What the neighbourhood of Porta Ticinese in Milan used to look like and what it looks like today


Few places in Milan bear witness to the urban transformations experienced by the city more eloquently than the Ticinese neighbourhood. Its ancient Roman, Medieval, Spanish, Austrian and Napoleonic roots are plain for all to see despite its ultra modern appearance.

Today, the never-ending stream of cars and bikes makes it difficult to imagine a time when people would walk alongside the canals or cross over the small bridges, or when marble-laden barges made their way to the Milan Cathedral. Luckily, traces of the past have survived and help us to take a journey back in time.



The ancient Roman period: walls and the amphitheatre


In ancient Roman times, the modern-day neighbourhood lay outside Porta Ticinensis and the ancient walls surrounding Mediolanum, the ancient city of Milan. This is where the amphitheatre rose, and it was the third largest after the Colosseum and the amphitheatre of Capua. Even though it was almost completely destroyed in 539 A.D. during the Gothic War, significant traces have survived. Some can be found at the Antiquarium Alda Levi, but most are at the PAN, Parco Amphitheatrum Naturae, an archaeological park where a ring of trees will visibly demarcate the outer curve of the amphitheatre. This project is currently under completion.



The medieval period


On the other hand, traces of medieval Milan are more clearly visible, especially due to the Medieval Porta Ticinese, an extremely rare vestige of the walls which used to encircle the city between the eleventh and sixteenth century. This ancient gate was nicknamed “Porta Cicca” from the Spanish word “chica”, meaning “small”, because it originally only had one opening. This defect was corrected in 1861, when it was provided with two side openings.



The historic waterways (navigIi) of Milan: a system of defence and a feat of engineering


But as soon as you go past the medieval gate, you tread on ground where all traces of the past have faded away. Today, in the midst of the traffic that builds up along via De Amicis, Molino delle Armi and Santa Sofia once flowed the Cerchia Interna dei Navigli di Milano (the inner circle of the waterways of Milan), as transpires from some atmospheric black-&-white photos. Originally serving as a moat, this inner circle of waterways (Cerchia Interna) was broadened during the Middle Ages until it became navigable, connecting Milan with other nearby waterways, such as the Ticino river. This was made possible by a second ring of canals called the Outer Circle (Cerchia Esterna) which flowed along two avenues which are currently known as Viale D’Annunzio and Viale Beatrice d’Este.

This link between the Outer and Inner Circle is still visible today. The picturesque Conca di Viarenna (the Viarenna Basin) bears witness to an impressive feat of engineering accomplished in order to transport heavy blocks of Candoglia marble from the Val D’Ossola to Milan which were then used to build the Milan Cathedral. This is also why a ducal decree was issued in late 1497. The words can still be read on stone today and they narrate that the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo (Esteemed Cathedral Establishment) was exempted from payment of dues on barges transporting building materials, as shown by the letters “Auf” (from the Latin expression Ad usum fabricae, meaning “for manufacturing use”). And this acronym has given rise to the Italian idiom “a uffa” (or “a ufo”), which means “free of charge”.



The Darsena Docklands


Over the centuries, the navigli or the Milan waterways have informed this spot, lending it immense character. One instance of this is the Little Lake Of Sant’Eustorgio (Laghetto di Sant’Eustorgio), an artificial waterfront where barges and merchandise vessels used to stop. Although it has changed over the centuries, this little lake is still visible today and goes under the name Darsena. It is now a go-to nightlife spot in Milan.

Just beyond the Darsena, another Porta Ticinese has survived the ravages of time and tells of a Milan that no longer exists. Erected during Napoleonic times between 1802 and 1814 and designed by the Italian architect Luigi Cagnola, it was known as Porta Marengo for a short period of time. This gate stood on the same ground as the older Spanish Porta Ticinese built in the sixteenth century, which was part of the grandiose Spanish ramparts. Sadly, virtually nothing is left to be seen of it.


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