Populated with clubs, restaurants and meeting places, the Milanese Navigli are rich in history and curiosities to be discovered. An obligatory stop in Milan.
The Navigli, a system of artificial, navigable canals, were built between the 12th and 16th centuries, to provide the city with water and to transport goods. They connected Milan to Lake Maggiore, Lake Como and the lowest part of Switzerland. Over the years, they were enlarged and improved. Between 1439 and 1475, 90 km of canals were built and made navigable with 25 locks. In 1482, following his arrival in Milan, Ludovico Il Moro, the Duke of Milan, commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to study a system that would improve navigation of the Navigli, to overcome the challenge of the different levels of elevation between the highest and lowest parts of the city. Leonardo perfected a system of locks, small dams that could be regulated to allowed boats to travel either up or downstream. However, it was only in 1805, under Napoleon, that the construction of the Navigli was completed. This meant that the sea could be reached via the Naviglio Pavese and the Po river, Lake Maggiore via the Naviglio Grande and the Ticino river, and Lake Como via the Naviglio Martesana and the Adda river. During the second half of the 19th century, following the development of other viable methods of transportation, Milan’s system of canals fell into disuse, and between 1929 and 1930, primarily for reasons of health and hygiene, the inner ring was completely covered over.
Today, the remains of what was once an avant-garde navigable system are scattered throughout the city, almost like a widespread monument, of which traces emerge here and there. The only canals still visible today include the Naviglio Grande and the Naviglio Pavese comprising the aforementioned Navigli district, the Naviglio Martesana located north-east of the city, plus a small stretch of canal in the Brera neighbourhood, where the ‘Conca dell’Incoronata’, designed by Leonardo, and located in via San Marco, is still visible.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Milan’s Navigli and its past as a ‘city of water’, head to the Navigli Museum. Visiting the museum is like taking a trip into medieval times. By descending the steps that lead to an area located below street level, you can admire the structure of the old house that now houses the museum. Highlights include a labyrinth of beautifully preserved rooms, walls, red brick arches and medieval ceilings, plus the old blueprint of the artificial canal that flowed beneath the building. In addition to numerous views of the Navigli, painted by important Milanese artists, you can also see several sketches of the system of locks designed by Leonardo da Vinci to overcome the problem of the differences in elevation in the area.