Milan Central Station

I visted Milan for the first time 12 years ago, little did I know then that this was going to become my home a few years after. It wasn't love at first sight, after having seen Rome and fallen in love with it, Milan can take some time to win you over (if it ever does), but when it does, even the Pirelli tower seems beautiful - OK, I'm exaggerating here, perhaps if you turn your back to the tower you can find something more beautiful, Milan's Central Station.

Last weekend we took an interesting (although crowded) 2-hour tour of the train station, organized by MiGuidi, which started at the unknown Cascina Pozzobonelli (next to the station in Via A.Doria), probably built by Bramante in the 15th Centrury, it was the country house of Gian Giacomo Pozzobonelli and consisted of a huge rectangular area of two courtyards, 3 large rooms and 10-arched portico. It is attributed to Bramante due to the characteristic use of graffito. The decadence of the building started after the death of Bishop Giuseppe Pozzobonelli and started being demolished in the 1800's due to "development plans" (hate it when they destroy beautiful buildings to make ugly ones and they call it that) by the city's urban council.
Cascina Pozzobonelli then & now (top image from this website, bottom from Google StreetView)

Anyhow, from the Cascina we walked to Piazza Duca d'Aosta, the huge square in front of the Station, to learn more about the modern skyscraper called Pirelli tower (or "Pirellone"), by architect Gio Ponti, considered one of the modern architecture's most beautiful buildings (wow, modern architecture must be really strange if this is their vision of beauty), even Wikipedia says that it was the inspiration for the design of the MetLife Building (ex-PanAm building) in New York. This 32-storey building from 1958 was the Pirelli headquarters until it was sold to the regional council in 1978 and it was once Milan's tallest building. Tradition has it that the Madonnina (a statue of Virgin Mary) must be placed in Milan's highest point to protect the city; first it was at the top of the Duomo, where it still is, but after the Pirellone was built, they placed a copy there, and now that the highest building is Unicredit headquarters' tower, there's another one there.

Enough of the area, let's talk about the train station. Milan's main train station at the begining of the 20th century was in what we know now as Piazza Repubblica, that's why some of Milan's historic hotels, like Principe di Savoia, are there. It was not a main train station, like it is now, but more of a transit station:
image by Silvio Gallio
At the begining of the century, King Vittorio Emanuele II ordered the construction of a new train station, the chosen project was that of architect Ulisse Stacchini, in 1912 (he also designed San Siro stadium, Savini resturant and many other liberty-style buildings). Soon after, the First World War started and the project suffered some delays and changes, especially because when its construction was actually resumed, Benito Mussolini was Prime Minister and he wanted the station to reflect the fascist 'grandeur' and power. It finally opened in 1931 mixing liberty and art deco stiles.
Photo by Vecchia Milano Blog

The internal areas of the Station were remodelled in 2006 and reopened just a couple of years ago. Although the remodelling cleaned up most of the structure and brought back some of its artistic value, the 'modernisation' of the ticket offices, the removal of the waiting rooms, the addition of tons of shops, restaurants, escalators and advertising everywhere make it seem now "a shopping center in which trains accidentally come and go" (phrase from http://www.stazionecentrale.org/) and I couldn't agree more.

During our guided tour we also visited the area called Royal Pavilion from the outside. It is located next to track 21 and it was also remodelled in the last renovations' round. It is open for special events but here's an image from the Railways website:

It consists of 2 halls filled with marble and mosaic, distributed in two floors, the Royal Hall and the Arms Hall and it was built by Stacchini as a waiting hall for the royal family.

The old Platform 21 is sadly remembered because it was the departure point of the trains for the concentration camp in Auschwitz. About 850 Jews were loaded onto the trains in secret (this platform was used mainly to ship goods so they were hidden in the undeground storage facilities of the station before being loaded) and deported to Auschwitz, from where most of them didn't come back. Our guide told us that not only Jews were sent away from platform 21, many young men were also taken from soccer games or other public events and sent to work in the factories to build weapons. It has now become a Memorial of the Shoah.

Although its interior has now become a labyrinth of shops, advertisement and escalators (and its floor maps are terrible), this remains one of the most beautiful train stations of the world and it is a cool place to visit in Milan.

Some facts:
It is Italy’s second largest station in terms of size and traffic volume.
It is dedicated to Saint Francesca Cabrini, saint of the migrants.
It has 24 platforms.
Its Main Arch (72 meters) is the largest ever constructed in Italy.
11 thousand sq. meters of marble were used to refurbish the floor and wall coverings.
Everyday, almost 320,000 passengers transit the station, in about 600 trains for total of 120 milion passengers a year.

Bramante in Milan: The Cascina Pozzobonelli. Technical Examination and Restoration
G. Alessandrini, R. Bonecchi, R. Bugini, E. Fedeli, S. Ponticelli, G. Rossi and L. Toniolo
Studies in Conservation - Vol. 34, No. 2 (May, 1989), pp. 53-66

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