Milano Centrale is one of the most important railway stations in Europe and for many visitors, the gateway to the rest of Italy. Each year 120 million passengers use the station, that’s around 330,000 every day. Within Italy it’s second only to Rome Termini for passenger flow. However I’m sure the majority of the people passing through have no idea about the history of the building.
The corner stone was officially layed in 1906, and it was inaugurated in 1931 when Mussolini was in power. Along the way the station blueprints were changed many times. What began as a Beaux Artes project took on Stile Liberty and Art Déco aspects, in combination with monumentalist fascist architecture.
The front section of the façade is known as the Galleria delle Carrozze because it was once the drop-off area for horse drawn carriages.
Classical columns prop up the roof…
… and the walls of the galleria are covered with symbolic decorations of many kinds.
These include the coat of arms of the Visconti (medieval rulers of the city) which show a child being swallowed by a ‘biscone‘ (grass snake). The arms were granted to the family due to their participation in the crusades, and at that time depicted a Saracen being eaten rather than a child. I understand the latter was a later adaptation which had a more positive reference to the story of Jonah and the whale, and the theme of redemption.
Roman iconography appears frequently as it represented a golden age that the Italian fascists liked to hark back to. The emblematic abbreviation SPQR stands for “Senātus Populusque Rōmānus” or “The Senate and People of Rome”, and appeared on Roman coins, or at the end of official documents and dedications on Roman monuments.
At the bottom of this picture a bas-relief freize depicts muscular figures in Roman garb. Above it are three lion protomes. A protome is the head or bust of a man, animal or fantastic creature (painted, engraved or in relief) which has been used as a decorative feature in architecture, sculpture and pottery since ancient times. In architecture they represent power and strength, both symbolically and also occasionally structurally if they were load bearing. I’d guess that the incongruous car symbol above the lions is a representation of Progress, another ideal the fascists wished to associate themselves with.
Another panel has the old winged symbol of the Italian state railways, FFSS (Ferrovie dello Stato), with allegorical depicitions of Time above it and a clock (unseen) below, all of which are surrounded by the signs of the Zodiac.
Be mindful of your possessions while staring up at the ceiling though, this is also pickpocket centrale!
On the roof of the galleria, two huge winged horses, representations of Pegasus by the sculptor Armando Violi, stand on the corners of the terrace. The horses represent Progress, guided by the human figures of Will and Intelligence on each side.
Large lion protomes can be seen on the flanking walls of the station. Also a heraldic fascist eagle which commemerates the battle for the city of Trento, annexed by Italy after heavy fighting with Austria in WW1.
I’m intrigued by the two no longer functioning fountains on each corner of the front of the station, but I didn’t manage to find out anything about them during my research. They remind me of the Casa dei Mostri in Rome (my post here) which in turn was inspired by the Giardino di Bomarzo in Tuscany.
Above the east exit a pair of eagles guard the Visconti arms. The columns are decorated with fasces: bundles of rods tied around an axe which in Roman times symbolised united strength and authority. Mussolini selected this ancient symbol as a logo for his fascist party, just as Hitler adopted the Hindu swastika.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve walked along Platform 21, either getting on or off a train to or from the airport. It was only on the last visit that I noticed three lunettes of majolica tiles along the undercover stretch of the platform. In the central lunette, a standing Mussolini and King Vittorio Emanuele III on a horse can be seen saluting La Patria (the homeland). Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that the tile with Mussolini’s eyes is missing, apparently shot out by a partisan shortly after liberation.
The lunettes are actually on the wall of the the Padiglione Reale, or Royal Pavilion, a waiting room intended for use by the members of the Savoia royal family. It was also decorated with the possibility of a visit by Hitler in mind so there are swastika motifs stamped into the floor. There is also a secret escape tunnel hidden behind a mirror in the bathroom. Understandably perhaps the rooms are usually closed to the public but I believe they can be viewed on special occasions via the FAI, Fondo Ambiente Italiano (Italian National Trust).
During the WW2 a secret freight track under the station, Binario 21, was used for trains deporting Italian Jews to concentration camps in Germany. Between December 1943 and May 1944, over 1,200 people were transported from here in inhumane conditions in cattle trucks, with many being sent straight to the gas chambers on arrival. The platform and the trucks have been preserved to commemorate these terrible events. You’ll find the entrance to the Shoah Memorial down the east side of the station in Piazza Edmond Jacob Safra.
So a beautiful building with a terrible history. It’s difficult to know whether to love or hate it. What do you think?
Here’s a website with lots of historical photos of the station.
And here’s an academic paper on fascist symbols in the station, written in Italian.
Back in 2015, passengers were greeted by these two characters advertising the Milano Food Expo. They are very reminiscent of the works of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the Italian painter who created portraits of heads made entirely of foodstuffs, such as fruits, vegetables and fish.
Milan street art and grafitti next!