Milan, 18 January 2021
In these times of Covid restrictions, my wife and I have been exploring hikes closer to home, hikes which allow us to more or less stay within the limits of the commune of Milan, or at least not stray too far outside of it. The latest such hike we’ve done has taken us along one of the old canals which radiate out from Milan, the Naviglio della Martesana. I fear we might have exceeded the legal limit of where we could go. In our defence, the designations of which Covid tier Milan is in has been changing from day to day, making it quite hard to know just how far we are allowed to travel outside of Milan. I trust my readers will not snitch on us!
In any event, the hike was some 30 km long, undertaken over several days, and took us from the north-east of Milan out to the river Adda, which drains lake Como. It’s not a physically challenging hike. Following a canal means no brutal climbs or descents, and the path is paved the whole way – the path is actually a bicycle path, and the only real challenge is to keep out of the way of bicyclists who race along at high speeds, their riders no doubt dreaming of fame and glory in the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia.
First, a little bit of history. Building of the canal started in 1460, under Francesco Sforza, the first of the Sforza dynasty to rule over the Duchy of Milan.
The canal took its waters from the river Adda (which at the time was the Duchy’s eastern frontier with Venice) and carried them over the flat plain that lies between the river Adda and Milan, passing various towns and crossing various rivers along the way. At first, it finished several kilometres to the north of the city, emptying into the river Seveso, but then in 1496 Francesco’s son, Galeazzo Maria, extended it with a short new canal, the Naviglio di San Marco, and joined it up with the series of canals which encircled Milan, the Cerchia dei Navigli.
This map shows the track of the canal.
Alert readers will have noticed the trace of the canal is not all that straight, it zigs and zags a bit. The topography certainly didn’t require this – there was no need to go around hills and such like. The land between the river Adda and Milan is as flat as a pancake, so by rights – to reduce construction costs – the canal should have been a straight line between river and city. But all the landowners on that flat plain wanted the canal to come their way so that they could use the water to irrigate their fields. And the towns that dotted the plain wanted the canal as a source of water and to keep their moats topped up. All these different groups brought pressure to bear on the canal’s planners, so the canal ended up winding this way and that way across the plain as those who had the most influence pulled the canal towards them. Which is just as well for me and my wife; walking along a dead straight canal would have been very monotonous.
There were also quarrels right from the start about which uses of the canal should get priority. As we’ve seen, the landowners wanted to use it for irrigation. But a good number of them also wanted to use its energy to drive watermills, as did the towns. And the landowners also wanted the canal as a means of transportation to bring their (mainly) agricultural goods to market. For their part, the rulers of Milan were more interested in the canal as a means of transportation to move goods and so promote the city’s and the Duchy’s economy. They also wanted it to be part of their defensive system against the dratted Venetians to the East. Irrigation tended to drop the level of water in the canal, which was a problem for navigation since the boats wouldn’t have enough draft as well as for the mills because the flow wouldn’t be strong enough to drive the wheels. But maintaining enough draft and a swift enough flow meant cutting back on irrigation, which was bad for the crops. Tempers flared, lawsuits were filed, and no doubt swords were drawn. In the end, though, a modus vivendi was arrived at, and from the 1580s onwards irrigation coexisted more or less peacefully with other uses of the canal’s waters.
At some point, the Milanese aristocracy discovered the delights of the countryside and many built villas along the canal, reachable by boat from their houses in town. So we have this painting from 1790 of one of these villas in Crescenzago (now on the outskirts of Milan), showing also the normal traffic along the canal.
And we have here a painting from 1834 of the Milanese extension of the canal, the Naviglio San Marco, just before it joined the Cerchia dei Navigli.
Then the industrial revolution came along. New means of transportation competed with canals, first railways then roads. The Martesana canal steadily lost out to these upstarts and was only able to remain competitive when heavy lifting was required: sand, stone, coal, wood. Here we have one of those loads being moved along the canal (shown in the-then new medium of photography).
In the meantime, exploding populations meant that villages along the canal grew and became urbanized, as shown in this photo of the same Crescenzago which was the subject of my first painting above.
These growing villages bled into each other, smothering the farmland that once lay between them, with the ones closer to Milan being in turn submerged by the expansion of that city, eventually becoming its outer suburbs. Much of the growth around Milan was driven by the factories which established themselves on its periphery. A good number of them were located along the Martesana canal and Milan’s other canals, as this photo shows.
In 1929, the demand for road space to ease vehicle congestion in Milan (along, it must be said, with a need to deal with public health concerns) meant that the Cerchia dei Navigli was covered over, along with the Naviglio San Marco.
In the late 1950s, the authorities overseeing the canal bowed to reality and decreed that the canal would no longer be used for transportation, only irrigation. Finally, in 1968, after the municipal authorities had concluded that the covers of the Cerchia dei Navigli and the Naviglio San Marco were in danger of collapsing, they decided to simply fill these in and reroute the waters of the Martesana canal into an overflow canal. This went around the inner core of the city and emptied into the dried-up bed of the Seveso river south of the city. The authorities also decided that more space was needed for Milan’s burgeoning car population and so covered another section several kilometers long at the canal’s end and turned this into a wide avenue, via Melchiorre Gioia.
