Documento Settembre

Milan's history and secrets: the hidden power station near the Duomo

The document of September 2014

As you know, if you go on top of the Duomo you can enjoy a magnificent view of the city. The eye sweeps from the Castle to the Velasca tower and from the newly-built skyscrapers to the Monte Rosa - if the weather is fine and the sky is clear and cloudless. Up until 1926, you could also see a chimney stack on the left-hand-side of the Duomo, as shown in the photograph.

As a matter of fact, one of Europe's first power stations was built in via Santa Radegonda, on the site that used to host a boarded-up theatre and, before then, a convent of Benedictine nuns that was demolished at the end of the 17th century, and where, years later, the famous Odeon cinema would be built. These are traces of a Milan of yore, which happened to be at the cutting-edge of technology at the end of the 18th century, when precious economic synergies came together with the work of internationally-renowned personalities. The electricity produced by the power station was used amongst other things to light the La Scala Theatre for the opening of the 1884 opera season, replacing the traditional oil lamps in the auditorium with 2,880 incandescent bulbs and leaving the Milanese totally stunned by this amazing innovation.

In reality, the city had already experimented with electric lighting in some areas starting from 1881, just like other Italian and foreign city, but those were isolated - and not always successful - cases, and the road towards replacing gas lamps for municipal lighting was still an uphill one. Since the new electric power was initially aimed at supplying banks and the centre's dwellings and shops, it was decided that the power station should be built right in Duomo Square, between via Santa Radegonda e via Sant’Agnello. The Banca Generale, on behalf of Edison Company, purchased the Santa Radegonda theatre in 1882.

 The demolition and construction works for the plant and the tall smokestack also affected some areas that belonged to the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo:  the theatre's courtyard, where the so-called "marble-workers" worked. The operation of noisy machinery and the smoke emitted by the tall smokestack gave rise to plenty of controversies and concerns for the Duomo's stability and its white marble.

The initiators of the first power station were two important Milanese engineers who were fascinated by the innovations of the modern European rubber-processing industry and by Edison's research across the pond: Giuseppe Colombo and Giovanni Battista Pirelli. Colombo studied Edison's inventions and bought the machinery, suggesting that Pirelli should build rubber cables to carry electricity. The electricity produced by the DC power plant was distributed throughout a small area between Duomo Square, Piazza della Scala and the Galleria by means of underground conductor cables. With the spreading of AC current, the plant became obsolete and was effectively demolished already in 1926. Today, a commemoratory plaque in the porticoes of Duomo Square acts as a reminder: "with the builder Giuseppe Colombo, the dawn of a new era for the civic and industrial progress of our Nation".