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History of Milan

The beginning

The city of Milan was founded around 400 BC by the Insubres, a Gaulish population that lived on the north side of the River Po.

The Romans conquered the settlement in 196 BC and renamed it Mediolanum due to its strategic geographical location, in-between important commercial routes. Mediolanum was also perfectly well situated for the Romans to defend themselves from the Germanic tribes.

Rome controlled Gallia Cisalpina (a Roman province) from Mediolanum and in 15 BC, emperor Augustus declared the town capital of the Transpadania region.  

Milan and its symbol, the Cathedral

Towards the third century, Milan became the capital of Italia annonaria (the north of Italy). The Roman Empire was divided into several dioceses and Maximian was made responsible of Milan and the north to strengthen the region, which was threatened by the barbarians from the Danube and the Alpes.  Due to the same threat from the barbarians, the western capital was moved from Mediolanum to Ravenna in 402.

An agreement called the Edict of Milan was signed in 313 AD in which the Western Roman Emperor Constantine I made Christianity legal. In 374 AD, St Ambrose was named bishop of Milan by popular acclamation. During the fourth century, Ambrose was a very influential figure in Christianity. 

In 452, the Huns sacked Milan.

From the Middle Ages to the Duchy of Milan

In 493 the Ostrogoths led by their king Theoderic the Great ruled Italy under the theoretical sovereignty of Constantinople (actual Istanbul). During this period, Milan was eclipsed by Pavia, the new capital of Lombardy.

Santa Maria delle Grazie
Santa Maria delle Grazie

In 539, Milan was sacked by the Ostrogoths and was later conquered in 569, until the town was seized by the Franks and Charlemagne in 774.

During the Carolingian empire (from 774 until 962), the Arabs controlled the Mediterranean and Milan prospered as a centre of trade, benefiting from the growth of trade between the east and the west, across the Adriatic Sea.

In 961 Otto I of Germany invaded the Kingdom of Italy. For the following centuries, until 1266, the area was continually contested between the civil and religious powers. During the eleventh century, the government was no longer controlled by the count, but by the archbishop.  Under the influence of Archbishop Aribert of Milan, the church of Milan became extremely powerful thanks to their loyalty towards Conrad II, Holy Roman Emperor.   

Beginning with Otto I of Germany and ending with Napoleon, Milan became the city where many emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were crowned with the Iron Crown of Lombardy.  

During the eleventh century Milan witnessed the struggles between the Lords, Knights and the bourgeois families, which joined forces to crush a popular movement that had been disappointed by the withdrawal of Emperor Henry II’s reform policy and approach to the high Milanese clergy.

The high society of Milan who elected the consuls each year, were aided by the Council of Credenza, to make these consuls Advisors of the Bishop in order to get rid of the ecclesial power (by the end of the twelfth century).

During the twelfth century Milan had thousands of workers and was extremely wealthy. During this period, the nobles and the plebeians were constantly struggling for the power. In 1198, there was a rupture between the various inhabitants of Milan and the popolani (plebeians) set up their own council of trust called “Credenza di Sant’ Ambrogio”.

The city was destroyed in 1162 by Frederick I Barbarossa. He took advantage of the internal and external struggles against neighbouring provinces to impose his sovereignty in Milan. The Milanese rebelled against the emperor with the help of the Lombard League and defeated Barbarossa at the battle of Legnano. After the Peace of Constance was signed in 1183, Milan became a duchy.

The internal struggles for domination of Milan continued during the following centuries. In the thirteenth century, the Torriani and the Guelphs (the partisans of the Pope) and anti-Visconti families took the lordship of Milan, against the Visconti and the Ghibellines (supporters of the Holy Roman Emperors).

In 1311 King Henry gave the title of imperial vicar for Milan to Matteo I Visconti and unseated the Torriani. In 1317, he had become general lord of Milan and his power had spread throughout the north of Italy.

The fourteenth to the eighteenth century. The Duchy of Milan

The Duchy of Milan was a region of Milan that became extremely important financially and politically. It was the great power of the north of Italy during the Middle Ages.

