traceable in contemporary streets. Spanish domination brought the erection of still another outer ring, the result of 16th-century reconstructions. This too can be traced in contemporary boulevards. Within the city centre, the main focus of activity centred on the Sforzesco Castle (Castello Sforzesco), a product of the 15th-century dynastic struggles, reinforced by the Spanish in the following century; the Piazza Mercanti, the centre of medieval economic activity; and the great Piazza del Duomo, laid out before the cathedral in 1489. Once French emperor Napoleon I made the city the capital of his empire in 1805, he embarked on an ambitious program of city planning, and an elegant boulevard (the Foro Bonaparte) was built around the Sforzesco Castle. Castle, cathedral, and a newer commercial area centred on the Piazza Cordusio—representatives of the motivating forces in Milanese life—continue to dominate the city centre.

Several times since the late 19th century, city planners have laid down the basis of a more organic plan, bypassing the traditional radial street plan, so that new districts might have wide streets and avenues intersecting at right angles. In the mid-20th century, notably during the period of the so-called “economic miracle,” modern urban planning and architectural activity in the city attracted international attention. The Pirelli Building (designed by Gio Ponti, 1955–59), the Velasca Tower (1958), and the Olivetti Building (mid-1950s) in Via Clerici are among the modern structures of architectural note.

The 20th century also saw the development of entire industrial districts outside the city boundaries, particularly to the north and northeast (especially around Sesto San Giovanni) and to the south and southwest. The city now combines with the satellite towns of its periphery to form part of a huge conurbation that stretches across the Po Basin to Turin in the west and Venice in the east. The centres of the newer suburban areas—including Bollate, Novate Milanese, Cusano Milanino, Cinisello Balsamo, and Sesto San Giovanni—as well as the old city of Monza (9 miles [15 km] to the northeast) are linked to the core of the ancient city by major arteries.


Milan’s population saw a rapid increase after World War II (1939–45); it grew by roughly 400,000 in the 15 years after 1950. The increase was due mainly to the flood of immigrants from the impoverished Italian south and northeast seeking improved conditions in the factories of the industrial north. This mass internal migration peaked during the years of the “economic miracle” (1958–63), when thousands of immigrants arrived daily at Milan’s Central Station. Luchino Visconti encapsulated the drama of this moment in his classic film Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960; Rocco and His Brothers).

Population pressure resulted in the growth of self-constructed urban villages in the countryside around Milan, as well as in an expansion of the city itself. This pressure tailed off in the 1970s, and Milan’s population began to fall. Birth rates dropped dramatically, as in the rest of Italy, and the city’s population began to age.

However, from the mid-1970s onward, Milan has been host to a new migration movement, this time from outside Italy. These new immigrants come from a variety of countries—e.g., Morocco, Egypt, Senegal, the Philippines, and Ecuador. The Chinese community, which has existed in the city since the 1930s, experienced notable growth in the 1980s. After 1990, numerous people arrived from eastern Europe, in particular Albania. By the late 1990s there were more than 150,000 non-Italian immigrants in Milan and its province, and one in 10 new schoolchildren in Milan were of non-Italian origin. Immigration from abroad continued to be an important demographic trend in the early 21st century.


Vittorio Emanuele II

The glass roof of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (a shopping mall), Milan.

Milan, the most important economic centre of Italy, owes this fact partly to its geographical position, which always has given it advantages as a market centre; indeed, the most important wholesale markets of Italy are still in Milan. The city is located at a nexus of the traffic routes of the Po River valley and lies on the borderline between the advanced agriculture of the fertile irrigated plains of the south and the limited agriculture of the north. Milan also sits on the main route connecting Italy with the rest of Europe. Industrial development in the 20th century further stimulated commercial activity in the city. Of great importance was the export trade; Milanese exports have included artificial fibres, cotton and wool goods, chemical products, and machinery. In the late 20th century, however, manufacturing industries were superseded by the service sector.


