Showing posts with label Transport. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Transport. Show all posts

3 March 2021

The Balvano Disaster

Italy’s worst but little known train tragedy

One of several graphic images from the Balvano Disaster shows the bodies of victims laid out on the station platform
One of several graphic images from the Balvano Disaster
shows the bodies of victims laid out on the station platform
The Italian railway network suffered its worst accident on this day in 1944 when more than 600 passengers died from carbon monoxide poisoning after a train stopped in a tunnel just outside the small town of Balvano, on the border of Basilicata and Campania about 90km (56 miles) east of Salerno.

Yet, despite the death toll being perhaps nine times that of the country’s worst peacetime rail disaster, few Italians were aware that it had happened until author and historian Gianluca Barneschi wrote a book about it in 2014.

Because the tragedy took place during the final stages of the Second World War, when much of southern Italy was a battleground between German and Allied forces, it resonated as a news story for only a short time, the victims essentially added to Italy’s overall count of civilian casualties during the conflict, which is put at more than 150,000.

However, there was no military involvement in the disaster, which was purely an accident, albeit one that was in part caused by the circumstances of the time.

Bodies were loaded on to trucks and taken away to be buried in mass graves
Bodies were loaded on to trucks and taken
away to be buried in mass graves
Barneschi discovered details in classified documents at Britain’s National Archives office in Kew, London, and the story was picked up by an Italian television documentary maker.  Witnesses and survivors helped put together an account of what happened.

Although the train, which originated in Naples, consisted only of goods wagons, it was packed with civilians travelling to the countryside in search of food, with many in the heavily bombed urban areas around Naples almost at the point of starving because of shortages.

Official reports classed these passengers as stowaways, although some accounts suggest that it was so common at the time for civilians to board freight trains in large numbers that there was a black market in unofficial tickets, and that most would have paid a fare.

The train left Naples on the afternoon of 2 March. It travelled at a low speed and made frequent stops as the line followed the coastline of the Bay of Naples, a heavily populated area, passing through Ercolano, Torre del Greco and Torre Annunziata before going inland through Pompei, Nocera Inferiore and the historic town of Cava de’ Terreni, rejoining the coast near Salerno, en route to the city of Potenza in Basilicata.

Until Salerno, the train had been pulled by an electric locomotive, but at that point the electrified line ran out. This meant that the remaining 100km or so of the journey, through increasingly mountainous terrain and frequent tunnels, would have to be completed under steam power.  

Upon leaving Balvano-Ricigliano, trains go straight into a tunnel, although the disaster occurred in another tunnel
Upon leaving Balvano-Ricigliano, trains go straight into a
tunnel, although the disaster occurred in another tunnel
Running coal-fired steam trains through poorly ventilated tunnels was inherently risky at the best of times and the weight of the train required two steam locomotives, producing double the volume of smoke. All was well until the train left the station at the Balvano-Ricigliano station, situated in a steep-sided gorge below Balvano, at about 12.50am on 3 March.  

Entering the Delle Armi tunnel, which is almost 2km long and has a gradient of 1.3%, the train’s wheels began to slip on rails wet from humidity and stalled.  By the time it halted, about 800km into the tunnel, all but the last two wagons were in the tunnel.

Attempting to restart the train inside the tunnel would have been hazardous in any circumstances because of the amount of smoke generated but the problems for the crew were compounded by the fact that, because of shortages, they were reliant on a low-grade coal substitute that produced less power, but more carbon monoxide.

Bodies of the victims were laid to rest in the local cemetery of Balvano
Bodies of the victims were laid to rest in the
local cemetery of Balvano
In addition, there was no communication between the crews of the two locomotives, which meant that as the front locomotive tried to reverse, the second was still attempting to move forward. At the rear, meanwhile, the brakeman in the final wagon, fearing that the train was sliding backwards out of control, applied the brake. The result was that, as the air in the tunnel became more and more toxic and the train failed to move, the crew members lost consciousness. Most of the passengers were asleep and simply never woke up; others who had tried to escape passed out at trackside in the tunnel.

The brakeman was one of only two crew to survive. He eventually walked back the 1.8km to the station, where the alarm was finally raised at 5.10am. By the time rescuers arrived, it was too late for many of the victims to be saved.

Although the tragedy was reported in Italian newspapers it was soon overtaken by other news.  Barneschi believes that the Allies were keen that the event did not receive much attention anyway, fearful that stories of a liberated but starving local population would not reflect well on them.  The Italians, meanwhile, embarrassed that their freight trains were carrying huge numbers of illegal passengers, may have similarly been happy for the incident to be forgotten.

