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History of Milan: the Middle Ages

Last updated on July 2, 2018

]It is hard to recap the middle ages in a few lines but we will give it a try. Steady, ready…go!

The end of the Roman Empire

During the whole fifth century AD Milan was often under attack. The barbarian invasions seriously affected the economy and prosperity of the city. In 452 AD Attila led his people (the Huns) to the city and confiscated goods and properties of the Milanese people. In 493 Teodorico (King of the Ostrogoths) defeated Odoacre responsible of the deposition of the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Romolus Augustus. The uncertainty of the stability led Iustinian the first, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, to send his troops to Milan to defend the city and the Empire from the gothic invaders. It was the beginning of the gothic war  between the Romans and the Goths (535 – 553 AD). Milan was completely destroyed in 538 and 539 AD during what it is known to be the siege on Milan. A few years later in 562 the Byzantine troops conquered the whole Italian territory and Milan was partially reconstructed thanks to Narset, the commander of the army, but the peace didn’t last that long. In 568 the Lombardic (The Langobards) people started their descent towards the Pianura Padana which was then renamed Langobardia Major and in 569 Alboinus conquered Milan. The struggles of the city led the wealthy Milanese people and the clergy to move to Genoa for more than seventy years. At the beginning of the seventh century Teodolinda was elected queen and her conversion to the Catholicism was a crucial factor in the reconstruction of the city.

The Carolingian era

The eighth century, also known as the Carolingian era, was a period of resurrection for Milan which went back to be the capital of the Langobards after they left Pavia (a few miles south of Milan). Two centuries of substantial peace brought back prosperity and wealth. Trade and exportation towards France and Germany were among the main businesses that made Milan the throbbing heart of the region’s economy. This is probably why Frederick the first (aka Frederick Barbarossa) put his eyes on the city and decided to conquer it. In 1162 he crossed the Alps and razed Milan. The defeat marks the end of an era which led to battles among dynasties ruling the territory at that time. Two families were battling to get the control of the city. The Della Torre family was finally defeated by the Visconti at the end of the 13th century. It is the beginning of an important development for the city.

The Lords of Milan

Gian Galeazzo Visconti begins the construction of the Duomo Cathedral in 1395 AD. This demonstrates how prosperous was the economy and how important Milan became compared to other North Italian cities. It is believed that the city counted more than 100.000 citizens at that time. The Visconti dynasty ended in 1447 when Filippo Maria Visconti died without any heir to replace him. The mercenary Francesco Sforza took the power and gave to Milan a boost in terms of art and culture development. The Sforza family completed the enlargement and renovation of the castle, commissioned the construction of the Ospedale Maggiore (the main hospital of the city) and above all started a fruitful cooperation with two of the main artists of that time (and of all times!): Leonardo da Vinci and Bramante. The first painted the Last Supper in the canteen of the Dominican monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie, while the second contributed to the construction of the basilica. Leonardo was also involved in the engineering of the artificial canals that crossed the city: the Navigli.


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