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History – Timeline

Chronology of key historical events up to the beginning of the 20th century that had a significant impact on Switzerland's Italian-speaking regions.


The oldest traces of human existence in Switzerland date back about 150,000 years. Farming reached central Europe from the Mediterranean area in the 6th millennium BC.

Roman age

At the beginning of the 3rd century BC, the Romans start pushing into what is now Swiss territory when southern Ticino comes under their rule after the defeat of Hannibal.

Post Roman period to about 1000 AD

The territory of what is now Switzerland shares a similar evolution with the rest of western Europe. The first couple of centuries or so was a time of migration, moving generally from east to west. Peoples displaced as waves of new tribes arrive from Asia.

Switzerland settled by different peoples, who bring new lifestyles and new languages: The Alamans move into areas on the north side of the Alps and the Roman province of Raetia (now canton Graubünden) in such large numbers that their language, the ancestor of Swiss German, drive out the local tongue. The Burgundians take over the language of the local Gallo-Roman population whom they rule after settling in Savoy in the west. Ticino – under the Germanic Langobards (or Lombards) – keeps its Latin-related dialects, which develop into the Italian still spoken there today.


Alliance of rural communities in what is now central Switzerland expands to become a loose confederation. It eventually becomes strong enough to have a serious impact on the balance of power in Europe in wars where their troops gain a reputation for skill and courage. In some cases new members join the Confederation as equals; other communities or territories come by purchase or conquest.

Northern Italy develops rich and powerful city-states including Genoa, Florence, Venice and Milan.

Swabian War

After the Swabian War (1498-99), Confederate expansion appears unstoppable. As the major powers of Europe – the Habsburg emperors, the Valois kings of France and the Papacy – fight over the prosperous cities of northern Italy, the Swiss are drawn into the struggle, partly on their own account, and partly through their mercenaries. In 15 years of fighting over Milan, they initially help the French, but go over to the Pope in 1510, seizing Milan from the French in 1512. The Confederation scores a second decisive defeat over the French at Novara in 1513, and appears set to continue its expansion into Lombardy.


The tables are turned when the French, with their Venetian allies, route the Confederates at the Battle of Marignano, bringing their territorial ambitions to an abrupt and final halt. Nevertheless, in the peace treaty that followed, the Confederates keep all of what is now Ticino, plus other areas of what is now Italy. Relations between the Confederates and the other parts of what is now Switzerland take several different forms, ranging from subjection to independence. Areas seized by conquest are administered as “common lordships” in which the Confederation members took it in turns to appoint a bailiff (balivo, Vogt, baillis) to run their affairs. Such is the case with Ticino.


There are further landmarks in the development of modern-day Switzerland during this period. All come as a result of the 30 Years War (1618-48), which ravaged large swathes of Europe, particularly Germany, but in which the Confederation succeeds in remaining neutral. The war makes it clear to the Confederation members that despite their deep differences, it is in their interest to stay together as the only way to avoid being drawn into a Europe-wide conflict. They formalise a key policy of armed neutrality and Swiss independence is formally recognised by signatories of the Treaty of Westphalia, which ends the war.


In 1713, Austria takes control of the former Spanish territory in northern Italy. Napoleon conquers Lombardy in 1796 as part of his wars against European monarchies. French troops invade Switzerland two years later, break the power of the ruling élites and temporarily destroy the cantonal system by creating the centralised Helvetic Republic.


Napoleon restores the cantonal system; Ticino becomes part of the Swiss confederation, two years after Graubünden is declared the 16th canton.


Congress of Vienna guarantees Switzerland’s independence and neutrality.


A time of political upheaval, famine and the start of the Californian and Australian gold rushes, setting off mass migrations, mostly to North and South America, but also Australia.


Disagreement with Austrian rulers in Lombardy result in border blockage and expulsion of Ticinesi from Lombardy.

The most important 19th century event in Switzerland is undoubtedly the adoption of the constitution, which gives the country a more centralised government and creates a single economic area where cantonal rivalries had previously hindered development. Among other things the new government abolishes internal tolls, unifies weights, measures and the currency and takes charge of the postal system.


Discovery of gold in California.


Second economic blockade of Ticino by Austria.


Gold found in Victoria, Australia. Below average harvest in Ticino due to unusually cold and wet weather. Prices of staple foods rise sharply and famine threatens.


Riots in Milan lead Austrian governor Field Marshal Radetzky to impose strict blockade of border with Ticino and all Ticinesi are expelled.


Swiss federal government imposes tight controls on loans to emigrants, excluding local government authorities from this field. Valle Maggia nearly drained of manpower due to migrations. Migrations to Australia almost cease due to failure of most of the approximately 2,000 Ticinesi settlers to find their fortune there.


Second wave of mass migrations. Main movement to California where 27,000 Ticinesi – nearly one in five of Ticino’s population – seek their fortune. About 10,000 head to Argentina and a further 2,000 settle in Britain, mostly in and around London.

– Giorgio Cheda
– Joseph Gentilli – The Settlement of Swiss Ticino Migrants in Australia
– Clare Gervasoni – Research directory and bibliography of Swiss and Italian Pioneers in Australasia – 2002

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR