A leap into the 13th - 16th centuries in the Duchy of Milan
We now come to a particular point that goes unnoticed by non-expert eyes.
Pier Candido Decembrio (Filippo Maria Visconti’s biographer) narrates that the duke, among his country residences, most frequently visited those not far from the city, such as the fortress of Cusago. This castle was set amidst woods and verdant thickets of trees specially planted, where he could give himself over to his passion for hunting. From there, he would set off for the not-too-distant castle of Abbiategrasso, when he did not go as far as Vigevano, notable for its frequent market, fortress and ducal palace. He also diverted from Milan a network of canals through which he could reach almost all the places he frequented, utilising a boat structured in such a way as to repeat the appearance of the ducal audience chamber and hall. So he let himself be taken first to Cusago, Abbiategrasso, Bereguardo and Pavia when, being too big to ride, he preferred to embark on this boat, called “carretta” and which was dragged by horses marching on the towpath”.
Duke Filippo Maria Visconti (1392-1447), therefore, thought well of how to easily reach the castle of Cusago, from Milan, without having to endure the journey on horseback or in a carriage on the bumpy and unsafe road from Baggio into the countryside.
The areas outside the cities, although under the protectorate of the duchy, were often wild. Most of the territory was covered by forests and meadows and could not be entirely controlled by the duchy militia. Only the tiny peasant settlements reported to the nearest castle and the orders of the local sheriff in command. One could encounter brigands and shady characters as soon as one left the main roads. For this reason, few ventured unarmed to roam the lands and forests where anything could happen.
So it was that Filippo Maria Visconti asked his ‘inzegneri’ (engineers) to build a waterway reserved for him, convenient and safe. He was responsible for excavating a navigable canal known as the ‘Naviglietto’, which led from the Naviglio Grande directly to Cusago. The channel’s opening was near Gaggiano, more or less where the Cascina Venezia farmstead stands today. The small waterway ran through the countryside for about 5 kilometres and was just wide enough for the ducal boats, known as “carrette”, to pass through. It was also relatively shallow since these little boats had little draught. In short, a private highway, a private waterway that avoided the Duke’s uncomfortable jolts.
It was sufficient for Filippo Maria to take a boat from Milan along the inner ditch, reach the Naviglio Grande, the Naviglietto, and finally disembark near the castle of Cusago. Here was a small, special dock to enjoy the company of his favourite mistress Agnese del Maino and his beloved daughter Bianca Maria.
The route is still identifiable today with today’s provincial road number 162, which connects the Naviglio Grande to Cusago, passing by the Naviglietto farmstead. This place’s name recalls the convenient waterway. This road was none other than the towpath of the Naviglietto Ducale, travelled by the horses that lifted and brought back upstream the Duke’s “barchini” (rafts). Today the Naviglietto, which still runs alongside the road, is almost unrecognisable, reduced to an irrigation canal, quite different from what it once was and represented.
Near the Cascina Naviglietto, there is a Park Point called ‘La Cavetta’, one of the 30 naturalistic points of the Parco Agricolo Sud Milano. One can enjoy here a landscape characteristic of the low Milanese plain before agricultural expansion. In such a small and unique atmosphere, it is possible to meditate on the naturalistic change of the area over the centuries and imagine a genuinely different landscape.
Let us now follow the ancient itinerary that connected and accompanied the duke, linking the castle to the Naviglio and vice versa.
Arriving at the Naviglio, we take the left, in the direction of Milan, following the riverside to Trezzano.