For the first half of the 20th century, the mechanical industries dominated the Milanese economy. The production of automobiles (such as those by Alfa Romeo), motorcycles and motor scooters (notably the Lambretta brand), airplanes, major electric appliances, railroad materials, and other metalworking employed almost half the workforce. Other significant production included the massive rubber plant of the Pirelli company, which remains important today. Chemical production was of considerable importance at one time but has now largely moved away from the city. Textiles (cotton, hemp, silk, and artificial fibres), however, are still manufactured in the region. Since the end of World War II, practically all industrial growth has been concentrated in peripheral areas of the city.

In the city itself manufactures of ready-made clothing and designer fashions predominate. Since the early 1980s Milan’s fashion industry has achieved great commercial prominence, and the city contains the salons of some of the world’s best-known fashion designers—Armani, Versace, Ferré, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Missoni. Glamorous designer showrooms are concentrated around the ultra elegant “Golden Block” of streets in the city centre.

Finance and other services

Since the late 1970s, as most traditional industries have either closed down completely or relocated to nonurban locations, Milan has become Italy’s first and most successful “postindustrial” city, with a concentration of lucrative service industries, such as advertising and wholesale and retail trade, particularly those related to the fashion industry. Milan’s service sector has benefited from the efficiency of the city’s banks and the stock market, the Borsa Italiana, located in Piazza degli Affari in the centre of the city.

In addition to clothing design, Milan is a world centre of design in general. A number of small, high-quality businesses specialize in furniture design, graphic design, and other areas. The design industry remains central to the Besana in Brianza area north of the city.

Corriere della Sera

Headquarters of Corriere della Sera, Milan, Italy.

Another noteworthy part of the city’s services sector is communications. Milan is home to Mondadori, Italy’s large publishing group, as well as the newspapers Corriere della Sera and La Gazzetta dello Sport and the newsmagazine L’Espresso. In addition, Milan is the capital of private television in Italy, dominated by the media empire of Silvio Berlusconi, an entrepreneur who has served as Italy’s prime minister several times. His media group, with its headquarters in Milan, has spawned a series of specialized industries linked to private television, such as advertising, dubbing, photography, and filmmaking. Milan’s position as the electronic media centre of Italy has been augmented by the rapid growth of high-technology industries, including telecommunications, data processing, software production, and Internet design.

The city, as the principal centre of exchange in Italy, used to host the annual International Sample Trade Fair (Fiera Campionaria de Milano), which ranked as one of the major trade exhibitions in Europe. This fair later branched out into a series of specialized trade fairs that run throughout the year, including events devoted to fashion in the spring and autumn, a design fair, and a massive electronics and new media fair known as SMAU.


In addition to being a centre of production and exchange, Milan is a national focus of transportation. An extensive network of road and rail communications spreads toward the outlying areas, particularly toward the north, and several airports serve the city. Some of the most heavily traveled lines of the national railway system, Ferrovie dello Stato (FS; State Railways), pass through Milan. Mainline connections and transalpine tunnels link the city with the rest of Italy and all parts of Europe, and there are many nonstop trains to and from major cities. The railroad stations are integrated within the city landscape by means of a carefully designed and executed plan; the largest railway loading site within the city is the Central Station (Stazione Centrale). The road network converging upon Milan carries an unceasing flow of foreign and domestic travelers. Among the major highways leading to and from the city is the famous Autostrada del Sole (Highway of the Sun), which traverses the spine of the lengthy Italian Peninsula. Milan has two international airports, Malpensa and Linate, and other airports are located nearby at Bergamo and Brescia.

The metropolitan transportation service operates an extensive system of bus, tramway, and subway routes throughout the urban area. The first subway line in the city was opened in 1964. Construction on a light rail system began in the late 20th century. Yet despite the availability of mass transit, Milan has a high rate of private car ownership, which has created traffic and parking problems, as well as enormous increases in pollution, since the early 1980s. Local government officials have occasionally been forced to ban all private traffic in order to decrease smog levels.


Three separate authorities—municipal, provincial, and regional—exist within the Lombardy region; all three fall under the authority of the Republic of Italy. First, there is the city (comune) of Milan, led by an elected mayor and council. This body is responsible for governing the city’s activities, public education, traffic control, road maintenance, and transportation services.