And so out in the countryside, irrigation had finally won the centuries-long arguments about irrigation vs. navigation, while in Milan itself the canal had become a relic of a bygone era, slowly falling apart and becoming for all intents and purposes an open drain.
Luckily, as I’ve also mentioned in a much earlier post about an abandoned railway line, good sense eventually prevailed. Led by Milan, in the 1980s the communes through which the canal passed got their act together. They cleaned up the canal’s towpath and turned it into a cycle path, and generally encouraged their citizens to use the canal as a park. That’s where things stood when my wife and I embarked on our hike along the canal.
We started where the canal’s waters disappear under via Melchiorre Gioia.
We turned our backs on the city and started walking out towards the distant Adda river. One of the old houses which had graced the canal in its heyday greeted us. As part of the urban renewal which accompanied the upgrading of the canal in the 1980s, its owners had renovated it and painted it a welcoming yellow.
But already, hulking over this old building, we could see the blocks of flats put up during the 1960s and 70s as the city expanded outwards at breakneck speed. It was a harbinger of things to come, as we walked for kilometres through a jumble of old and abandoned, old but renewed, shining new, and new but already showing signs of wear and tear. Even though drawn in 1945, this cartoon captures beautifully the chaos of today’s urban reality which the old canal now threads its way through.
Here we have one railway bridge after another spanning the canal.
New blocks of flats giving onto the canal.
The jumble of tiny gardens which people have carved out of spaces along the canal.
Industrial chimneys, relics of factories which once abutted the canal.
in the next case being recycled into a new use as a pole on which to fix transmitters of the newest means of communication, mobile phones.
Old houses which have been lucky enough to be renovated
Others which are struggling against the odds.
As befits an urban backwater, and as the last photo attests, graffiti on every wall. Most of it the usual ugly, mindless initials, but some eye-catching:
– an impossibly elaborate flower turning into a person on the arch of a railway bridge
– an amusing reminder that we are walking along a bicycle path
– a swirl of brightness
– square upon square of colour
The first of the villas which used to grace the canal’s edge
once surrounded by countryside, but now hemmed in and overshadowed by ugly modernity
The walls again, but this time carriers of messages, most of the lovesick type:
– “I love you Vale”
but sometimes in a more reflective, philosophical tone, which seemed apt in this urban chaos we were walking through:
– “What a shitty life”
and a line from Bob Marley and the Wailers’ 1973 song, the aptly titled “Concrete Jungle”
Finally, on the outskirts of Milan, the first encounter with the countryside, but an encounter showing it to be beleaguered and under threat from the urban sprawl at our backs:
– An example of one of the many crumbling ruins of farmhouses which dot the Italian countryside, victims to rural flight over the last sixty years
– the use of the countryside as a place to flytip our urban wastes
We passed under the ring motorway which is effectively the border of Milan. Had we broken out of the concrete jungle? Alas not. The housing continued. We passed the broken down gate of what must once have been the water gate of a fine villa but which now gives onto an ugly, messy, nondescript yard; the villa itself has vanished.
Spanking new, neat and tidy blocks of flats, but in places which the French call quartiers dortoirs, dormitory districts, places with no shops, no amenities, nothing – just places where commuters can sleep before heading back into town to work.
But a more rural feel began to creep in.
Cottages along the waterfront.
And finally, after some 15 kilometres of walking, some real fields! With the snow-capped mountains glistening on the horizon.
One of the irrigation channels fed by the canal, the water cascading away.
The last villa we passed, and the most imposing of them all, the Villa Alari.
Its history is a metaphor for the canal’s history as a whole. It was built at the beginning of the 18th Century on a magnificent scale, as this print shows.
So magnificent was it that the Austrian Governor of Lombardy, Archduke Ferdinand, rented it over several summers and even negotiated, without success, to buy it (his mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, nixed the idea, considering the asking price too high). After passing down through the Alari family and, by marriage, into a branch of the Visconti family, it was donated by its last Visconti owner in 1944 to the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God in Milan. By then, it had lost the lands around it and with them its magnificent gardens. The Brothers first used the villa as a psychiatric hospital and then as a nursing home. In 2007, they palmed it off onto the municipality, which must be asking itself what the hell to do with the building.
Another of those large farm complexes which dot the plains of the River Po and which, like so many others, has been pretty much abandoned (it was so large it needed two photos to capture it).
In the distance, the new housing complexes of today, feeding their inhabitants to Milan via an extension of one of the city’s subway lines – one of the new forms of transportation which took the place of the canal.
One of the few remaining locks on the canal, which are sadly firmly and irrevocably shut.
One last look across a ploughed field at the mountains, closer now, their snow glistening in the sun.
And we finally arrived in Cassano d’Adda, perched on the river, where we took the train back to Milan.