Cesare Cantù was born in Brivio in Brianza, on the banks of the Adda, from a common family, but he has a solid tradition dating back to the 1500s.
With a benefit he can study at the San Alessandro gymnasium in Milan, then he enters the seminary. Appointed Superintendent of the State Archives of Milan, upon completing his studies he does not feel inclined to the priesthood for which he lays the cassock and at only 17 he obtains the chair of grammar in Sondrio. Here he lived until 1927. His father, an honest silkmaker, died. Cantù maintained his younger brothers with his work, his mother kept the shop but didn’t earn much, just the necessary for himself. On 2 June 1827 he became a grammar teacher at the Como gymnasium, then in Milan in that same San Alessandro gymnasium.
It publishes in 1828 in Como Algiso, a medieval novel of the kind used by Grossi, then in vogue. In 1829 he published a History of the City and Diocese of Como for Le Monnier. He writes several historical texts, including a “Reasoning on Lombard History of the XVII Century for a Comment on the Betrothed” (1832) based on precious materials provided by Manzoni himself. Journalist, he carried out studies on Chateaubriand, who, secular and free from hierarchical subjection, had advocated Christianity as a benefit to the people.
In 1833 for having freely expressed his ideas, he was accused of being part of the Young Italy and arrested; from 15 November of the ’33 to 11 October of the 34 he was imprisoned for having adhered, even if cautiously, to a concrete program of political, economic and social reforms. The accusations later turned out to be inconsistent, given that Cantù was always a decisive opponent of this political current; nevertheless the affair precluded for ever the way of teaching. The Austrian government granted him a pension but decreed: “that he can never be re-employed in any place of public education”.
Following this situation his activity followed several strands; initially he collaborated with the most important Milanese magazines, including the Italian and foreign Ricoglitore which dealt mainly with historical and literary subjects. Later, between 1836 and 1837, he published four volumes dedicated to children.
Fame came with a historical novel, Margherita Pusterla, written between 1835 and 1836, during the detention period, but published in Milan only in 1838, due to censorship. But the work that allowed him to leave behind economic problems was the Universal History, published in Turin between 1838 and 1846. It is a monumental publication, composed of 35 volumes.
With the Unity of Italy he began his political life: he was elected deputy and represented in the Parliament the clerical and conservative opposition to the new State. In these years he continued his literary production; is the Heretics of Italy from 1865-66, a work in three volumes in which he claimed the positive role of the Church in Italian history. In April 1873 he was appointed director of the State Archive of Milan and the twenty years of his direction was among the most significant in the history of the Milanese institute. At the same time he was president of the Lombard Historical Society which began publishing the Lombard Historical Archive in 1873.
It was thanks to the authority enjoyed by the Cantù in the Milanese world of the nineteenth century that all the Milanese archives were concentrated in the prestigious Senate building. The last years of his life saw the publication of some booklets dedicated to the Catholic populace, which constituted an invitation to live according to the warnings of religion: common sense and good governance, a worker’s portfolio, Attention! Reflections of a people. His last work can perhaps be considered his inheritance, in Un ultim Romantic, in fact reaffirmed the principles that had guided all his literary activity, the faith of a government of the Church, in a State in which the small municipalities govern themselves autonomously.