In the 50s and 60s Italian design was the center of world attention. Italy had managed to overcome war and poverty and experienced an unprecedented economic boom. The country gained an image of modern elegance in which art, fashion, industry and even film coincided.
The Settebello, an electric trainset of futuristic design, became the icon of Italian progress. The harmonious mix of form and function, the technical innovations, the stylish interior and the high service level fueled the period's optimism. The train's exuberant luxury, though at a hefty price tag, came with the hope that it could eventually be accessible to everyone.
by Arjan den Boer
Building upon the prewar ETR 200 — an electric trainset that established a 203 km/h speed record in 1939 — train manufacturer Breda developed the ETR 300 between 1947 and 1952. It had an aerodynamic shape, a top speed of 160 km/h and 190 seats.
Originally, the Italian State Railways (FS) was hoping to order dozens of these trains, but because of the high costs only three sets were realized. Still, the Settebello, as the trainset was soon nicknamed, would function as the FS flagship for decades.
The trainset had a fixed composition of 7 parts, including two motor cars at each end. During its development, which was surrounded by trade secrets, it was called Settebello after the Lucky Seven, a card with diamonds in the Scopa game.
The first Settebello started operating between Milan and Naples in late 1952. Upon delivery of the second trainset in 1953 the route was limited to Milan-Rome. The 632 km journey took over six hours. There were stops at Florence and Bologna and — only when heading north — Piacenza.
The Settebello only had first-class seats. Reservation was required and passengers paid a supplement of almost 100% on a regular fare. The train offered many modern amenities such as an onboard newsstand, cloakroom, bar, restaurant, public telephone(!), radio and air conditioning.
Almost as distinctive as the observation lounges themselves were the blinds that looked like awnings. They are not present on the oldest photographs, so they must have been fitted later as a sun screen. They added a cozy element to the high-tech design.
Typical of the Settebello were the high, domed fronts of the two motor carriages. The design was inspired by the first jet airliners. The train's driver was seated in a raised, slightly retracted cabin — a kind of cockpit.
Panoramic front windows allowed for observation lounges where passengers could enjoy an unobstructed view of the track. The 11 luxury seats could not be reserved, in contrast to the train's other seats, making them alternately available to all passengers. Drinks were served from the bar car.
The Settebello not only had an aerodynamic design and a striking livery, but also a stylish interior that was celebrated as the epitome of modern good living. It was already designed in 1949 by the architect Giulio Minoletti for manufacturer Breda.
Minoletti's sculptural chairs were real design icons — not only the armchairs in the salon carriages and the observation lounge seats, but also the chairs in the dining car. The latter, biomorphic lacquered metal frames with chic red leatherette upholstery, have become a collector's item.
Graduated in architecture in 1931, Minoletti bridged Interwar modernism and postwar Italian design. His work was presented at every edition of the predominant Milan Triennale from 1930 to 1957. He collaborated with Giò Ponti who called him the epitome of Italian versatility..
It wasn't until 1959 that the third trainset, the ETR 303, was ready. The Settebello name was now officially applied on both motor cars, along with a picture of a card game.
At its inauguration a fashion show was performed in the new trainset by seven mannequins (sette bello — seven beauties). The dining car and bar served as a catwalk.
The railway's magazine was quite impressed with Maria (twice), Margaret, Molly Fay, Paulette and Christine. The reporter called the train a 'monster' which, as in the fairy tale, turned into a handsome prince by dancing a romantic waltz with Her Grace Fashion.
The Settebello was a figurehead of Italian design. This also applied to cars like the Fiat 500 and Alfa Romeo Giulietta. For this reason they were often photographed together.
In 1961 the Quattroruote magazine organized a race between the Settebello and an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider. Despite a flat tire and a wrong turn the car reached Rome from Milan in 5 hours and 59 minutes, 38 minutes faster than the train.
The Settebello attracted international attention, also in the U.S. In April 1964 The New Yorker published a travel report. It reveals some interesting facts, such as the price of a single fare ticket: 14.000 lira, about $ 23. The 160 seats were almost always fully booked. Passengers were mainly businessmen, American tourists and some clergy.
In the elevated cabin the driver told the reporter he was running at 150 km/h max, maintaining a safety margin of 10 km/h. Between Rome and Florence, however, the speed was much lower due to the many curves.
The magazine of the Italian Railways proudly published a translation of the article, titled Un Americano sul Settebello.
As we headed for our compartment, we noted that the interior of the train, no less than the exterior, is designed along clean, light, aeronautical lines. The doors and partitions between the corridors and the compartments are glass from floor to ceiling — a feature that makes it easy for passengers to look out of both sides of the train.
The Settebello compartments have blue walls and furnishings, gray carpeting, fluorescent lighting, and wall cabinets with sliding doors to hold baggage. Each compartment scats ten passengers — three on davenports at each side and four in individual armchairs in the center.
The restaurant car, which has light-yellow walls, a white ceiling, and sturdy, swayproof chairs, scats fifty-two passengers. They are served by three waiters, who are built like halfbacks, and whose coordinated performance, we discovered, is a study in speed, grace, and agility.
For lunch the day of our journey, Chef Vitobelli, whose name was printed at the top of the menu, recommended prosciutto, capriccio salad, rice with mushrooms, veal cooked in white wine, zucchini, cheese, fresh fruit, and espresso. We decided to go along with the chef. He also selected a 1959 Italian red wine, which turned out to be very pleasant.
The New Yorker, April 18, 1964
In 1970 the engines of the Settebello trains were replaced by more powerful ones; the top speed increased from 160 to 200 km/h. On some parts of the journey, though, the train could only run 110 km/h.
In the early 1970s the Trans Europ Express network — originally intended for international day trains — opened up to luxury high-speed domestic connections. The Settebello was classified as a TEE train in 1974.
After the opening of a new fast railway between Rome and Florence in 1977, the Settebello's Rome-Milan travel time was decreased further to 5 hours and 20 minutes.
In 1984 the Settebello was replaced by the TEE Colosseo train service. The ETR 300 trainsets were used until 1992 as 'regular' express trains on various routes. Meanwhile, the Pendolino tilting train had taken over the role as the figurehead of modern Italian railways. It had a top speed of 250 km/h.
In 1998 two of the three Settebello trainsets were demolished. One separate motor car was preserved without its engine. It was exhibited as an icon of Italian design at Milan's Cathedral Square in 2005. The ETR 302 is the only one integrally preserved, but is no longer in running order.
The ETR 302 was restored in the early 1990s and then used for special trips. In 2007 the trainset was stripped of its motor parts, to be used in the related ETR 252 'Arlecchino'. This trainset has the same rounded observation fronts as the Settebello, but only consists of four carriages. Although it gives a good idea of the Settebello, it's a pity that the original is actually lost.
Settebello, an Italian designer train from the 1950s
John Bainbridge, Our Man on the Settebello, in: The New Yorker, April 18, 1964
Albert Ciambricco, Sette belle sul Settebello, in: Voci della Rotaia, 1959
Thierry Favre, Le train s'affiche, 2006
Clive Lamming, Le chemin de fer Italien. Inventeur de la grande vitesse, 2006