Second, the province (provincia) of Milano governs the area around the city. It has various powers related to infrastructural development and cultural policies. Milano province has been shrinking for some time as various individual cities, such as Lodi and Lecco, have become provinces themselves.

Third, the region (regione) of Lombardy has an elected regional government, set up under national statutes in 1970 and headquartered in Milan. It has become increasingly powerful as the Italian state has devolved a number of powers, such as public health administration, to the regions.

After World War II, the city was governed mainly by the Christian Democratic Party (later called the Italian Popular Party) and, from the late 1960s onward, by the Italian Socialist Party in various alliances with other leftist and centrist parties. In the 1990s the centre-right took power—a political shift due partly to the loss of Milan’s working-class base. Like the city, the region also experienced a long period of centre-left government, followed by a tendency toward the centre-right in the 1990s.

Cultural life

Milan: Duomo

Milan cathedral (Duomo), Piazza del Duomo, Milan.

Revere the exterior of the French Gothic architectural achievement Duomo di Milano in Italy

Exterior views of the Duomo of MilanSee all videos for this article

The most striking of the monuments to be seen in contemporary Milan is the cathedral, or Duomo, a triumph of Gothic architecture; it is one of the largest churches of contemporary Europe, holding more than 20,000 people. Begun in 1386, it took five centuries to complete and rises over the area occupied at one time by the churches of Sta. Tecla and Sta. Maria Maggiore. The Gothic facade of the cathedral was completed under Napoleon I. The most imposing parts of the Duomo are its lateral aspects, its two top crosses, and the apse. In the latter, a powerful impression is made by the three immense Gothic windows of finely carved marble. The casing, of pink-tinged Italian marble, is to be found on all sides of the structure. At the lower level, it lends character to the small trilobate arches, capitals, and flowers; it also appears on the buttresses and, above them, runs along the crowning row of gigantic statues; above these, it covers the decorated water gutters and, finally, enhances the lacelike ornamental crest. The exterior of the cathedral is covered with a remarkable profusion of turrets, pinnacles, and more than 3,000 statues. Within are 52 pillars, each over 80 feet (24 metres) tall and more than 10 feet (3 metres) in diameter and bearing, instead of capitals, a crown of statues within their niches.

Palazzo Brera

Palazzo di Brera, which houses the Pinacoteca di Brera, in Milan.

The most notable of the city’s many palaces is the Palazzo di Brera, construction of which dates from 1651. Its architect, Francesco Maria Ricchino, infused the whole Milanese Baroque with his severe style. The building’s Pinacoteca di Brera, founded in 1809 by Napoleon, is one of the largest art galleries in Italy and contains a fine collection of north Italian painting. The Palazzo di Brera also contains the Braidense National Library, and its beautiful courtyard is dominated by Antonio Canova’s statue of Napoleon. Also during Napoleon’s rule, construction of a huge triumphal arch, later called the Arch of Peace (Arco della Pace) was begun; it stands on the edge of Sempione Park.

Santa Maria delle Grazie

Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

Leonardo da Vinci: Last Supper

Last Supper, wall painting by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1495–98, before the restoration completed in 1999; in Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

Just off the Corso Garibaldi stands the Basilica San Simpliciano, which according to tradition was founded in the 4th century by St. Ambrose. Its apse contains the 15th-century fresco Coronation of the Virgin by Ambrogio Bergognone. Other notable churches in the central area include San Satiro, Sant’Eustorgio, San Lorenzo Maggiore, and San Babila. The former refectory of the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie is home to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, one of the most famous frescoes of the Renaissance. It was fully reopened to public view in 1999 after a lengthy, controversial restoration.

