Monday 25 June 2007

Tramtracks of Milan

In Post-war Britain the tram was everywhere enthusiastically eliminated from the city streets. It was felt that streets cleansed of trams would be greatly enhanced by the presence of buses with the ability to roam at will, unconfined by the need for tracks embedded in the roadway. Victorian and Edwardian city centres were demolished to create a contemporary framework for the free movement of traffic. Decades of industrial decline were to follow, while countries that retained their trams, such as Germany and Switzerland continued to enjoy great prosperity.

Half a century after Britain was purged of trams, the citizens of Milan (world capital of the fashion industry) are served by an extensive network of trams, many of which, externally at least, are more than 80 years old. I suppose I could have done more advance research but, while exploring the great Cathedral of Shopping, the Galleria, I was astonished to catch distant glimpses of trams similar in appearance to those seen and treasured in American vintage postcards.

There are, of course, those who have made these trams the subject of exhaustive study and a detailed account (with many wonderful photographs) can be read by clicking here. From this source we learn that these are American style trams known as “Peter Witts” and date from the late 1920’s. Their external appearance has been carefully maintained in original condition though they have been updated mechanically within the last 20 years. They certainly make a strong impression as they glide through narrow cobbled streets between substantial stone built 19th. century facades. To English eyes it’s almost like witnessing a theatrical recreation of the great industrial cities of Victorian England, of which Sheffield might be the best example. My wife can claim a personal connection with the world of trams, as her maternal grandfather was a carpenter employed by the City of Sheffield to repair and refurbish the interiors of the city’s trams. He was privileged to be an invited guest on the last tram journey when the network closed in 1960.

Trams have played their part in the development of the visual arts. It was a Mexico City tram that almost caused the premature death of Frida Kahlo and Paul Delvaux’s obsession with the mystery of trams has been already noted in this space. Trams feature prominently in the Moscow photography of Rodchenko and in Dziga Vertov’s film “Man with a Movie Camera”. There is an epic tram ride in Murnau’s film “Sunrise”. The German painters of Die Neue Sachlichkeit had trams in the blood – Gustav Wunderwald, Rudolf Dischinger, Hanns Kralik, Max Radler, Wilhelm Heise, Nikolaus Braun all employed images of trams to animate the city streets or as emblems of suburban ennui.

Our last picture dramatically illustrates the perils of crossing the street in front of a tram whilst reading a newspaper. Evasive action on the part of the driver is impossible. On the left, a man in a Borsalino hat takes full advantage of the situation to press his attentions upon a shapely young female while the young woman on the right has formed the belief that the vehicle can be stopped by an outstretched hand! The face of the driver takes on the appearance of a Francis Bacon painting as he contemplates the unfolding tragedy. This hugely entertaining image comes from a series of cards (of which there will be more to come) given away with Lavazza coffee in the 1950’s to promote road safety.

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