There was an inquiry but no authority or individual was held responsible and no prosecutions resulted.  Of the victims, only the railway employees were given proper funerals. The passengers were buried in four mass graves at the cemetery in Balvano, with no religious ceremony.

The exact death toll has never been established.  The official tally, recorded in the minutes of the inquiry, was put at 517; Barneschi’s research, however, found that when the recovered bodies were laid out on the station platform at Bavano-Ricigliano, they numbered 626.

Salerno in Campania has a pleasant waterfront yet is often overlooked by visitors to the area
Salerno in Campania has a pleasant waterfront yet
is often overlooked by visitors to the area
Travel tip:

Salerno, situated some 55km (34 miles) south of Naples with a population of about 133,000, is a city with a reputation as an industrial port and is often overlooked by visitors to Campania, who tend to flock to Naples, Sorrento, the Amalfi coast and the Cilento. Yet it has an attractive waterfront and a quaint old town, at the heart of which is the Duomo, originally built in the 11th century, which houses in its crypt is the tomb of one of the twelve apostles of Christ, Saint Matthew the Evangelist. It is also a good base for excursions both to the Amalfi coast, just a few kilometres to the north, and the Cilento, which can be found at the southern end of the Gulf of Salerno. Hotels are also cheaper than at the more fashionable resorts.

Some of the ancient cave-dwellings for which the city of Matera has become famous
Some of the ancient cave-dwellings for which the
city of Matera has become famous 
Travel tip:

Although Basilicata, of which the city of Potenza is the regional capital, is not among Italy’s major tourist attractions, it has some dramatic scenery and a couple of gems in Matera and Maratea. Declared a European Capital of Culture in 2019, the city of Matera is famous for an area called the Sassi di Matera, made up of former cave-dwellings carved into an ancient river canyon. The area became associated with extreme poverty in the last century and was evacuated in 1952, lying abandoned until the 1980s, when a gradual process of regeneration began. Now, the area contains restaurants, hotels and museums and is an increasingly popular destination for visitors.  Basilicata has two coastlines, one on the Ionian Sea, in the ‘arch’, so to speak, between the heel and toe of the Italian peninsula, the other on the Tyrrhenian Sea, south of the Cilento area of Campania, which is where visitors will find Maratea, a town built on a wooded hillside presiding over around 32km (20 miles) of rocky coastline and more than 20 beaches. 

Also on this day:

1455: The birth of Borgia ally Cardinal Ascanio Sforza

1585: The inauguration of Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico

1768: The birth of composer Nicola Porpora

1882: The birth of fraudster Charles Ponzi



10 April 2017

The Moby Prince disaster

Tragic toll of collision between ferry and tanker

The charred wreck of the Moby Prince pictured  in the days after the tragedy that claimed 140 lives
The charred wreck of the Moby Prince pictured
in the days after the tragedy that claimed 140 lives
The worst maritime catastrophe to occur in Italian waters in peacetime took place on this day in 1991 when a car ferry collided with an oil tanker near the harbour entrance at Livorno on the coast of Tuscany.

The collision sparked a fire that claimed the lives of 140 passengers and crew and left only one survivor.

The vessels involved were the MV Moby Prince, a car ferry en route from Livorno to Olbia, the coastal city in north-east Sardinia, and the 330-metres long oil tanker, Agip Abruzzo.

The ferry departed Livorno shortly after 22.00 for a journey scheduled to last eight and a half hours but had been under way for only a few minutes when it struck the Agip Abruzzo, which was at anchor near the harbour mouth.

The ferry’s prow sliced into one of the Agip Abruzzo's tanks, which contained 2,700 tonnes of crude oil.  The impact caused some oil to spill into the sea and a large amount to be sprayed over the ferry.  A fire broke out, which set light to the oil both on the surface of the water and on the ferry itself.  Within moments, the Moby Prince was engulfed in flames.

Although the loss of life was so tragically large the toll might have been much worse.  The Moby Prince had the capacity for 850 night-time passengers but in the event was carrying only 75 passengers in addition to the crew of 65.

Firefighters attend the Agip Abruzzo, with the enormous gash in its side caused by the collision clearly visible
Firefighters attend the Agip Abruzzo, with the enormous
gash in its side caused by the collision clearly visible
However, the outcome could have been much better had the response of rescuers not been badly hampered by confusion and miscommunication.

