‘The most monumental railway station in Europe’: Tim Parks on Milano Centrale

Stazione-milano-centrale-arrival-hall-07-2014

Milano Centrale is one of the great railway stations of Europe, but as Tim Parks notes, its classical splendour is now compromised by the detritus of modern day capitalism 

If coming to Milan I get off my Interregionale at Lambrate, returning I board whatever train I take at Centrale. Because it's convenient, and because I love going through Centrale. In particular, I love entering it, being outside it and moving inside, for this is surely the most monumental railway station in western Europe. More than anywhere I know, Milano Centrale gives the traveller the impression that he really must be setting out on a very serious journey. 
 
This is a trite comic when you hurry through the colossal central portal and across the majestic ticket hall as a matter of routine. You should be setting off to Berlin, or Paris, or even some other world or dimension, and instead here you are worrying about whether the ticket lines are too long to pick up a few <supplementi> Intercity for Verona Porta Nuova.
 
Contrary to popular belief, the station was not dreamed up by the Fascists. The design, by a certain Ulisse Stacchini, dates back to ten years before the March on Rome. But the project was interrupted by the First World War, and by the time the funds were there to resume it, the Fascists were in power and the look of the thing was somewhat altered. It’s the massive volumes of the stone spaces combined with the highly stylised ornamentation that create the special Centrale effect. 
 
As you approach the main entrance from the piazza, two solemn horses bow their necks to greet you from 40 feet above. Inside the ticket hall, and again high, high above your head, dozens of statues and friezes of classical warriors, their swords, shields and lances in action, alternate with Liberty-like bas-reliefs of trains and planes and buses. It's Fascism's double gesture of looking back to the glory that was Rome and forward to some unimaginably efficient, technological Italy of the future. Aesthetically, at least in this space of greyish-white stone with coloured marble and granite inserts, it works wonderfully.
 
But you see all this beauty only if you lift your eye. And it’s amazing how rarely the eye lifts when you are commuting. “Each man fixed his eyes before his feet,” TS Eliot said of the crowd flowing over London Bridge. It’s no different in Milano Centrale. It was years before I noticed the zodiac signs in bas-relief all up one wall of the ticket hall. To make it even less likely that you will really see the building, its grand spaces are being invaded and broken up by aggressive advertising campaigns involving huge poster panels suspended from the high ceiling to swing only a little way above eye level.
 
At the moment, Coca-Cola has taken over the entrance to the station with a score of towering images so brightly coloured that the delicate greys and browns of the stone facade seem as invisible as wet asphalt in twilight. Inside the ticket hall, Naomi Campbell mirrors herself everywhere; 20 feet high in various glossily aggressive
poses she shows just how long a girl’s legs can be when she wears a short, tight skirt. I forget the manufacturer’s name. 
 
So the archetypal images that were to establish a sense of Italian nationhood, of continuity from past to present and from present to future, are eclipsed by fizzy drinks and fashion goods. A sticky film of postmodern parody wraps around everything that was supposed to be uplifting, majestic. It’s curious to think that Mussolini, who was so enthusiastic about this station, was a sworn enemy of international capitalism, and that when the Americans occupied Rome what distressed him most was the thought that black-skinned soldiers should have captured and, as he saw it, defiled the monuments of ancient empire.
 
I imagine Il Duce, after his summary execution, passing through that portal over which is written ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here’ – perhaps the design (for even the gates of hell must have an architect) is not so different from that of Milano Centrale – only to find an advertising campaign for canned soda featuring the gorgeously dark Naomi Campbell.
 
This is an extract from Tim Parks’ Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails From Milan to Palermo, is published by Vintage, vintage-books.co.uk







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