A little History
One decisive influence on the development of the people of Lombardy certainly comes from the great migration of the Celtic tribes towards the Po valley, which took place between the fifth and fourth centuries BC on the part of the Insubri who founded Milan; just as the foundation of Bergamo is due to the Orobi tribe, and the importance gained by Brescia, which became the most powerful city in the region due to the Cenòmani tribe.
Two centuries later the Roman militia extended their dominion over all of the plains of the Po, which was later connected to the Emilian road.
At the end of the fifth century AD, with the defeat of the barbarian king Odoacer, the Po valley fell under the control of Theodoric until, with the Lombard invasion of Italy (568-72), Pavia became the central seat of the new kingdom. Lombard rule lasted for two centuries and was determined by the elaboration of a culture in which new elements of the various human and religious activities were grafted to the Western Roman world. This Roman world was supposed to recover from the total decadence into which it had fallen with the last emperor, Romolo Augustolo (476).
After the Lombards came the Franks who, as Manzoni tells in the tragedy Adelchi, with the capture of Desiderius in Pavia by Charlemagne founded the Kingdom of Italy with its capital in Pavia. It was with the Emperor Ottone I that Lombardy became part of the Holy Roman Empire and it was in 1155 that Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa became King of Italy. It was about this same Barbarossa that Carducci relates in his ode “Il Giuramento di Pontida” and against whom he formed the first Lombard League in anti-imperial function between the cities of Milan, Bergamo, Lecco, Cremona, Mantua and Brescia. With the defeat of Barbarossa at Legnano, the cities of the League obtained communal rights and autonomy which allowed a remarkable economic and cultural development throughout the territory. The event of epochal importance in the formation of a new world must be remembered: the opening of the Gotthard road, from Milan to Rhineland via Luzern and Basel.
The year 1278 signalled the decline of autonomy because Ottone Visconti, Archbishop of Milan and head of the noble party was proclaimed ‘signore’ (Seignior) of Milan. Thus began the Visconti ‘signoria’ (Signory) which, with various ups and downs, lasted until 1450 when Francesco Sforza, son-in-law of Filippo Maria Visconti who died without an heir, became Duke of Milan.
The ‘signoria’ of the Visconti signaled a period of great cultural vitality. In the last decades of the fourteenth century Galeazzo Visconti had built the splendid castle of Pavia, where he loved to surround himself with scholars and artists such as Petrarch, who lived with the Visconti ‘signoria’ for many years.
A debt is owed to Galeazzo Visconti for the foundation of the castle library destined to become rich and famous, and for the foundation of the University of Pavia. He was succeeded by his son Giangaleazzo, a great prince, and a great patron at whose court were the greatest culinary chefs of the era, preparing sumptuous banquets at which they excelled in the preparation of both bovine and game meats.
The entire region lived a moment of great cultural vitality witnessed by the works realised in the various cities by the greatest artists of the time. Among these artists let us remember Leonardo da Vinci who arrived in Milan in 1483 to paint ‘La Vergine delle Rocce’, commissioned by the Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception. Da Vinci worded throughout the region for many years.
These were also years of great commercial activity which the short story writer Matteo Bandello bore witness to, writing, “In Bergamo and the surrounding countryside, men are in the habit of dealing a lot in business, almost like in Genoa.”
But the economic wealth which allowed so much cultural fervour and a marvellous court life, was devastated by the struggle between France and Spain. These two countries contested the duchy until the pretender backed by France, Carlo di Gonzaga-Nevers, obtained the dukedom. The plague broke out in Milan in 1628 and, as described by Manzoni in I Promessi Sposi, brought all of Lombardy to the poverty which it suffered throughout the century.
With the twists and turns and complexities of the historic events, after which there were many French and Spanish influences on the cities of Lombardy, in the mid-1700’s the region was divided. Maria Teresa of Austria was given Western Lombardy (the provinces of Bergamo and Brescia) and Southern Lombardy, and Charles Emanuel III of Savoy, who had the Pavian Oltrepò, was given Lomellina and Alto Novarese.
Milan became an important centre on a European level because of the relationship it had with Austria, Switzerland and France, and all of Lombardy developed demographically to such a degree that at the end of the century it had 2,150,000 inhabitants.
The appearance of Napoleon on the Italian political scene deeply affected the geopolitical picture of Northern Italy. In 1797 the Cisalpine Republic was formed. It included Lombardy, Bologna, Ferrara, Modena, Reggio and the Po Delta with the capital in Milan. In 1801 it became the Republic of Italy. But Napoleon’s rising star did not last long. With Napoleon’s fall Lombardy and Veneto were added to the Hapsburg Empire and the whole region enjoyed the economic and cultural recovery about which Stendahl, travelling from Milan to Pavia, wrote, “The countryside is the richest in Europe. The irrigation canals which render it so fertile are constantly revealed; we travel along a navigable canal with which one can go from Milan to Venice, or even to America.”
But the Lombards would not accept the Austrian yoke which, while it assured good administrative and economic management of the region, severely repressed every impulse toward independence and Italian character. As an example, remember that, while in 1818 elementary instruction was already obligatory in Lombardy-Veneto, and in Milan that same year the first edition of “Il Conciliatore”, a scientific and literary periodical which served as an organ for the Romantic Movement, was published. The very next year the Austrian censors repressed both of them.
The rebellion against the lack of freedom of expression and based on the first anti-Austrian movement had the nobility and the middle class as its protagonists. But the road which brings the working classes to feel the need to ransom liberation from the Austrian yoke and for the action of the Savoys, is long. It was the year 1859 in which Lombardy was ceded to Victor Emanuel I of Savoy, who in 1861 was proclaimed King of Italy.
Lombardy, with a population of 3,104,838 residents, was one of the most progressive and active of the new states. Agricultural work employed 1,086,028 people, industrial concerns and handicraft 459,044.
The cultural fervour which animated the entire region was great. Remember that in 1876 the first edition of “Corriere della Sera”, founded by Eugenio Torelli Biollier, came out in support of the liberal right wing Cavourian political tradition.
The opening the Gotthard railway tunnel (1882) promoted the inclusion of Milan and Lombardy in the commercial circuit of Northern Europe, still making progress in the development in the process of industrialisation of the country as well as the supremacy of Milan and the entire region in Italian productivity.
Lombardy, however, is also an agricultural region (ranked second in Italy after Emilia-Romagna) with the production of rice in Lomellina, with the forage growing on the plains to support the thousands of bovine and pig stock farms, with an agriculture that was defined as heroic in the Valtellina where the orchards end at the foot of the grapevine-covered mountains, with the valuable cultivation of the Pavian Oltrapo, Bergamo and Brescia.
The fertility of the soil and human toil allow a flourishing agriculture which makes possible the rich network of artisanship and food industry. Some of the products of the food industry are for local consumption (such as the hard grating cheese “bagoss”) or tied to specific traditions (such as “pan de mei”, the millet bread that must be eaten on St. George’s Day to ensure a favourable season). Other products have drawn attention on a national level, such as Bel Paese cheese, which dates back to 1906 when Egidio Galbani, taking inspiration from French cheeses, wanted to create a cheese with a lighter taste and a less intense fragrance to offer the Italians. He named it Bel Paese after the title of the book by the abbot Antonio Stoppani, published in 1875. This had great success among the Italian middle class since its author was skilled at bending to the political need to stimulate a united consciousness with a description of Italian beauty.