In Via Monte Napoleone, there are several handsome palaces, including the Bagatti-Valsecchi palace, now renovated and used as a museum. The excellent Museo Poldi Pezzoli is nearby, in Via Manzoni. Also in the vicinity are the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale (Museum of Natural History), located in the public gardens beyond the Piazza Cavour; the Galleria d’Arte Moderna (Gallery of Modern Art), in the Villa Reale; and the adjacent Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea (Contemporary Art Pavilion), a modernist masterpiece. The last building was destroyed by a bomb in 1993 but was rebuilt, according to the original design, within a few years. Frequent exhibitions and a permanent collection of Italian design are housed in the Triennale building, designed in 1933 by Giovanni Muzio, in Sempione Park.

In addition to the Braidense National Library, the Ambrosian Library (Biblioteca Ambrosiana; founded 1609) and the Sormani Library, the main branch of the public library system, are also of significance. Other excellent libraries are found in the universities and in the philological clubs of the Lombardy Institute, Academy of Science and Letters (Istituto Lombardo, Accademia di Scienze e Lettere). The State Archive (Archivio di Stato) also contains an imposing collection.

Filarete: Ospedale Maggiore

The Ospedale Maggiore, Milan; designed by Filarete.

Milan is the seat of several universities, including the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart (Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore; 1920), one of the best Roman Catholic schools in Italy; Bocconi University (Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi; 1902), offering degrees in business, economics, and law; Milan Polytechnic (Politecnico di Milano; 1863), with programs in engineering, architecture, and industrial design; and the IULM University of Languages and Communication (Libera Università di Lingue e Comunicazione IULM), founded in 1968 as the University Institute for Modern Languages (Istituto Universitario di Lingue Moderne; IULM). The state-run University of Milan (Università degli Studi; 1923) is based in the Ospedale Maggiore, among the first Renaissance buildings in Lombardy. Another of the city’s prominent institutions of higher education is the Milan Conservatory (Conservatorio di Milano).

La Scala

Teatro alla Scala (La Scala).

Milan’s Teatro alla Scala (“Theatre at the Stairway”; popularly called La Scala), constructed in 1776–78 and designed by the leading Neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini, is one of the great opera houses of the world. Damaged by bombing during World War II, La Scala was quickly reconstructed and reopened with a concert by Arturo Toscanini in 1946. Extensive renovations also took place in the early 21st century. The city contains several other theatres, including the Teatro San Babila and the Teatro Piccolo. There are numerous motion-picture houses as well.

Sections of the Navigli, a 16th-century network of communication and transportation canals, remain, especially in the southern part of the city. These canal zones were once among the poorest parts of the city, but in the 1980s they began to develop into centres for small businesses (especially those linked to the fashion industry) and nightlife. These areas now attract large crowds of people who frequent the numerous bars, restaurants, and shops alongside the canals.

Milan is the leading sports centre of Italy. The huge, spectacular San Siro stadium, rebuilt for the 1990 World Cup, sits on the northwestern edge of the city. Both the AC Milan and Inter Milan football (soccer) teams play their home matches at the San Siro, which can hold up to 80,000 people. The nearby Ippodromo San Siro, a large horse-racing complex, is one of the best in Europe. The Lago Idroscalo, an artificial lake next to Linate Airport, is also a popular recreation area. The Grand Prix automobile-racing circuit at nearby Monza has an international reputation.

History of Milan

The early period

Foundation and early growth


Remains of the imperial palace of Mediolanum (now Milan, Italy).

The earliest settlement on the site of Milan was founded by the Gauls about 600 bce, and in ensuing centuries it became the capital of a Celtic tribe known as the Insubres. At the time of the Roman conquest in 222 bce, Mediolanum, as it was then called, was already one of the most powerful cities of the region known as Cisalpine Gaul (on the Roman side of the Alps). Under the emperor Augustus, it became a part of the 11th region of Italy and acquired increasing prestige and economic power until it became the second city of the Western Roman Empire, behind Rome itself. In the 3rd century ce, following the partition of the empire instituted by the emperor Diocletian, it was assigned as residence and main administrative centre for the emperor in the West. The emperor Constantine I (the Great) declared it the seat of the vicar of Italy. In the year 452 Attila the Hun devastated the city, and in 539 the Goths destroyed it.

