Rugby was invented in 1823 in England by a certain William Webb Ellis who during a game of football allegedly picked the ball up with his hands and started running towards the end of the opponent’s half of the field where he then threw the ball to the ground shouting “goal!”. After the new game was created, the unique rule making the players run forwards whilst passing the ball backwards was introduced, perhaps inspired by the famous game enjoyed by politicians who seem to have played it remarkably well for centuries.
The Arena has often been used by Milan’s rugby clubs. To chart the venue’s history, we too must pass the ball backwards in time, back to 1800 when General Napoleon Bonaparte after having conquered northern Italy, announced the formation of the Cisalpine Republic and elected Milan as its capital city.
He promptly ordered the destruction of the city’s old military walls – originally erected by the Spanish to protect the Sforzesco Castle – but then with his career in ascent, he changed his mind asking the architect Giovanni Antonio Antolini to rebuild the entire area that had just been destroyed and restore it to match his glory.
Whilst toying with the idea of creating a marvellous Forum, Antolini made plans to demolish the Castle as well and replace it with a government building surrounded by a giant portico measuring over 600 metres in diameter in which he intended to place 14 classical style buildings: a theatre, a museum, a pantheon, thermal baths, a customs house, stock exchange and various other public structures.
Luckily for the Castle, the very expensive project was hastily shelved owing to the outbreak of more Napoleonic wars which not only drained the French coffers, but forced the generals to take possession of the area for military purposes.
Victorious Napoleon, having already been crowned French emperor on 2nd December 1804, returned to Milan on the 17th March 1805 with the intent to revive the old tradition of being crowned in the Duomo with the corona ferrea – the iron crown.
The occasion of the sacred investiture prompted Napoleon to devise a new project, to wipe away the traces of war from the parade square behind the Castle, offering the people of Milan the classic panem et circenses. He decided to replace the recently-built, shabby, temporary wooden arena – which was about to collapse – with a great brick amphitheatre.
The work was assigned to the architect Luigi Canonica who – looking to give it that contemporary look – based it on the Massenzio Arena in Rome in which Julius Caesar celebrated his own great triumph in the year 36AD with a spectacular naval battle.
Being forced to save money, Canonica recovered all the materials from the recently demolished Spanish fortifications and parts of the old castle from nearby Trezzo sull’Adda, and created a stone structure 283 metres long and 116 metres wide whose terraces can hold almost a quarter of Milan’s population: 30,000 spectators. He constructed a Triumphal Door for the champion’s entrance, and for Napoleon himself a golden royal lodge complete with an imposing lounge decorated with frescoes by Andrea Appiani.
After only two years, the Arena was finished, the stage space was filled with water from the underground canals and on 17th December 1807, the emperor officially opened it surrounded by 18,000 spectators who looked on in amazement at ancient galleys re-enacting a swashbuckling naval battle.
The people of Milan were provided with a whole array of exciting events at their new entertainment venue: tournaments, horse races, elephant rides, chariot races, circuses and maritime scenes with fake whales.
During the years that followed, the Milanese preferred entertainment evolved to ice skating during the winter and modern hot air balloon rides in the summer until 1894 and 1906 when two “Wild West Shows” featuring Buffalo Bill were staged.
On the 25th July 1895 the Arena shifted its focus to sport holding the Italian cycling championships whilst in 1908 it hosted the football match between Italy and Hungary and on the 30th May 1909 the first Giro d’Italia’s peloton passed through the Triumphal Door.
On 15th May 1910 the Italian national football team defeated the French 6-2. This spectacular event demonstrated that the Arena was no longer capable of holding the increasing number of fans and so the decision was made to build the large capacity San Siro stadium.
The Arena was then transformed into a multifunctional sporting venue which bore witness to many momentous victories and world records. In its boxing ring on 20th May 1923 Erminio Spalla won the European heavyweight title beating the Dutch Van der Veer. From 1928, the Arena’s parterre hosted Amatori Rugby Milano’s very first matches who then went on to become the Italian national side. For three years the Arena saw Luigi Beccali win the Italian 1500 metre record before he went on to win Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1932.
In 1948 the Arena was the venue for Adolfo Consolini’s record discus throw before he too struck gold at the London Olympics. In 1961 Carlo Lievore broke the record for the javelin. On the 16th and 17th June 1972 Pietro Mennea matched the European record in the 100 and 200 metres before going on to take gold at the 1980 Olympics. In 1973 the world champion Marcello Fiasconaro set the 800 metre world record.
Since the 1970’s the Arena began hosting rugby matches including those played by the Italian national side which was founded in 1929. Recently Milanese rugby has started looking forwards, the Rugby Parco Sempione team use the Arena as a recruitment centre, training ground and for youth
team games for children and on Sunday 2nd June from 10am to 12, the sports consortium Rugby Grande Milano have chosen it as the venue for their grand final game before the holidays.
Just in case any of our readers are taking part, we will assign you the job of looking after the future of these kids as they have the potential to become the great sportsmen of tomorrow and as they pass the ball backwards, they too will run among the many great athletes that have marked the history of our Arena through the ages.