It emerged afterwards that many of the passengers escaped the initial fireball because crew members, in accordance with emergency procedures, had taken them to an area of the vessel protected by fireproof doors and walls, where they were to await rescue.

However, because of misunderstandings about what had happened rescuers never reached these passengers within the window for possible evacuation. Post mortem examinations concluded that the cause of death in their case was through the effect of toxic fumes and carbon monoxide rather than the fire itself, although the duration and intensity of the blaze made it unlikely rescue boats could have got close enough to take them off.

The 28 crew members of the Agip Abruzzo escaped in a lifeboat before being transferred to a rescue tug along with the one survivor from the Moby Prince, Alessio Bertrand, a 24-year-old crew member from Naples who was on his first voyage. Bertrand managed to cling to a rail on the edge of the vessel in spot that remained away from the flames long enough for him to be spotted.

The cause of the disaster was never fully explained.  The Agip Abruzzo was anchored outside the main harbour in line with accepted practice because it was carrying dangerous cargo and the Moby Prince was following its correct path out of the harbour.

A subsequent inquiry found numerous contributing factors, including the possibility of localised fog.

The plaque in Livorno bearing the names of all 140 victims of the disaster
The plaque in Livorno bearing the names
of all 140 victims of the disaster
It was also suggested that while the oil tanker’s mayday call was picked up and acted upon quickly, the distress calls from the Moby Prince were missed because the radio operator was using a portable transmitter with a weak signal rather than the vessel’s fixed radio equipment, although it could not be established why he was not at his post.

As a result, it was some time before rescuers realised that there was a second ship involved other than a small refuelling boat said to have been servicing the Agip Abruzzo.

Criminal charges were subsequently brought against a number of crew members from the tanker, officials from the port and the owner of the ferry company, but most were dropped and those individuals who appeared in court were ultimately absolved of blame.

Travel tip:

The victims of the Moby Prince tragedy are commemorated with a memorial plaque in the Porto Mediceo area of the harbour at Livorno. Porto Mediceo was originally commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici and redeveloped in the mid-19th century under the last of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, Leopold II.

Livorno's elegant seafront promenade, Terrazza Mascagni
Livorno's elegant seafront promenade, Terrazza Mascagni
Travel tip:

Livorno is the second largest city in Tuscany after Florence, with a population of almost 160,000. Although it is a large commercial port with much related industry, it has many attractions, including an elegant sea front – the Terrazza Mascagni - an historic centre – the Venetian quarter – with canals, and a tradition of serving excellent seafood.

Check TripAdvisor to find a Livorno hotel

More reading:

How the Vajont Dam Disaster claimed up to 2,500 victims

Italy's worst earthquake devastates Messina and Reggio Calabria

The last eruption of Vesuvius

Also on this day:

(Picture credits: plaque to victims by Piergiuliano Chesi; Terrazza Mascagni by Luca Aless; via Wikimedia Commons)

1 October 2016

Attilio Pavesi - Olympic cycling champion

Rider from Emilia-Romagna won Italy's first road racing gold 

Pavesi was soon regarded as a star in Italy,  where posters of him were everywhere
Pavesi was soon regarded as a star in Italy,
 where posters of him were everywhere
Attilio Pavesi, the first winner of an individual Olympic gold medal in Italian cycling history, was born on this day in 1910 in the small town of Caorso in Emilia-Romagna.

At the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932, Pavesi won the individual road race and picked up a second gold medal as a member of the Italian quartet that won the team classification in the same race.

Italy had already won gold medals for the team pursuit in track cycling - indeed, they won that title for the fourth time in a row in 1932 - but had not enjoyed success on the road before Pavesi's triumph.

Pavesi, the last of 11 children born to Angelo, a poultry farmer, and his wife Maria, was a natural all-round sportsman, excelling at running, long jump, swimming, diving, gymnastics and football as he grew up.

He was such a strong swimmer he once saved a boy from drowning in a local river by pulling him to the bank by his hair.

His interest in cycling developed after he left school at the age of 10 to take a job in a workshop, learning how to repair all modes of transport from bicycles to tractors.  He joined a cycling team and won a number of trophies and continued to compete during his national service.