The city, however, did not entirely perish as a result of these barbarian incursions, and by the second half of the 10th century city life was surging with renewed vigour. Under the Carolingians (the region was incorporated into the dominions of Charlemagne in 774), life in Milan showed increased vitality, particularly through the efforts of the archbishop Ansperto da Biassono, who rebuilt and strengthened the fallen walls of the city in the late 9th century. Under Ariberto da Antimiano (1018–45), the political power of the archbishopric reached its apogee. This assumption of temporal power by the archbishops, dating from about 1000, can be considered as the origin of the subsequent greatness of Milan.

In 1045, however, as a result of tensions engendered by the authority of the archbishops and because of the increasing growth and stability of the city as a whole, Milan constituted itself as a commune (comune), with permanent and autonomous governmental structures. In the resultant struggle for primacy among the cities of Lombardy, Milan became involved in a series of long battles against its less prosperous neighbours—Pavia, Cremona, Como, and Lodi. In 1111 the Milanese razed Lodi, and, after a bitter struggle lasting from 1118 to 1127, Como was destroyed.

This was the pretext for the intervention of Frederick I Barbarossa, who decided to bring Milan under the direct authority of the central imperial power of his Holy Roman Empire. The city held out until 1162, when it yielded after a nine-month siege. Its fortifications were then razed, and the destruction of the city was such that the Milanese were forced to seek refuge in the surrounding countryside. The war blazed on until 1183, the year of the Peace of Constance, although Milan—rebuilt in 1167 under the auspices of the newly founded Lombard League—succeeded in playing a major role in the defeat of the German forces of Barbarossa at the Battle of Legnano in 1176. Its privileges rewon, the city attained a splendid economic florescence over the next 100 years.

Feudal and dynastic conflicts

In the early years of the 12th century, the new industrial classes, in particular the guilds of the woolens and armaments workers, had increased constantly in power and influence. The feudal nature of the relationship between the archbishop of Milan and his allies meant that the archbishop had to make enormous concessions to the emergent social and political forces among the citizenry in order to reinforce his own party, diminishing thereby the financial privileges of the church.

In the early 13th century, following the worsening of their relationship with Holy Roman emperor Frederick II, the Milanese proclaimed Pagano della Torre—a member of a family emerging as a leader of the less feudal of the city’s power groupings—as their protector. The city forces were nevertheless defeated by the emperor in the Battle of Cortenuova (1237). Meanwhile, the Milanese were drawn further into the international struggle between papal sympathizers (the Guelfs) and supporters of the Holy Roman Empire (the Ghibellines). The della Torre family (or Torriani), leaders of the popular forces, took on the name of Guelf; the Visconti, another powerful Milanese family, headed the Ghibelline faction, which was backed by the aristocracy.

In the shadow of the struggle between the Torriani and the Visconti, the era of the signoria—government run by a signore, or lord—was born. In 1277 Ottone Visconti, archbishop of Milan, utterly defeated the Torriani in the Battle of Desio. His grandnephew Matteo I Visconti succeeded him, and, starting in 1311, Matteo and his heirs reigned as supreme lords of the city and of the surrounding state, replacing the political forms of the commune. In 1395 Gian Galeazzo Visconti gained the title of duke of Milan. During this time, the industrial and mercantile economy underwent rapid development, giving birth to further powerful coalitions of economic interests.

In 1450 Milan found itself besieged again. Francesco Sforza, a ruthless and ambitious general, occupied the city and founded a new dynasty, basing his claim on his marriage to an illegitimate daughter of one of the Visconti. A period of prosperity then began for Milan, based on the power of the Sforza family and the introduction of the silk industry. It was the golden period of the Italian Renaissance, typified by the splendour of the Sforza court.

