05 Dec

I originally published this on another site, years ago and had forgotten it was there. Then recently I heard from Ed Hill, whose great great grandad William Mowbray Scott, was the British driver who mentioned as driving the inaugural train from Monza to Milan. Ed Hill has inherited his great great grandad’s journal, and he produces a highly entertaining series of Podcasts, which follow his great grandad’s journey from London to Monza to drive the train. So based on the splendid new information in Ed’s podcast, I have updated the article below. The train has still is not any faster since the original, although Sesto San Giovanni station is now undergoing a total reconstruction. So here is the original article, updated to immortalise William Scott’s contribution to Italian Railway history.

Alan Roberts has been looking at lost railways of Buxton , so it seems appropriate to add something on the lost railway of Milan.

The Original Article

My daily commute is on the second oldest railway line in Italy from Monza to Milan. Sometimes, it really feels like it too. Just for the record Italy’s oldest train line is from Naples to Portici. In fact, at the time the Milan to Monza line was constructed, Lombardy was still part of the Austrian Empire and Italy had yet to be unified. Looking at Bradshaw’s European Rail Guide from 1853, the timetable shows a number of trains. I was interested in the daily train at 8.17 am, which in those days’ was timetabled to reach Sesto San Giovanni at 8.28 am and Milan at 8.38. The nearest modern equivalent is the 8.20 from Monza to Milano Porta Garibaldi which according to the timetable should arrive at 8.38 so in 175 years we have seen an improvement of three whole minutes in journey time. Of course, the current 8.20 am hardly ever arrives in either Monza or Milan on time. To be fair, the original line was a single line and today we have the complexity of six platforms and more trains passing through Monza in an hour than used to pass in a day. In addition, they have to hold all the local Italian trains, so that the elegant Swiss Express trains swooping down from Zurich and Geneva at least have a chance of arriving in Milan in time. In 1853 there was only one other train line running out of Milan, the 15 miles from Milan to Treviglio. From Treviglio intrepid travellers could pick up a stagecoach for the 17 or 18-hour trip to Verona. At Verona, another Austrian train line ran to Venice. 

The first thing to note on leaving Monza is that the original station was about 50 meters up the line and has now been demolished. From Monza we travel through an almost continuous urban area, In fact, for a long-time Monza was part of the Province of Milan- before gaining “independence” as the Province of Monza e della Brianza. In the 1850s, the train would have been passing through open countryside between Monza and Milan. The industries of Sesto San Giovanni developed around the railway; most of them have now gone. Just outside Sesto we pass some rather splendid industrial archaeology, the remains of the Falck Steel Mills. Unless protected, it seems destined to be replaced by yet another shopping centre and more apartments. Passing Milano- Greco Pirelli we pass by what remains of the former Pirelli works. These days the most eye-catching sight is the Pirelli Bicocca hanger designed for Modern Art Displays. They make the tyres and cables abroad these days. The railway originally made Sesto one of the industrial hearts of Milan, now it has become just another dormitory city for Milan.

The original Milan to Monza line went by the grandiose name of Imperial- Regia Priviligeta Strada Ferrata Milano a Monza. Literally, the Imperial- Royal Privileged Iron Road from Milan to Monza. The official inauguration took place on 17 August 1840 with journey starting from Monza. The first passengers included the Vicere of Lombardy, Rainier Josef of Habsburg- Lorraine and the Viceregina Maria-Elisabetta of Savoia-Carignano. Other distinguished guests included Franz Hartig, the German born Governor of Lombardy and the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, Gaetano of Gaisruk. The Vicere’s formal residence in Lombardy was the Palazzo Reale in Milan with a summer or country residence at the Villa Reale in Monza, so the new train-line kept them nicely connected. The VIP carriage carrying the Viceregal party was followed by four other carriages of local worthies and the fifth and final carriage a military band to play them on their way. The total journey time was 19 minutes with an average of 40 km per hour. Something to make the modern customers of Trenord profoundly jealous. The line opened to the public the next day making four return trips daily between Milan and Monza.

The Locomotive used was manufactured in Britain to the pattern of Stephenson’s A1 and driven by a British driver. Not sure what the tariffs were on trains, but the presence of a British driver seems to suggest a certain amount of free movement of labour back in those days. The carriages were however, manufactured in Lombardy by the firm of Sig, Arnoldi a coachbuilder from Via Quadronno in Milano The original Milan Station was constructed, also in neo- classical style outside the City Walls near to the Porta Nuova.