Basilica of Sant' Ambrogio
Basilica of Sant' Ambrogio

The territory of Milan expanded under the reign of the first Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, in 1385 with the annexation of Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Pisa, Persua and Bologna.

The Duchy of Milan was created in 1395 when Galeazzo Visconti bought a diploma from King Wenceslaus giving him the title of Duke of Milan.

When the Visconti dynasty ceased to exist in 1447, Milan was declared an Ambrosian Republic until 1450 when Francesco Sforza conquered the city and the House of Sforza succeeded the Visconti. Immediately, Francesco Sforza was proclaimed Duke of Milan. He was married with one of the Visconti’s daughter.

Milan was conquered by the King of France Louis XII in 1499 and claimed the Duchy for himself (his grandmother had been a member of the Visconti family). The French maintained the power in Milan until 1529, with a short break between 1512 and 1515 when the Swiss threw the French out. In 1515, Francis I invaded the area again. The French were defeated by Charles V and Milan was made part of Habsburg Spain. Francesco II Sforza fought with Venice, Florence, the Pope and the French against the Habsburgs. Consequently, Sforza was thrown out of Milan but regained control of the city in 1529.

Francesco II Sforza died without any heirs in 1535 and the Duchy of Milan became part of the Spanish Empire, although the French claimed the Duchy, leading to more wars between the Spanish and French. In 1556, Charles V abdicated in favour of his son Philip II.

From 1540 until 1714, the Kings of Spain dominated the Duchy of Milan and the city of Milan was considered a provincial capital.

The Duchy of Milan became a wealthy area thanks to the richness of the land, which was irrigated by the River Po, the opening of the Gotthard tunnel, the wool and silk industries, minting gold coins and a successful weapons industry. During the fourteenth century, Milan had 100.000 inhabitants and reached 200.000 by the end of the fifteenth century.

Milan was the capital of the Duchy of Milan. The city became an important spot for Milanese Renaissance thanks to Ludovico Maria Sforza (Duke of Milan between 1494 and 1499). He was Leonardo da Vinci and other renowned artists’ patron, inviting them to paint in Milan.

Another important family for Milan were the Borromeo, especially Federico Borromeo (1564 – 1631) who was the Archbishop of Milan and founder of the Ambrosian Library.

In 1713 Spain relinquished the Duchy of Milan to Austria by the Treaty of Utrecht, although it tried to reconquer it twenty years later. The Austrians reformed the city transforming it into a modern city, after years of neglect by the Spaniards.

In 1797, Napoleon invaded Milan and the rest of Italy and declared the city the capital of the Cisalpine Republic.

Nineteenth century

From 1799 until 1802, the power was restored to the Austrians until January 1802, when Napoleon became president of the Republic of Italy and in 1805, he was crowned king of Italy in Milan.

The Congress of Vienna returned the city to Austrian control in 1815 and Milan became capital of Lombardy.

Milan was one of the main focuses of Italian nationalism. In 1848, the Milanese rebelled against Austrian rule, during the battle of “Five-Days”, from 18 to the 22 of March. Nevertheless, Milan was still subject of the Austrian monarchy until 1859.

That same year the Austrians left Milan, and the city and Lombardy were incorporated into the Kingdom of Sardinia. A few years later Milan became part of the Kingdom of Italy with the unification of Italy. The capital of Italy was moved to Florence and then back to Rome, although the financial capital of the country was considered Milan.

Present day Milan

Shopping in Milan, Via Montenapoleone
Via Montenapoleone, the best shopping street

Mussolini founded the fascist party in Milan in 1919. His followers created numerous strikes, harassed certain sectors of the population, like the liberals, and assaulted the worker’s newspapers and repressed the worker’s committees in Milan during the first years.

In 1944, the anti-fascist groups in the north of Italy organized a northern Liberation Committee and Milan was freed from the German troops in 1945 thanks to a general strike, which lasted several days.

After World War II, Milan became a prosperous industrial city with a large working class. The city was sometimes a place of social conflict and political unrest.

Presently, Milan is the second largest city in Italy and the wider Milan metropolitan area has a population of over 8 million people. It is Italy’s main industrial, financial and commercial center and along with Paris, is Europe’s fashion and design capital.