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Milan on Water: Navigli, the Planning Legacy of Leonardo da Vinci

The term "naviglio" is the Italian term for "canal." Therefore, "Navigli" the plural of "naviglio," is the name for the artificial canals of Milan. They were built between 1179 (Naviglio Grande) and the 16th century (Naviglio Martesana) with the purpose of making Milan accessible from the Ticino and Adda rivers. These routes were not only used for commercial purposes but also for the transportation of marble used to build the Duomo Cathedral.

Naviglio Grande, Milan, Italy in 2014

What many people might not know is that the city of Milan and its Navigli canals are strongly linked to one of the greatest artists, architects, engineers, and geniuses of all time: Leonardo da Vinci. He made great contributions to a variety of fields and is one of the most well-known polymaths of the Italian Renaissance. He is also considered the planner of the city of Milan.

Leonardo da Vinci arrived in Milan in 1482 and was later recruited by Ludovico Sforza also known as Ludovico il Moro. Sforza gave him the task to research a system that could make the navigation between Lake Como and Milan possible. He designed a system of levees that aimed to make the distance navigable by solving the problem of altitude differences between the two places. Some of Da Vinci's sketches can be seen by visitors in the Navigli Museum. Milan of today, congested by construction and traffic, was once a city where water played an important role, especially in the construction of its touristic symbol.

Coverin Naviglio Grande, Milan, Italy

From the time of this project onward, Navigli kept developing with canals and connections. This is the time when water transportation became important means of communication for the city.

During Roman times, water was used in the sewer system and to facilitate transportation. In the 12th century it became an element of defense and added ample economic benefits thanks to its use in the agriculture (irrigation) and mill industries. By the end of 13th century, water was seen as a way to transport people and objects. The construction of water canals would become a on-going struggle that continues to this day.

It took thirty-five years, from 1439 until 1475, to buildninety kilometers of navigable canals in the Province of Milan. This was due to the city's twenty five, uniquely characteristic valleys. When Leonardo da Vinci started working on these new projects in 1482, the Martesana Canal improved. Its amelioration started the development of a new system of canals that would have made it possible to travel by canal from Valtellina to Milan, had the work been completed.

In the second half of the 19th century, the river transportation system started to decay. One reason was because it was extremely slow (3km/h), and another was because it now had to compete with the railway system. The train began to win out over river transportation within and outside the city walls. Partially because of this, the planning and designs for covering some of the canals began, but wasn't carried out until 1929.

Naviglio Grande empty, Milan, Italy

In the past three years, I have gotten the chance to see the canals go through different states of transformation. I remember that in 2011, they were empty and looked abandoned. It seemed that great potential was being lost. I also remember thinking it would have been hard to guess that an entire system of waterways lies under the city.

Today, the word Navigli is mostly associated with one of Milan's night-life districts and a place for vintage markets during the weekend. Milan's lost "aquatic city" is symbolized by the countless canals that are not developed or used to their full potential. However, there is hope for the canals' rebirth. Expo 2015 will try to mend the historical link of Milan with water through the Inland Water project (le Vie D`Aqua).

How can cities make the most of their relation with water and not forget the ways it has played into their history?

Credits: Images by Alexandra Serbana and linked to sources. Data linked to sources.