In the end the old Monza Station was replaced in 1884 by the current station. The old station continued to exist between the railway lines at Monza, before being demolished, The water tower is still there, you can see it from the bridge as you walk from the station towards the Rinascente Department Store.

The original Milan Station survived rather better, although being replaced by the New Porta Nuova Station just up the road, Milan’s first railway station is still there and has now been converted into a Luxury Hotel for NH Hotels.

An 1840s train trip from Milan to Monza

As mentioned in the introduction, since I wrote the above , I now know thanks to Ed Hill, that the anonymous, British train drover referred to was his great great grandfather William Scott. In episode 26 of the podcast , Ed reads William’s journal entries describing the route from Milan to Monza. By way of background in the previous 25 episodes, William crossed over from England to the European mainland and travelled down through ,  across the Mont Cenis pass and into Italy. The journey was  mainly by stagecoach and William’s description of crossing a snowbound Mont Cenis is pretty evocative. William spends a fair time describing 1840s Turin and Milan before he gets to Monza. (In future, I would hope to have a look at his stay in other Italian cities). Willam also goes to Genoa to take the delivery of the locomotives. As mentioned above , several of the original locomotives for the Milan- Monza line were made in Britain. According to William’s journal by J G Rennie of Blackfriars in London. They were shipped to Genoa and then bought overland to Monza. It must have required aa considerable number of horses or mules to get them over the mountainous stretch between Genoa and the Lombard plain. The trains were so large that they could not use the covered bridge across the Ticino at Pavia and had to take a diversion. In the end they get to Milan and William drives the inaugural train from Monza to Milan ( as described above). In episode 26, Ed reads William’s description of the route from Milan to Monza. 

The original Iine through Milan which William describes , at least as far as Greco  no longer exists, however it is more or less possible to trace the original route and some of the highlights which William mentions from the old station as far as Milan Greco Pirelli. So I walked the route and remarkably a number of the locations which William mentions in his journals are still visible today.

The journey starts at the very first Milan station at Porta -Nuova. Anybody familiar with Milan’s railways should dispel notions of Milano Centrale ( opened in 1930), the former Central Station from the 1860s ( now long gone but basically in the middle of Piazza Repubblica.) -The original station as was on the corner at the far end of what is now via Melchiorre Gioia. As the name suggest Porta -Nuova was a new gate, just outside the former city walls. In the mid 19th Century , Milan within the city walls was still a mix of medieval , and 15th to 18th century buildings, impossible to get a railway into the centre without extensive demolition, so it was better to start outside the walls which at the time was farmland and isolated settlements and the plague era Lazzaretto.  As Milan started to develop as an industrial centre round the same time, industry also started to colonise the areas, outside the old city as William’s journal attests.

So all aboard for William’s 1840s trip from Milan to Monza. The railway seems to have run behind the current hotel and headed straight to Monza. If you look at the 1865, map after the original central station was bult, the last bit of the line towards the former station has been cut off and instead the line curves round to the 1856 station, which was a through station. When the lines were diverted to Porta Garibaldi, most of the former line seems to have move westwards in a bigger loop into Porta Garibaldi. It appears that the original train track started in what is now a narrow alley leading to a car park behind the hotel. 

The start of William's journey - the very first station on the Milan to Monza Railway

The railway started behind the station, more or less in this alley which leads to an underground car park

The railway started at the old station, more or less in this alley which leads to an underground car park 

For orientation, the old engravings show the railway lines parallel with the side of the hotel and with a view of the Alps in the distance. You can no longer  see the Alps; the view is obscured by the tower blocks. The line ran along the back of the Dazio -Customs House ( now  Milan HQ of the Guardia di Finanza -so not a place to visit on a voluntary basis) – when within a few years the old station exceeded capacity , this building became the second station. .The line then proceeded across what is now the Piazza Gae Aulenti and the surrounding park , always more or less parallel with the via Melchiorre Gioia towards Monza. 

The original railway followed this route out of Milan. You can see the alps in the distance

It is worth mentioning here, that at half of the vis Melchiorre Gioia used to be a canal , the Navigli della Martesana, before they paved it over in the 1930s. The remains of the old canal can still be seen at the Ponte delle gabelle ( in France gabelle was originally a duty or indirect tax)on the other side of the road from the old station. This structure was built in 1863, so after William's time, So the railway, canal and the postal road to Monza all ran in parallel with each other.

