Improbable though it may seem, less than fifty years ago Milan was still a viable port – and less than a hundred years ago several of its main arteries – including Via Senato and Via San Marco – were busy waterways.
In the twelfth century, the first canals linked irrigation channels and the various defensive moats of the city. Later, in 1386, the Naviglio Grande was opened, linking the city to the River Ticino and thus Lake Maggiore. It was Gian Galeazzo Visconti, however, who was really responsible for the development of the system, in the fourteenth century to transport the building materials for the Duomo, especially marble from Lake Maggiore.
Travellers were also seen on the canals: the ruling families of the north used them to visit one another, Prospero and Miranda escaped along the Navigli in The Tempest, and they were still plied by the Grand Tourists in the eighteenth century – Goethe, for example, describes the hazards of journeying by canal.
A number of rivers and canals were added to the system over the centuries. The Spanish developed the Darsena to the south in 1603 and under Napoleon’s regime the Naviglio Pavese was made navigable all the way to Pavia and down to the River Po, and so to the Adriatic. During the Industrial Revolution, raw materials like coal, iron and silk were brought into the city, and handmade products transported out with an efficiency that ensured Milan’s commercial and economic dominance of the region. The process of covering over the canals began in the 1930s, to make way for the city’s trams and trolley buses. In the 1950s, desperately needed materials were floated in for reconstructing the badly bombed city but by the mid-1970s, only a handful of canals were left uncovered; the last working boat plied the waters in 1977.
The best way to explore Milan’s waterways is on a relaxing boat trip. These run between April and mid-September when the canals are not being dredged or cleaned; for more information ask at the tourist office, call the information line on t 02 667 9131 or check w naviglilombardi.it.