One surprising cultural destination
Milan is full of surprises, but only an experienced eye is able to reveal them. Between the busy streets of the city centre and the tall modern buildings that transpire economy and industrialisation, it is difficult to imagine a distant past, perhaps too distant for new visitors. This is why with a few suggestions, we rediscover a history that is still strong and alive, able to fascinate its explorers. Let’s explore the grandeur of Milano through its ancient past. Let’s rediscover ancient hidden values that are still solid and blended with modernity.
A model in wood of imperial era Mediolanum at the Archaeological Museum in Milan (by Bernt Rostad, CC BY 2.0 via WikiCommons)
The first concrete sources on the foundation of Milan date back to the Insubri Gauls. This population of Celtic origin migrated southwards from the cold Germanic territories. It arrived in Northern Italy, creating the first actual settlement around the 6th-4th century BCE, thus defining the origins of Milan. Some sources recall a curious legend about the foundation of Milan involving a young leader, an oracle and a wild animal.
However, the Insubrians soon attracted the attention of the rising power of Rome, which conquered the territory and Latinised the city. From then on, the humble settlement became a main provincial centre, known in history as “Mediolanum”. The name is a Roman version of its Celtic origin, meaning ‘village in the middle of the plain’. In fact, Milan is located in the centre of the Po Valley in northern Italy, and thanks to this strategic position, the colony achieved its grandeur in 286 BCE, becoming the capital of the Roman Empire.
To this day, the modern Mediolanum still bears important testimonies and examples of Roman buildings. Among the busy streets of the city centre, an ancient past reminds us of forgotten times, and Roman sites hide almost unnoticed even by the citizens. Although today’s relatively small number of findings compared to other famous Roman settlements, Mediolanum was a place of great importance that must be recounted and should not be forgotten.
Ancient map of Milan with its appearance in 1574 CE
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE and the various barbarian invasions, Milan was at the mercy of multiple peoples, who settled relatively briefly in the area of northern Italy.
New cultures and traditions were established, and Roman sites lost their use. As a result, they were often demolished and reused to construct other buildings.
Milan first came under Lombard domination, a germanic tribe that descended from far northern European territories and conquered the weak and defenceless Roman territories in the north of Italy. The course of events led Milano under the kingdom of the famous Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, to become part of this new empire.
Centuries later, the city of Milan sought independence, revolting with an alliance of other northern Italian cities. This will for freedom led to perhaps one of the most brutal events in the history of the town, namely the medieval siege and destruction in 1162 CE by Frederick Barbarossa, the renowned and feared emperor of the time. The invasion and the devastation spared only a few buildings and holy places throughout the city.
This despicable event gave rise to a deep hatred of the Milanese towards the German ruler, causing curious folklore stories.
Nevertheless, this period of destruction and war was later countered by great aesthetic movements and artistic styles, to which we owe works of immense splendour and uniqueness.
The following centuries were characterised by a period of true artistic and architectural splendour, the Renaissance. Prominent personalities such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Bramante, Raphael and many others lodged in the Seignories of the powerful Milanese families. Milan thus became a kingdom in its own right, famously known as the Duchy of Milan, with the noble and prestigious Visconti and Sforza families in power.
Here below are some of the most symbolic and representative buildings.
It followed centuries of foreign kingdoms’ dominations, which enormously influenced Milanese culture, tradition and art. In contrast to battles and periods of famine, new values, artistic movements and new attentions arose, bringing an incredible cultural and artistic exchange and embellishing prominent buildings. Next, Milan went through a period of foreign rule, falling victim to the European imperial expansionist politics of the Modern and Contemporary eras. There followed Spanish, Austrian and French dominations, which left deep scars but also new works and influences, shaping the city’s colourful past.
Today, this city is a famous industrial hub, attracting millions of citizens every year for its reputation as Italy’s fashion capital, shopping centre and transit centre for international flights. However, Milan is also, and perhaps above all, worthy of recognition for its other historical, artistic and cultural ‘face’, which deserves more visibility and exploration by its visitors. The city offers a wide range of history, culture and art that probably owe their existence to the many kingdoms that have tried to subjugate it. Therefore, Milan is a place that, with Its colourful past, offers a unique opportunity to be discovered and experienced.
It is precisely this ambivalence between the past and modernity that makes Milan both a shopping capital and a historical city.