Pavesi was selected to travel to Los Angeles as a reserve for the road race but was determined that he would not make the arduous journey just to be a spectator.  The transatlantic crossing typically took about two weeks and when he boarded the SS Conte Biancamano in Naples he had a plan to keep himself in good physical shape by exercising each day.  Luckily, while others on the voyage suffered from seasickness, he was unaffected.

The SS Conte Biancamano pictured at the port of Naples
The SS Conte Biancamano pictured at the port of Naples
After disembarking in New York, the Italian athletes then had to make a five-day journey by train to cross from the east coast to the west.  When their individual fitness was assessed, Pavesi was in the best shape and was picked as one of the four-man team.

He won the race, staged as a 100km time trial with the finishing line on Santa Monica Beach, with a time of two hours, 28 minutes and five seconds.  With team-mate Guglielmo Segato second and Giuseppe Olmo fourth, Italy comfortably won the team gold.

Pavesi afterwards attributed his physical strength to his mother's home-made bread.

After the Games, Pavesi turned professional, competing in cycle races at home and abroad.  At the time when the future of Italy and Europe was becoming increasingly uncertain with the outbreak of the Second World War began, he decided to emigrate to Argentina.

The circumstances are not clear, but it appears he had been competing in an event in Buenos Aires when the boat on which he intended to return to Italy departed without him. He eventually settled in the town of Sáenz Peña on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where he opened a bicycle shop and organised professional races.

Pavesi's victory paved the way for a golden period for Italian cycling, with the next six Olympics after the War bringing 16 gold medals.

He visited Italy regularly but Argentina became his home and he had such good health that he survived beyond his 100th birthday.  He was the oldest surviving Olympian when he passed away in August 2011, just two months shy of his 101st birthday.  He spent his final days in a nursing home, looked after by his son Claudio and daughter Patricia.

Pavesi's last visit to Italy was in 2003 at the age of 93, as the principal guest at the opening of the Fiorenzuola Velodrome, not far from Caorso.  The complex contains an Attilio Pavesi Museum, commemorating his career.

The historic Rocca Mandelli in Caorso houses the town hall
The historic Rocca Mandelli in Caorso houses the town hall
Travel tip:

The town of Caorso is notable for the Rocca Mandelli, a fortress built in 820 by the sisters of the Bishop of Piacenza, Imelde and Ursa.  It is thought that the fort was first known as Ca' Ursa - the house of Ursa - from which evolved the name Caorso. The Mandelli family took control of the fort in the late 14th century and it remained in their ownership for more than 400 years.  Nowadays it houses the town hall and municipal offices.

Travel tip:

Piacenza, which stands at the confluence of the Po and Trebbia rivers, was declared "First born of the Unification of Italy" after what happened in 1848 when a massive 98 per cent of the population voted to become part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, having previously been occupied by Austria and Croatia.  It remained strategically important and suffered severe damage at the hands of Allied bombers in the Second World War.  Surviving buildings include the 13th century town hall - Il Gotico - on Piazza Cavelli and the 12th century Romanesque Cathedral.


11 September 2016

Scipione Borghese - adventurer

Nobleman from Ferrara won Peking to Paris car race

Scipione Borghese (left) and journalist Luigi Barzini pictured with Borghese's Itala car
Scipione Borghese (left) and journalist Luigi Barzini
pictured with Borghese's Itala car

The Italian adventurer Prince Scipione Borghese, who won a car race since described as the most incredible of all time, was born on this day in 1871 in Migliarino in Emilia-Romagna, not far from Ferrara.

Borghese was a nobleman, the eldest son of Paolo, ninth Prince of Sulmona.  He was described as an industrialist and politician but he was also a mountaineer and a keen participant in the revolution in transport that began when the first petrol-powered motor vehicles appeared in the late 19th century.

In 1907 the French newspaper, Le Matin, which was keen to promote the growing motor industry in France, challenged readers to prove their theory that the car would open up the world's horizons, enabling man to travel anywhere on the planet.

When it asked for volunteers to take part in a drive from Paris to Beijing - then known as Peking - a 5,000-mile journey - Borghese's taste for the daring was immediately excited.

Volunteers haul the Itala through a  steep mountain pass
Volunteers haul the Itala through a
steep mountain pass
Originally, more than 40 teams proposed to sign up.  In time, this dwindled to five vehicles and 11 men, consisting of drivers, mechanics and, in some cases, journalists who would file reports using the telegraph system as the event progressed.  Apart from Borghese, taking part were a Dutch Spyker driven by an unknown named Charles Goddard, a three-wheeler Cyclecar piloted by the father of the opera singer Lily Pons and two French De Dions.