All that remains of the  canal and Ponte Gabelle - just across the road from where William's journey started-

William gives an evocative description of the trip. He wrote up his journal a couple of years later, but since he made the Milan to Monza trip several times a day as driver, it seems engraved in his mind. As the journey commences, he mentions passing the Poggio Massara. This no longer exists but sems to have been a sprawling site on the corner of Melchiorre Gioia, which started as a store selling porcelain, earthenware and glass and then expanded to become a hotel , a wine storage area and a general recreational outside the confines of the city walls , On the same corner was the Osteria Isolabella , which is mentioned in 1840s guides to Milan. It is not clear, whether this is the station tavern that William mentions, with the landlord’s buxom wife and nubile daughters. The original buildings are no longer there, but an interesting later building occupies the corner site .The Cucine Economiche was construed in 1883, so after William's time to provide a low-cost canteen for workers in the area It is now closed but  fortunately has not been demolished and remains as an early example of attempts to provide welfare assistance to the population.

Cucina Economiche probably built on the site of William's favourite station tavern 

Leaving the station., William mentions a former monastery, which has now become the Cavalli cotton works. There is no longer any trace of this building, however Cavalli Domenico & C is mentioned in business directories from the 1840s , as being a cotton mill and screen printers, employing several hundred workers, Like William’s trains, the steam powered machinery use in the mill was imported from Britain. 

William describes the train heading through open countryside and past the Cascina Abbadesse. The historic Cascina is still there, with the small chapel that William mentions. No longer an isolated Cascina it is surrounded by modern buildings and subsumed in Milan’s northward expansion. The Cascina and chapel are on the junction of via Oldofredi and via Abbadesse, which is a brief diversion off the via Melchiorre Gioia. 

Abbadesse and the church of Santi Carlo e Vitale

Information board outsidethe church - now a national monument

Cascina Abbadesse

In 1840, the  area William was traveling through consisted of meadows and orchards. Continuing  parallel with  the left had side of Melchiorre Gioia, the line turned and passed the Cascina di Pomi. William describes it as a substantial entertainment centre with pleasure gardens.  Apparently, Napoleon stayed there, and Garibaldi. Then  most Italian towns have a “Garibaldi stayed here”. The Cascina was well situated for both the crews of passing canal boats and the stagecoaches taking the past to Monza, now it is converted to offices and apartments, but at least some of the original building remains. 

Cascina or Cassina di pomi 

At this point the canal reemerges from under the road . William mentions the bridge across the canal, which went to a nearby factory , the iron bridge was called “el Pont del Pan Fiss” in Milanese dialect, - the “ Ponte di Pane  Sicuro in Italian” It was used by the workers to cross to the candle factory to earn their daily bread. The factory is no longer there although apparently its boundary wall is  , the factory was badly damaged by Allied bombing in the Second World war. After destroying the historic centre of Milan in August 1943, they switched to the industrial areas around Sesto and the railway hub at Milano Greco Pirelli. The damaged factory was later demolished  There is now a canal-side walk along the Navigli della Martesana, which continues on the surface until it reaches the river Lambro in the east.

The Navigli della Martesana reemerges with the Bridge of the Daily Bread and walll of the former candle factory

 The railway then passed through Greco, this used to be a small village, centred around its church, the Chiesa di  San Martino. William also mentions the villa Litta. The villa is sadly no longer there , it was apparently severely damaged during the war and then demolished in the 1970s. William mentions the frescos by Bernardino Luini as being in the church. It does appear that William’s knowledge was more or less accurate. Luino was a Lombard painter of the !6yj Century, not quite famous ( or great enough ) to make Vasari’s “The Lives of the Great Artists”.He is normally described as a “a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci).In the “Italian Painters of the Renaissance”, the renowned American At Historian Bernard Berenson describes him in the following terms, starting favourably and then putting the boot in. 

Chiesa San Martino in Greco - once a small village  on the outskirts of Milan. Now another suburb of Milan

The very useful information board outside San Martino

Berenson says 

“Luini is always gentle, sweet , and attractive……As a mere painter , too, he has particularly in his earlier frescoes, warm harmonies of colour and a carful finish that is sometimes not too high.

 But he is the least intellectual of famous painters, and m for that reason , no doubt , the most boring. -how  tired one gets of the same ivory cheek, the same sweet smile, the same graceful shape , the same uneventfulness: Nothing ever happens!” 