The Sforza dynasty had but a short-lived enjoyment of power. In 1499 the duchy of Milan fell into the hands of Louis XII, king of France, who was also a distant descendant of the Visconti. In 1500 Ludovico Sforza (also called Il Moro) conquered the state but was defeated at Novara in the same year. The French continued to rule until 1513, at which point they were overthrown by Massimiliano Sforza, son of Il Moro, who had Swiss assistance. However, Francis I, successor to Louis XII, reconquered Milan in his renowned victory of Marignano (now Melegnano) in 1515. In accordance with the conditions of a peace treaty signed in 1529, Milan was returned once more to the Sforza family, but in 1535 the incumbent duke died unexpectedly. Milan and the entire Milanese state then fell under the domination of the Habsburg Holy Roman emperor Charles V.

Evolution of the modern city

The emperor Charles V in 1540 invested his son—the future Philip II of Spain—with the duchy of Milan. Under Spanish rule—which was to last until 1706—the political and artistic elite of Milan rapidly succumbed. The dramatic period of dynastic struggle, which was also a period of economic growth, was replaced by a long period of economic stagnation and political decline associated with unimaginative foreign rule. In 1630 the city was struck by the plague—a catastrophe later vividly portrayed by the local author Alessandro Manzoni in his historical novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed; 1825–27). The end of the desolation of the period of Spanish domination began with the outbreak, in 1701, of the War of the Spanish Succession, following the death of Charles II of Spain. In September 1706 Prince Eugene of Savoy entered Milan as its first Austrian governor, and the city passed thus from Spanish to Austrian rule.

Pietro Verri

Pietro Verri, statue in Milan.

Although the first half of the 18th century was marked by neglect and oppression, after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), the new rulers, in collaboration with the wealthy commercial classes of Milan, were able to foster a half-century of enlightened, if despotic, growth and a flowering of Milanese culture. It is during this period that such figures as Cesare Beccaria, the outstanding criminologist and economist, and Pietro Verri, the gifted administrator and man of letters, were active. These and other members of a Milanese group known as the Società dei Pugni (Society of Fists) accepted the innovations of the theoreticians of the French Revolution, despite Austrian censorship. Neoclassical architecture also flourished.

When, on May 15, 1796, the republican army of France, with Napoleon Bonaparte at its head, entered Milan, it was greeted enthusiastically, particularly by the middle classes. In 1797 France created the Cisalpine Republic out of the territories it had conquered in northern Italy. This nominally independent state was reconstituted in 1801 as the Republic of Italy, which in turn ceased to exist in 1805. That year Milan became the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy, under Napoleon, who was crowned Italian king in the city. During this time the city prospered from its domination of most of the Italian Peninsula.

Milan’s sense of prominence was dashed, however, by the invasion and reestablishment of Austrian authority, which followed the collapse of the Napoleonic empire in 1814 and the settlement made by the Congress of Vienna the following year. A new Austrian-controlled kingdom, that of Lombardy-Venetia, was proclaimed—though the two regions actually remained separate—and Milan lost its role as a capital.

Influenced by the new currents of Italian unity and nationalism known as the Risorgimento, and smarting under the oppressive Austrian rule, the Milanese citizenry finally rose up in the cinque giornate, the “five days” of March 18–22, 1848. In what has become one of the most celebrated episodes of the city’s history, Milan was liberated from the Austrians for several months until the rebellion was finally brought under control. In spite of the fact that by August 6, 1848, the brutal occupation forces of the aging Austrian commander Joseph, Count Radetzky, were once more in firm control of Milan, resistance forces of the city decided to continue their opposition to the invaders. Young men crossed the borders of SardiniaPiedmont to enter the city’s army. A second war with Austria finally liberated Milan from foreign control; a few days after the Battle of Magenta (June 4, 1859), the people of Milan witnessed the triumphant entry of the anti-Austrian allies—Victor Emmanuel II, king of Sardinia-Piedmont, and French emperor Napoleon III. The city—by now in the throes of an industrial revolution emphasizing metal products—was thenceforth linked with the fate of the new, unified Italian state, maintaining itself in a position of prime importance in the national economy.

