Why Does Milano Have the Navigli Canal System?

What makes Milano special? Fashion and design are certainly big draws to the city, but as for physical aspects, the Navigli area is pretty unique. Venice and Amsterdam are cities that are very famous for their canals, but they’re not the only world cities historically using canals for transportation and irrigation. Milano still has some traces of a canal system that used to be much bigger.

Bridge over NavigliSome of the important functions of the canals include irrigation, transportation and especially transportation of goods. In fact, starting in the late 14th century, the marble used to build the Duomo was transported along the canal system from Candoglia, an area of Italy located near the Swiss border. Canals once reached all the way to the center of town, close to the Duomo.First things first. Most people who live in Milano are familiar with the local system of canals known as the Navilgi. But where did that name come from? The word naviglio does not mean “canal” in Italian, but rather “fleet.” It is most likely derived from the Latin navigium, which means “to navigate.”

Though irrigated systems date back to Milano’s foundation in the Roman times, the first part of today’s canal system dates back to the 12th century. The Ticinello canal was opened in 1179, allowing for the construction of the Naviglio Grande, the first of its kind built in Europe. Later, Leonardo da Vinci was the engineer behind the locks system at the end of the 15th century. The locks were need to solve the problem of different altitudes in the area and between canals.

As years went on,  more work was done by various rulers throughout the following centuries. In 1805 Napoleon completed work on the Naviglio Pavese, connecting Milano to the Po and therefore to the Mediterranean, with other routes leading to Lake Maggiore and Lake Como.

Then, during the second half of the 19th century, canal transportation lost some of its allure, partly because of its slow speed (only 3km per hour!) and in part because of the rise of rail transport. The Martesana canal was still used on a regular basis for passengers and supplies, but the internal ring fell out of fashion because of hygiene reasons and increased land traffic. With other industries and the city’s use of cars, the internal ring was covered in 1929-1930, during Fascist rule.

If you look around at the building surrounding the Naviglio Grande, they are very typical of Milano because they were built with the wealth of the canals: wrought-iron bridges, 19th century farms and palaces and churches (all built before the arrival of the automobile).

Today, however, many Milanese are for the re-establishment of the canals around the city, including the inner ring. Locals are generally very opinionated one way or the other, on the one hand believing the canals bring a unique flavor to the city with the hopes of helping a green revolution, on the other hand preferring to maintain space for cars and possibly preventing unhygienic conditions that lots of water could foster.

The people voted and made their opinions heard during a public referendum held earlier this year. The referendum, entitled “Restore the Darsena Canal and Re-Open the Milanese Navigli System,” states:

Would you like the City of Milan to reorganize the Darsena as a port of the city and an ecological area and gradually re-open the hydraulics and landscape of the Milanese Navigli system based on a specific project?

The referendum was passed by citizens, but there is still a lot of controversy behind the initiative. It’s now only a matter of time before we see what changes will be made.

For more detailed information about the Navigli, check out these sources (in Italian):

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