A copy of Bernardino Luino's Nativity still in San Martino

The original Nativity now in the Louvre

Despite this “boringness” , Luini seems to have made a god living painting frescoes on church walls in Switzerland at Lugano and in much of Lombardy including churches in Saronno , Monza and Greco. Apparently, the frescoes were removed from San Martino in 1810 by duca Antonio maria Litta Arese. He literally took the church walls down with the frescoes still on and moved them possibly to the nearby villa Litta and then to  the Palazzo Litta in corso Magenta,  in Milan. What remained of them were then sold in 1867 by his heirs  to the Louvre in Paris. They can still been seen in Room 707 according to the Louvre's  website . San Martino does contain a copy of a nativity scene by Luini. 

Passing through Greco, we seem to be back on the line of the railway that William would have known, with two tracks heading straight towards the distant alps. The railway is now back in a cutting, so it is no longer possible to trace the route on foot ; however you can walk from Greco to Segnano across a foot bridge which although heavily fenced in ( for pretty obvious reasons) does at least allow a view of the line to Monza.

Back on William's line - looking up towards Monza and beyond the pre alps at Como/Lecco

Segnano and Segnanino used to be small settlements in the middle of farmland but are now just another part of the Milanese hinterland, At Segnanino  William describing another old villa and pleasure gardens bordering the railway, Probably the villa is still there on via Roberto Cozzi , although kit has been substantially renovated and turned into apartments, you can still see the basic outline. The villa sits rather incongruously in the middle of a huge modern development of the University of Milan at Bicocca.  From here it is five minutes’ walk to the modern Greco Pirelli station, from where it is possible to continue the journey by train to Monza.

The villa at Segnanino- still there if somewhat modernised

Segnanino- now surrounded by Bicocca univerity

Leaving Greco the railway then crossed the turnpike road to Monza and another river, before making a sharp turn toward Sesto, At the time Sesto was a small, isolated village of two thousand people and the station that William mentions is not the current Sesto San Giovanni Station. The old Sesto station was in the area of Sesto Rondo around 50 metres south of the current station, when the old station outgrew is  capacity in the 1960s, it moved north to the extensive sidings near the Falck steel works, Today it is being given a makeover with an impressive new station designed by Renzo Piano. William describes the old station as being “small and neat” . a description not applicable to the current building.

The Old Sesto San Giovanni Station

Current improvements to Sesto San Giovanni

In the 1840s , after Sesto the railway passed through what sounds like an idyllic landscape of vines, peach , cheery and walnut trees, there were fields of Indian corn / maize and around the base of these  the locals were cultivating melons, pumpkins and other gourds  Today it is endless shopping centres, brownfield sies and apartment blocks.

From Sesto the railway started to ascend a 1 in 200 gradient towards Monza. The railway track is now crossed an embankment, with the river Lambro meandering through its floodplain on the right through an embankment which William calls the San Lorenzo and then passed the villa San Lorenzo. There is still an old Villa and Cascina right down by the railway track in via Gorizia and also a large garden which may be the remains the pleasure gardens that William mentions. On the right-hand side the railway passed the old Monza cemetery before arriving at the terminus in Monza.  

Villa San Lorenzo, in via Gorizia Monza

William used to pass San Lorenzo daily

All that remains of the old cemetery in Monza , with the river Lambro meandering by

As mentioned in the earlier article, the original Monza station has now been demolished and all that remains is a water tower. Just beyond the station a pleasure gardens known at the Vivaio, before the old centre of Monza was reached. The vivaio seems to have been covered by apartments , parts of the new station and the old Monza Football Stadium. The old station was demolished at the turn of the 20th Century and is now under the various sidings and extensions to Monza station. William concludes with a description of the old station.

Sources and further reading

Ed Hill's splendid podcast. Easiest to find on YouTube

A Grand Tour with my Great Great Grandad: 26 - YouTube 

also the whole series on 

A Grand Tour with my Great Great Grandad - Hosted by Ed Hill (acast.com) 

My old battered copy of 

"Landmarks in Art History - The Italian Painters of the Renaissance"  by Bernard Berenson

First published in 1952. This is the 1980 Oxford Phaidon version. I did a minor in Art History, glad I still have it. Some of Berenson's opinions may be a bit outdated, but entertaining nonetheless, See North Italian Painters pages 181 to 185 for Luino in particular

Luini, 1512-1532- Materiale di Studio- Luca Beltrami

Luini, 1512-1532 : materiale di studio : Beltrami, L. (Luca), 1854-1933 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive 

The very helpful information boards outside he Church of San Martini Greco

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