Milan was the capital of Italy’s socialist reform movement in the late 19th century, when workers managed to construct an impressive network of cooperative organizations, mutual-aid societies, trade unions, and coordinating institutions such as the city’s Chamber of Labour. Key figures behind this movement were the socialists Filippo Turati, Anna Kuliscioff, and Claudio Treves. Milan was also home to various revolutionary movements, such as those led by the nationalist Enrico Corradini and the anarchist Armando Borghi. After 1914 a reformist socialist administration ran the city under Mayor Emilio Caldara; it instituted a range of modern municipal policies that favoured the city’s large and well-organized working class, which for the most part inhabited the industrial suburbs.

Milan since 1915

World War I (1914–18) gave a huge boost to Milan’s heavy industry, but after the war Milan entered into a period of instability. Revolution threatened in 1920 as workers organized strikes and occupations in some 300 factories of the city. Yet at the same time there was strong Milanese opposition to socialism; in March 1919, the formation of militant right-wing groups in the city marked the dawn of fascism. Fascism’s rise at a national level was mirrored in Milan in August 1922, when black-shirted squads occupied the town hall and effectively ended local democracy. Fascism never won over the Milanese working classes, but it did enjoy considerable support among the city’s administrative, commercial, and business classes.

After 1943, during World War II (1939–45), the city was occupied by the Germans, and Milan became the capital of the resistance. The city was liberated by Italian partisans before the Allies arrived in April 1945. Benito Mussolini’s dead body was famously displayed in Piazzale Loreto in Milan in the same month.

As the subsequent Cold War set in, the political left remained strong, but the Christian Democrats (Partito della Democrazia Cristiana; DC) dominated local politics until the early 1960s. The strength of the left then forced the DC into a centre-left alliance. Successive administrations struggled to deal with massive social problems caused in part by an economic boom (the “economic miracle”), as thousands of immigrants arrived in the city and uncontrolled urban growth took place. In 1968 Milan was at the centre of Italy’s student movement.

In 1969 a bombing in a bank in Milan’s city centre killed more than a dozen people. This so-called Piazza Fontana massacre, at first blamed on anarchists but later determined to be the work of neofascists, hailed the beginning of a difficult period marked by acts of terrorism. The terrorism was part of a “strategy of tension” developed by neofascists who, through the creation of chaos, aimed to force the state into repressive measures against the left. The 1970s also were dominated by terrorism, as well as by economic depression.

A second economic boom arrived in the 1980s, when the city was governed by a succession of mayors from the Italian Socialist Party and under the overall control of Bettino Craxi, the Milanese prime minister of Italy. Craxi’s party was notable for its modernizing style and the way it embraced the new, postindustrial economy. However, in 1992 a massive level of institutionalized corruption was revealed as a series of Milanese magistrates, including Antonio Di Pietro, arrested numerous politicians and businessmen on charges of taking or giving bribes. Milan, with its image as the “moral capital” of Italy in tatters, became known as Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”). Within two years, the “clean hands” investigations in Milan led to the dissolution of the whole political system born out of the Cold War. The Socialists all but ceased to exist, and the DC split into many smaller parts.

The corruption scandals of the 1990s allowed the Northern League (Lega Nord), a new federalist and fiscal-reform party, to make an impact in Milan, but its main power base remained rural and provincial. More popular in the city was the new conservative political party, Forza Italia (FI; loosely translatable as “Go Italy”), formed by the Milanese tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi had become wealthy through building speculation in Milan; he also had purchased the AC Milan football team in the early 1980s. His masterstroke, however, had been the creation and promotion of a series of hugely successful television and advertising companies. His Milanese base helped him to form FI, which won the national elections in 1994. Berlusconi served as prime minister of Italy for less than a year before a corruption investigation and political disputes led to his resignation. Nevertheless, he was reelected to the post in 2001 and 2008, the latter time at the helm of a new centre-right party, the People of Freedom (Popolo della Libertà).

Milan entered the 21st century with a dynamic economy that had transformed itself into a postindustrial powerhouse, thanks to the city’s central market location, a capable commercial and financial class, and the relatively cheap labour of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Many areas within the city were redeveloped and revitalized, and Milan could justly claim to be a world capital of fashion, design, finance, business services, and media and publishing.

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Alberto Lecco

John Foot