Milan’s district ‘Isola’ developed between the second half of 1800 and the first one of 1900. The name itself comes from an episode of that time: the construction of the railway in 1865 which divided and isolated the area from the rest of the city. Initially Corso Como and Via Borsieri (which included the present-day Via Thaon di Revel too) were a single road which led to Como.Originally the Sanctuary S. Maria alla Fontana, whose construction started in 1507, was known for its miraculous water (a kind of SPA outside the walls). They used to say that rich people were treated here and that the poor in the centre (the Ca’ Granda, where today the University of Milan is located, was in fact “the hospital of the poor”).
So, it’s not due to the water (which, however, the Seveso river brought sometimes) that the Isola district was named ‘an island’ (Isola in italian means island). As a matter of fact, it is due to the railway, which reduced the transition between the different districts, and the pedestrian bridges that isolated the island.
Even the famous Barigozzi brothers’ Foundry had to face the isolated nature of the district. The Foundry (which now is a private museum of industrial archeology based in Thaon di Revel 21) inherited the space that Eugenio of Beauharnais (Napoleon’s stepson and viceroy of Italy) took from the Sanctuary S. Maria alla Fontana and turned into a bronze foundry. Here, as a first example of modern factory in Milan (1807), more than 200 martinitt worked.
Being the biggest foundry and the only one able to realize such a great work seamlessly, the Barigozzi Foundry was given the responsibility to realize the bronze, equestrian statue of the King, Vittorio Emanuele II (now in Duomo square).
The statue was finished in 1893 after the death of the designer of the project, Ercole Rosa. However, it was actually placed just in 1896, not only because of the uncertainty of where to place it (Duomo? Palazzo Reale?) but, most importantly, because of the difficulty in moving it from the Isola to the Duomo (through a narrow and steep bridge).
In the end, the problem was solved by two steamrollers that hauled the wagon with the equestrian statue….Another historical place in the district was the cemetery of the ‘Mojazza’ (so called because of the muddy ground), which stood between the current Lagosta Square and Via Perasto and was managed by the Curch of S. Maria alla Fontana. Many famous people are buried here (Cesare Beccaria, Giuseppe Parini, Melchiorre Gioia, Francesco Melzi d’Eril…). When cemetery was closed on the 22nd October 1896 (after the opening of the monumental cemetery), the transport of the bodies was again practically impossible.
Only a stone in the court of a popular house in Lagosta Square1 remembers these famous citizens of the city. At the start of 19th Century the Isola was mainly a district of workers, thanks to the proximity of large factories such as Tecnomasio-Brown-Boveri (via De Castilia), Pirelli (Via Ponte Seveso) and the Swiss (Via Melchiorre Gioia) .
By following the dictates of the first plan of Milan (Beruto, 1889) the district’s blocks were regular (about 120x100m), the basement was dedicated to shops and craft shops, with bigger stores in the inner courtyards. The upper floors, meant for the residences, were of two different types: gallery (for small and crowded workers’ houses with external toilets) or landing (for the middle class with two/four bedrooms and bathroom).
Many architects of the “rationalism of Milan” expressed their art at Isola during the ‘30s (Terragni, Lingeri, Griffini, Manfredi, Baldessari, Giò Ponti…)
Very active during the World War II Resistance, the district dedicated to the victims of the war a few tombstones and a monument inaugurated on April 25, 1972 Via Sassetti / MM Gioia and now located (thanks to the DUC and Catella Foundation) in Segrino Square (since December 2009).
Between and after the war, the district was famous as the base of the ligera, the Milanese organized crime about which many songwriters wrote about (Giorgio Gaber, Enzo Jannacci, Giorgio Strheler, Ornella Vanoni, Walter Valdi, Nanni Svampa).
As a matter of fact Ezio Barbieri (who’s still alive) was considered the #1 public danger during ’45-’46, especially for the beauty of his many rubberies with a black Lancia Aprilia with a 777 numberplate (the phone number to call the police…).
Barbieri’s sisters (who were also participants in beauty queen contests) ran a restaurant (Cavallino Bianco) in Porro Lamberghini.Captured and taken to San Vittore (Milan’s main prison), Barbieri was the star of the “Easter Red,” an uprising during the Easter 1946, on which Alberto Bevilacqua wrote one of his first novels.
As a consequence of the 1953 Regulator Plan, the railway was moved and the new Garibaldi station as well as a six-lane link road favoring the connection with the centre were built. So, there were expropriations, demolitions and struggles against the choice.Other expropriations and transfers followed the work for the green line of the tube (MM2). All of this has contibuted to a significant number of city-owned properties with houses for rent in the district, thus keeping the social mix. At Isola, in fact, the so-called ‘gentrification’, which is the physical improvement of the real estate assets, the change in the management of residential rental property, the rise in prices and the removal or replacement of existing working population by the middle classes occurred softly.
Nowadays, Isola is a neighborhood that has maintained a “flavor” of twentieth-century historic district, with narrow streets, traffic speed spontaneously limited, a popular and street life whose shops and market stalls are the soul. The associative and cultural presence is more alive than ever at the Isola.There are a few bookshops, two theaters for both adults and kids. The Verdi Teather in Via Pastrengo 16 was the seat of Verdi chorale at the begenning of 1900 and has been run by the Buratto Theather since 1975; the Fontana Teather Hall in Via Boltraffio 2 brings to life shows from the ‘80s and has been managed by the ELSINOR company since 2000. A Jazz Club linked to an international network, the Blue Note, opened in 2003 in Via Borsieri 37.
At the same time, in the district a new part of the city centre is currently in development, both inside (the Bosco Verticale and the Casa della Memoria still under construction) and at its boundary (Gae Aulenti squadre, Cesar Pelli’s Unicredit tower, the varesine diamond). This will be one of the best parts served by transport links (three tube lines, the Passante, the railways) and will be home
to the new city skyline.
The relationship between history and future is Isola’s great gamble.
The DUC, Distretti Urbani del Commercio (Trade’s Urban Districts), established by the D.G. Regione Lombardia 7730/2008, are defined as “areas with homogeneous features for which public and private suggest INTEGRATED OPERATIONS MANAGEMENT in the common interest of a social, cultural and economical development and of the environmental enhancement of the urban and territorial of reference”.
Through the DUC, the Local Institutions, and, firstly, the Municipality and the most representative associations of the sector, with the support of a public-private relationship:
- promote the integrated development of an urban space with retail businesses;
- promote competitiveness and innovation of the enterprise system of trade and they also recognize how the marketing function plays a strategic role in the support of social and territorial cohesion;
- highlight the benefit coming from a joint rather than an individual management of business;
- enhance and promote the cooperation between operators;
- enhance the development of a skilled employment.
The DUC were born after a first informal meeting promoted by the ‘Union of Trade’ and, later on, after the agreement of a program signed on 14th of July, 2009 between:
- Municipality of Milan;
- The Trade Union and the Province of Milan;
- Milan’s Chamber of Trade;
- Revel Isola Association;
- Borsieri Isola Garibaldi Association;
- Cooperativa Città e salute;
- Ada la Stecca;
- Amaze lab;
- Fondazione Catella;
- Isola srl.
The DUC aims to enhance the Isola neighborhood, characterized by the presence of:
- a commodity mix
- neighborhood’s shops
- local of public exercise that won’t stand above the daytime life in favour of the nightlife (movida) dominate the daytime life in favor of the nightlife (nightlife);
- a market (twice a week, every tuesday and saturday)
- craft workshops
- non-profit and cultural associations
The DUC’s development stands as a bet between tradition and innovation, between a district of the twentieth century and a district of the third millennium.