The Expositions in Milan (1881 and 1906)

The fervor of the Universal Expositions that spreads across Europe in the second half of the 19th century is even more intense and enthusiastic in Milan. Focused on its intended role as the moral and economic capital, «the most citified city in Italy,» as Giovanni Verga wrote, takes charge of dragging the country towards modernization, and organizes its first Universal Exposition in 1881.

Located in the area of the Public Gardens, with some slightly more outlying annexes, the event combines an Industrial Exposition (11 sectors, 66 classes, over four “additional exhibitions”) and a Fine Arts Exposition, at Palazzo del Senato, open for six months starting on 5 May.

For the occasion, Milan does not simply become a showcase for industrial and commercial advances, the crafts skills of an age-old tradition, and the programming and organizational capacities of its various echelons of leadership. It also embraces the myth of progress, transforming it into the ideal motor of its race into the future.

Already, slightly more than twenty years later, to celebrate the opening of the Simplon Tunnel that connects Italy and Switzerland, the city organizes its second Exposition, this time on an international level. Opened on 28 April 1906, this event has an overall area of 980,000 square meters, hosting 40 nations in 120 specially constructed buildings and pavilions. Two areas between the former Parade Grounds and Parco Sempione, joined by a futuristic elevated electric railway, are respectively set aside for the decorative arts and architecture, and for the transport sector. Transportation is the main theme of the Expo, not only to mark the opening of the tunnel: it is a strategic sector in many ways, not coincidentally just nationalized by the Giolitti government. The growth of the sector is linked to the expansion of trade and of the economy, bringing about an increase of cultural exchanges between peoples and countries, and to the hope of renewed peace and prosperity.

On 6 May Domenica del Corriere, the weekly magazine of Corriere della Sera, paid tribute to the event in articles that were not lacking in echoes of the Risorgimento: «Milan has managed to perform one of those miracles of will that do honor not only to the Lombardy capital but also to all of Italy, climbing back with great effort to the magnitude of a nation, after the hardships and bitterness of servitude.» From almost weekly openings of new exhibitions and pavilions to the visits of heads of state, the city basks in its well-earned triumph, until 3 August, when a fire completely destroys the pavilions of the Decorative Arts and Architecture. Without losing heart, in spite of the heavy material (and moral) damage, the Executive Committee immediately approves the reconstruction of two of the buildings: less than one month later, on 2 September, the weekly of the Corriere can already sing the praises of the new pavilions, «a miracle of promptness for which it will no longer be necessary, from now on, to seek out examples in America».