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Expo 1906: the challenge to take Milan into Europe

An ongoing tale: the Archives of Veneranda Fabbrica open up to reveal a wonderful story

Expo Universale 1906
30 January Jan 2020 1144 30 January 2020

1906 was a turbulent year in Italian Politics. In February Alessandro Fortis resigned as Prime Minister, the Parliament having rejected – with 221 votes against 188 – a resolution to preserve him in the role. A Government led by Sidney Sonnino followed, but it lasted only 98 days, the support of the Socialists being withdrawn as a consequence of a ferocious clash between workers and the Public Authority in Turin.
It is in this context that in Milan, on the 28th April of that year, the World Fair opened its doors – which would have closed on the 11th November. The occasion was previously announced by a series of events. First of all, the Simplon Tunnel was concluded on the 24th February 1905; it would have been inaugurated on the 19th May and effectively opened on the 1st June. Milan financed the works with two million Lire, an important amount at the time, but affordable to a City of half a million inhabitants, thirty tram lines and a train which, in few hours, was capable to reach Geneva (and then Paris). In addition, Milan was already traversed by several cars.

A travel every five minutes

For the World Fair, display of modern times, two different areas were provided: a central one just behind Castello Sforzesco (which is now Parco Sempione, between the Arena and the Triennale), and a detached one (on which the ex Fiera al Portello would have risen). The two spaces were linked together by an elevated rail line, a one kilometre and 350 meters viaduct travelled along by One-phase electric traction trains. The viaduct was built in wood over the city streets, with the only exception of the Park, where it laid on the ground. A travel every five minutes; the price: 10 cents. We shall not ask ourselves what is left of those projects: the only one still existing is the Aquarium, designed as non-permanent, a jewel of Art Nouveau architecture devoted, at the time, to fish farming.

107 Pavilions born to amaze the world

The team of Architects, led by Sebastiano Locati, did not worry too much to create permanent structures. They would have been removed the three buildings dedicated to the Beaux Art exhibition, the Decorative Art Pavilion, and all the places housing French, English, Austrian works, among other ones coming from China and Japan. The Previdenza pavilion did not last either, so as the Swiss one. Germany organized a self-service restaurant, of which nothing remained, not even the idea. Teodoro Moneta set up a pavilion dedicated to Peace and organized an international conference on the topic (winning the Nobel Prize in 1907). In short, Milan was aiming at writing the future without any excessive illusion about the preservation of the project, although the project itself was originally intended to be permanent. To meet every need, 220 buildings were raised, of which 107 were pavilions; the exhibitors were 35 thousand from 40 Nations; and the visitors would have been 10 million.

The fire that did not stop Veneranda Fabbrica

The World Fair experienced an incident: on the night between the 2nd and the 3rd August a fire broke out, destroying the Decorative Art Pavilion, the Architecture’s one, and, in particular, the one of Veneranda Fabbrica. All the exposed works were burnt. Milan did not disheartened, and in forty days the involved buildings were raised and inaugurated again in the presence of the king. We would like to add that the Duomo was exposing, at the centre of its space, a big wooden model of the Cathedral, crafted by Giacomo Mattarelli. According to the insurance policy, it was insured for 20 thousand Lire. Among the other works on display, deduced from the list in the same document, were three XVI Century tapestry works on design by Giulio Romano (insured for 10 thousand Lire), the “frameworks with coloured stained glass” (3,200 Lire), five “tables leaning all around the walls” with antiques and historic documents (1,700 Lire). Without considering drawings, sketches, or manuscripts from the Fabbrica Archive, such as the Registro di Istromenti (Wills and donations) in a XVII Century transcription, XIV Century ledgers, the first XV Century book of ordinations of Capitolo dei Deputati, letters of indulgences, and even seven documents about slave trades – from the Carelli inheritance.

The restoration to save the Archives heritage

In the Veneranda Fabbrica Archives is preserved a typewritten document, bearing the date 21st July 1914 and signed by the prefect of Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Achille Ratti (later become Pope Pio XI), concerning “the restoration and recovery to use of the Duomo registers destroyed in the World Fair fire”. Reading the document we discover that, in July 1912, all the remnants of the fire were brought to Ambrosiana, “looking as seven squared lots... completely charred”. At the time, the intervention focused on treating the remnants with gelatine, “or isinglass of the best quality available which, that must be said immediately, is nowadays prepared and applied in a way that dismisses any well-founded fear of a later alteration and decay”. At the beginning of the report by the coming Pope, a scheme counts the sheets: they were 1634. The loss was heavy, despite the restoration works.

Armando Torno