The Navigli

Navigli's sluice door near Brera

Navigli's sluice door near Brera

One of the oldest landmarks in Milan and arguably its most charming district, the Navigli are today only a fraction of a capillary network of waterways which once served the city. The remaining canals, though few, shed light on how Milan must have looked and worked until the beginning of the 19th century. Construction of the Navigli started in the 1100's and half way through the following century a series of locks were added linking the canals to form a single system that provided the city's water supply, its defence, goods and the power source needed to drive the local economy. Between 1506 and 1513 Leonardo da Vinci designed the San Marco basin, linking the inner circle of the Navigli to the Naviglio Martesana, to the north of the city, thus connecting two major rivers, the Adda and the Ticino, and making it possible to traverse Milan entirely by water. This huge canal system was finally completed in 1805, under Napoleon, with the construction of the Naviglio Pavese, which linked Milan to the Po river and from there to the Adriatic sea nearly 300 km away, effectively turning this landlocked city into a thriving port. From the mid 18 hundreds to the 1930's, the canal system was slowly covered to make way for the city's main roads (Milan's internal ring road was once in fact a canal). Today only three of the Navigli have survived: the Naviglio Grande, the Naviglio Pavese and the Naviglio Martesana. The Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese are now a major nightlife district, where in the summer the Milanese sit beside the idly flowing waters sipping cocktails or eating ice creams. The Naviglio Martesana is used by weekend cyclists who can follow the canal all the way to the River Adda about 30 km away. Having discarded its industrial vestiges, Milan is looking to retrieve these romantic waterways in a return to a more sustainable past. Already part of the Navigli have been reopened to navigation, though today the barges have been substituted by quaint tourist boats and plans for the recovery of 'lost' canals are making ever greater headway.

Did you know?

Milan was once Italy's fourth largest port after Genoa, Venice and Naples.