Before I ever came to Milan, some friends who had visited had told me about a lively, charming area called Navigli and, specifically, a small street where you could still see the “facility” where the women used to come to wash clothes. It’s nothing more than a large trough, really – a split off from Naviglio Grande, the largest of Navigli’s two canals – with a low, red-tiled roof and stone supports around the edge that look like they were used as a sort of washboard. The small lane the structure sits on is called “Vicolo dei Lavandai”, “Street of the Washers”. Appropriate.
You can see it there, on the west (left) side of the canal, tucked into the corner of a small street…
But wait - “lavandai”, not “lavandae”? “Lavandai” – with an “i” instead of an “e” at the end – is masculine, not feminine!
As I came to find out, when the Washworker’s Guilt was established in or around 1700 in Milan, it was a guild of men, not women. Washing was a man’s profession. The guild even had a patron saint, St. Anthony of Padova, to whom a chapel is dedicated at Santa Maria della Grazia del Naviglio, the church just a few hundred meters away down the canal.
It wasn’t until later that the women took over the washing duties. In fact, women used this little area off Naviglio Grande to wash sheets and clothing up until the 1950′s. The building behind the wash area, that now houses the restaurant “El Brellin” (a “brellin” was a wooden platform the washers would kneel on while washing), used to sell soap and other items needed by the guild. The substance they used to wash was called “palton”, a semi-dense paste made of ashes (if you can believe it!), soap and baking soda.
The next time you’re in Navigli, be sure to stop by and take a look! I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try El Brellin’s restaurant, but the bar out front has a lovely aperitivo bar and a dark, jazzy atmosphere. It’s a little piece of hidden history, right in my backyard!