The fact that Milan is at a distance from much of the rest of Italy, that it is peripheral in a geographic sense, does not explain its position of “second city,” a position it has always vainly fought. Indeed, some of the greatest European capitals are peripheral in this sense. Rather, Milan’s role was the consequence of the immense historical importance and the enormous accumulation of myths and symbols that conferred on Milan’s antagonist, Rome, an inevitable prestige. During the Risorgimento, the 19th-century movement for Italian unification, Rome became the heart of a future anticipated in the collective fantasies of the Italian people.
Milan’s climate is continental, with damp, chilly winters and hot, humid summers. Snow falls between December and February, and springtime is generally rainy. In winter temperatures range between 30 and 50 °F (−1 and 10 °C) and in summer between 68 and 86 °F (20 and 30 °C). Characteristic of the Po Basin, fog often shrouds the city in winter. The removal of rice fields from the southern neighbourhoods and the closure of most of the city’s heavy industry have reduced the phenomenon. However, this has been offset somewhat by the growth of an almost uninterrupted built-up area around the city, which reduces local air circulation, and by the gray smog, or traffic-related air pollution, that often covers the city.
Milan’s population saw a rapid increase after World War II (1939–45); it grew by roughly 400,000 in the 15 years after 1950. The increase was due mainly to the flood of immigrants from the impoverished Italian south and northeast seeking improved conditions in the factories of the industrial north. This mass internal migration peaked during the years of the “economic miracle” (1958–63), when thousands of immigrants arrived daily at Milan’s Central Station. Luchino Viscontiencapsulated the drama of this moment in his classic film Rocco e i suoi fratelli(1960; Rocco and His Brothers).
Population pressure resulted in the growth of self-constructed urban villages in the countryside around Milan, as well as in an expansion of the city itself. This pressure tailed off in the 1970s, and Milan’s population began to fall. Birth rates dropped dramatically, as in the rest of Italy, and the city’s population began to age.