Have you ever thought of Milan as a city of water?
Five large water canals, or as they are known as naviglis locally, flow across Milan. If you look at Venice from above, Milan uncovers a shiny, watery map, something similar to what one experiences when in Venice or Amsterdam but on a smaller scale.
A long time ago, the canals were built for defensive purposes by deviating the waters of the Ticino river. Naviglio Grande, the city’s most important canal, was first conceived in 1157 as a massive ditch dug against Frederick Barbarossa (Frederic the First) and his barbaric horde. Today, with its 50-kilometer extension, the Grande stretches to the very heart of Milan, Porta Ticinese, from the city of Varese .
Survivors of the the dark ages, invasions and harsh battles, canals became increasingly important for transport, commerce and agriculture. It is often said that Milan was built mostly thanks to Navigli. In fact, the construction of world well-renowned Duomo cathedral was made possible in 1387 because of the marble and stones transported from the Candoglia caves on the waters of the Naviglio Grande.
Starting around the 15th century, many local engineers participated in the creation of the water system. Leonardo Da Vinci was only one among them.
Commerce flourished thanks to the Grande, which provided an easy, cheap and safe way from Switzerland and Lake Maggiore, and Naviglio di Bereguardo, for all those goods coming from Venice and the Far East. Although this function has slowly decayed in the past few centuries, the canal has been extremely significant for a city with no direct connection to the sea, and greatly contributed to its growth.
In contrast to the commercial function, with transportation of goods deployed to more efficient communication channels over time, the Grande have always maintained their primary role in agriculture. Since the 13th century, they have served as an irrigation system for the surrounding agricultural fields. In particular, efficient water supply allowed for an abundant, long-lasting rice culture which is now recognized as typical of the Milan area.
However, the Grande also served to one more pressing need. Until the end of the 19th century, personal hygiene in Europe was primarily measured according to how many times a day you would change your garments.
Clean, fresh garments — rather than clean bodies — meant elegance, taste and attention to personal hygiene and hence the profession, the laundress, came out of it. In Milan, rich people’s garments were washed up by local laundresses in the canals. Today, thoughtful visitors can still have a look at the Laundress Alley, a tiny structure along the Grande which has been preserved in memory of its past.
Surprisingly enough, the Grande has turned into one of the city’s most beloved leisure area in the latest years. It is especially popular among young people for its lively nightlife buzz, while most families prefer riding their bikes on the brand new bicycle path along the Naviglio della Martesana canal.
The city’s Navigli Institute has been active since 1998 to promote the preservation and valorization of the canals. Among the institute’s main activities, the main goal is bringing back to life the old navigable system once connecting Milan from Switzerland to Venice with the project From Switzerland to the Sea.
Once in Milan, fashion is a must on your bucket list but do not forget to have a drink at the Grande and think of its glorious 1,000 years of history.