Milan Central may not be the largest railway station in Europe anymore, it is still the most pompous. Milan's famous cathedral fits in twice and the canopy has the size of ten football fields.
The railway terminus was inaugurated in 1931, but had a long prehistory which started in 1906. Delayed by World War I, the plans were revised under Mussolini. The result was a mixture of Art Nouveau, Art Deco and fascism.
by Arjan den Boer
"Travellers from all over the world have judged the Milan terminus to be the most magnificent railway station in existence. The splendour and wealth of its decoration, together with its imposing size, make it an object well worth a place among the railway wonders of the world."
Railway Wonders of the World, 1935
In 1906 Milan and Paris were connected by the Simplon tunnel, at which occasion a World Exposition was held. In that year King Victor Emmanuel III laid the symbolic foundation stone for a new central station, 600 meters north of the old one. There was no definite design yet.
A design competition, held in 1906 by the Italian State Railways, produced no winner. In 1912 a new contest was won by architect Ulisse Stacchini. The First World War and lack of funds suspended the construction until 1925.
The original Milan Central Station of 1864 was located near a bastion on the northern edge of the city center. It consisted of a main building with two wings in French Renaissance style with a long iron and glass canopy.
In 1912 architect Stacchini drew inspiration from classical Roman architecture, the Vienna Secession and the Union Station in Washington D.C. The new Leipzig terminal also served as an example. In 1925 Art Deco elements were added to the design, resulting in an amalgam of styles.
The station was not completely finished until a few years after its inauguration. But by then its architecture had already become old-fashioned; other large new stations, such as the 1934 Florence station, were much more rectilinear and modern. Some critics joked about the Assiro-Milanese style, referring to Assyrian temples of antiquity.
On July 1, 1931 transport minister Costanzo Ciano inaugurated the new station. Mussolini would have performed the opening ceremony himself, but when the archbishop of Milan declined the invitation in protest against the fascists and sent a deputy instead, the Duce decided to stay away too.
At the insistence of Mussolini’s fascist regime the station building was decorated with symbols demonstrating strength and power. The roofs were adorned with bombastic sculptures of muscular animals from mythology: winged horses, lions, bulls and eagles.
The corners of the building were decorated with fasces: bundles of rods tied around an axe, in Roman times symbolizing united strength and authority. Mussolini selected this ancient symbol as a logo for his fascist party.
The letters SPQR, applied on the station in several places, were an acronym of Senatus Populusque Romanus, the official Latin name of the Roman Empire. The Italian fascists liked to refer to the golden age of the Roman era.
Parallel to the 200-meter wide station facade is the carriage gallery, which is open at the sides.
Carriages and cars could drive in to drop off and pick up travelers and bring them to their hotel, for example.
The gallery also serves as a portal to the elevated ticket hall and the staircases leading to the departure hall.
Round reliefs Giannino Castiglioni depict Labor, Commerce, Science and Agriculture.
The carriage gallery was used as a taxi stand until 2008, but has since been closed to street traffic and fitted with spacious entrances to the Milan metro system.
The atrium, the central hall of the station, originally served as a ticket office. There were 24 counters along the back wall. In the 40-meter high hall, which was inspired by Roman baths, daylight is provided by huge curved skylights. The walls are covered with marble and travertine stone.
Bas-reliefs by sculptor Alberto Bazzoni depict the founding of Rome, the Sabine virgins and other national myths. An early numeric clock — later replaced by a modern one — is surrounded by the signs of the zodiac.
On both sides of the atrium, next to the staircases, there were waiting rooms and station restaurants originally. They were classified according to the three classes of travelers, but with the 1st and 2nd class combined.
The 1st and 2nd class restaurant had a classicist decor and featured a separate café and bar. The large 3rd class restaurant hall had an Art Deco interior. The same applied to both of the spacious waiting rooms.
The station also had a special waiting room for the disabled war veterans.
The 1st and 2nd class waiting room was equipped with leather couches and the 3rd class waiting room had wooden benches and the other one with leather couches.
The departure hall at the head of the tracks is both accessible by stairs from the atrium (ticket office) and by two monumental staircases from the carriage gallery. The latter feature neoclassical columns and pilasters and have large glass skylights.
The stairs from the atrium are flanked by columns with milk glass lanterns. These are large-scale copies of the famous Art Deco lamps composed of flat surfaces, made possible by the then-new fluorescent lighting. Such lamps are also fitted in the landings.
The main gallery or departure hall is no less than 215 meters long and 22 meters wide. It has a large curved glass roof. The elongated gallery provides access to the tracks and offers a magnificent view of the impressive canopies.
Above the stairwells, tile panels created by Basilio Cascella show the cityscapes of Milan, Venice, Rome, Florence, Bologna and Turin. While the cityscapes are traditional in style, the mosaics by G. Rufa (Padoan di Venezia) around the central platform entrance are fully Art Deco. They depict the discovery of fire, transportation and radio. Mosaics of winged railway wheels are worked into the floors.
The imposing steel roof of Milan station consists of five arches, which increase in size towards the center. The middle one is 34 meters high and spans 72 meters. With a covered area of 340x195 meters — providing room for 18 tracks — together they are still the largest canopy of Italy.
Architect Stacchini originally anticipated simple platform shelters; the canopy was added to the plans at a later stage. It was the principal structure of engineer Alberto Fava (1877-1952), and produced by the Società Nazionale Officine di Savigliano. The construction in 1929 was facilitated by factory-applied hinges.
The royal pavilion was the waiting and reception area of King Vittorio Emanuele III. The arms room has an entrance at street level, while the king’s room upstairs has doors opening onto the platforms. The rooms are connected by an impressive marble and onyx staircase.
The royal pavilion was designed in 1925 by Ulisse Stacchini in neoclassical style.
After the abolition of the monarchy in 1946 the royal pavilion lost its purpose. It was restored to its former glory in 2007 and nowadays is rented out for special occasions.
Notable details include the swastika in the parquet floor, created for a possible visit by Adolf Hitler, and a secret escape route behind a bathroom mirror.
Today Milano Centrale is the second busiest station in Italy; around 350,000 passengers use it every day.
From 2005 to 2012 the station underwent a 100-million-euros renovation. The heritage architecture was restored and facilities were modernized. Escalators, new ticket offices and connections to the underground station were added. Some experts and enthusiasts feel that the new additions and the many billboards obstruct the view of the original architecture.
In 2010 the station was named after Saint Frances Cabrini, patroness of immigrants. In practice the station is still called Milano Centrale. In 2015 the station serves as a temporary shelter for stranded boat refugees from North Africa.
In the old post and freight terminal, located under the passenger tracks, a memorial center was opened in 2013 for the hundreds of Jews who were deported from this place to Nazi camps such as Auschwitz between 1943 and 1945. At this infamous 'track 21’, an elevator lifted the wagons to and from the tracks at ground level.
Milan's megalomaniac railway terminal with a dash of fascism
Milan Central Station. Behind the Scenes of the Largest Station in Europe, in: Railway Wonders of the World part 17 & 18, May 1935