Renaissance and Reformation Milan, 1535–1706
Stefano D'Amico
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0228


Milan represented one of the main European economic and political centers throughout the late medieval and Renaissance period. The city’s enormous wealth lay on the rich agriculture of its hinterland, on its role as entrepôt between Italy and northern Europe, and on its celebrated manufactures. At the end of the 16th century, with a population of over 120,000 people, Milan ranked as the fourth largest European city. Since 1535, and until 1706, the Lombard capital also played a fundamental strategic role within the Spanish Empire, and between the 16th and 17th centuries was at the forefront of the Catholic Reformation under Carlo and Federico Borromeo. Despite its economic, political, and religious importance, however, Milan remains the least studied of the major Early Modern European cities. The origins of this historiographical neglect can be partially found in the negative connotation that has characterized the period of Spanish rule over the peninsula since the Italian Risorgimento, epitomized by the great novel I promessi sposi (The betrothed) (1827) by Alessandro Manzoni. The 17th century in particular was perceived as a period of general crisis that marked the political, economic, and cultural decline of Italy, and especially of the Spanish provinces. The Spanish Empire came in fact to represent a symbol of oppression, responsible for spreading feudalism, corruption, and conformity. Milan, as portrayed by Manzoni, was a city characterized by disease, poverty, riots, an oppressive nobility, and rapacious Spanish officials, and would epitomize for generations of Italians a dark age of their history. Besides paying the price of this anti-spagnolismo (anti-Spanish sentiment), Milan was also penalized by the bombings of the Second World War that ended with the destruction of a significant part of the city’s archival sources. With the exception of a few earlier isolated works, it is only in the 1980s that historians have shown signs of a renewed interest for the history of Milan in the 16th and 17th centuries, and only since the 1990s has the historiography of Early Modern Milan flourished.

General Overviews

There are very few general works on Milan in the Spanish period, mainly published since the 1990s. We have no complete single-authored synthesis on Spanish Milan. While the existing works analyze political, social, economic, and religious dynamics, the cultural and artistic aspects remain overlooked. Sella 1984 is still the essential reference work on the State of Milan under Spanish rule. D’Amico 2012 is the only existing work in English focusing mainly on the city of Milan; it provides an updated narrative. Vigo 1994 offers a useful compact overview but is limited to an examination of political and socioeconomic issues.

  • d’Amico, Stefano. Spanish Milan: A City within the Empire, 1535–1706. New York: Palgrave, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137309372Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    It is the only published synthesis in English. Divided into five chapters on urban space, society, economy, religion, and politics, it surveys the most recent literature and emphasizes the important role of the city of Milan within the Spanish Empire and its overall prosperity throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

  • Sella, Domenico. “Sotto il dominio della Spagna.” In Il Ducato di Milano dal 1535 al 1796. Edited by Domenico Sella and Carlo Capra, 3–149. Turin, Italy: UTET, 1984.

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    Classic synthesis on the State of Milan in the Spanish period. It marked the beginning of a new examination of Milanese history, free of the traditional negative connotation of the Spanish rule, and covers military and diplomatic events, political and social structures, religious life, and economic trends.

  • Vigo, Giovanni. Uno stato nell’impero: La difficile transizione al moderno nella Milano di età spagnola. Milan: Guerini, 1994.

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    Useful, clear, short survey, focusing on the substantial continuity of the political and economic organization of the State of Milan under Spanish rule.

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