Borghese, despite his family having lost much of their wealth through a series of misfortunes, commissioned a car powered by a seven-litre engine from the Itala company in Turin with sponsorship from tyre manufacturers Pirelli.  He would be accompanied on the journey by two more Italians - his mechanic and sometime chauffeur, Ettore Guizzardi, and Luigi Barzini, a journalist.

To avoid the monsoon rains, the proposed direction of the race was reversed to start in Peking in June 1907 with the cars driving westward to Paris. The conditions could hardly have been less car-friendly, the route taking in numerous mountain ranges and two major deserts where no provision had been made for recognisable roads.

Although the project was conceived as a demonstration of the potential of the automobile rather than a race, Borghese was determined to make it one and win it, planning assiduously to give his team the best chance.  He arranged for fuel and spare parts to be stored along the route and, before the race began, took a 300-mile ride on horseback to the mountain passes north of Peking carrying a bamboo pole cut to the width of his car to see if the Itala could squeeze through.

The route led through deserts, mountain passes and steppes to Outer Mongolia, on to Moscow and then across Russia, Poland, Germany and Belgium to Paris. There were often mountain tracks and paths rather than roads, no petrol stations and no one who had ever seen a motor car before.

The Itala was left upside down after falling through a bridge but survived
The Itala was left upside down after
falling through a bridge but survived
Auguste Pons dropped out of the race after running out of fuel in the Gobi Desert and being rescued by nomadic Mongolians and Goddard failed to complete the trip but Borghese's journey was hardly plain sailing.

At one point the Itala rolled back down a narrow pass and Guizzardi only just managed to stop the car dropping into a ravine, taking him with it; at another, all three of the team were lucky to escape injury when a bridge collapsed under them.  At times, the car had to be hitched to mule trains or teams of men to cross treacherous mountain passes.

Amazingly, the car kept going and by the time they reached Moscow, Borghese and his crew were 17 days in front of their nearest pursuers, enough of a lead for Borghese even to make a detour to St Petersburg for a party.

The final leg to Paris was uneventful by comparison, although Borghese was stopped for speeding in Belgium.  When the Itala reached Paris on August 10, the lead had been extended to 20 days.

The Itala arrived at the finishing line in the French capital at 4.30pm to a huge ovation from crowds encouraged to attend by Le Matin's trumpeting of the success of their challenge. A dinner was given in Borghese's honour, attended by the Italian chargé d’affaires and prominent automobile industry figures.

Luigi Barzini, who worked as a war correspondent during the First World War and was editor at different times of both Corriere della Sera and Il Mattino, two prominent Italian newspapers, was followed into journalism by his son, also called Luigi, who was most famous for his 1964 book, The Italians, a probing analysis of the Italian national character that is credited with generating the fascination with Italian life and culture shared by many outside the country.

Ferrara has 9km of ancient walls, with walkways and cycle  paths along most of its length
Ferrara has 9km of ancient walls, with walkways and cycle
paths along most of its length
Travel tip:

Migliarino, where Scipione Borghese was born, is a small town in the province in of Ferrara, a city famous for its castle, a wealth of palaces, a beautiful pink and white Duomo and the 12th century city walls that remain intact to this day, stretching to nine kilometres in length.

Travel tip:

Ferrara is the ideal city destination for cycling enthusiasts thanks to a network of cycle paths all around the city and the perimeter walls and a city centre from which cars are banned.  The self-proclaimed Città delle Biciclette - city of bicycles - since the late 1960s, Ferrara offers numerous outlets from which tourists can rent bicycles and enjoy exploring a beautiful city that combines medieval history and Renaissance elegance.


Luigi Barzini's book, Peking To Paris: Across Two Continents in an Itala, was reprinted by Penguin in 1986 and some second hand copies are still available on Amazon.

Buy Luigi Barzini junior's book, The Italians


3 July 2016

Ulisse Stacchini - architect

Designer behind two famous Milan landmarks

Photo of Ulisse Stacchini
Ulisse Stacchini
Ulisse Stacchini, the architect who designed two of Milan's most famous 20th century landmarks, was born on this day in 1871 in Florence.

A champion of Liberty style Art Nouveau designs, Stacchini's defining work was the gargantuan Stazione di Milano Centrale - the city's main railway terminal.

He also designed the stadium that evolved into the city's iconic Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, joint home of Milan's two major football clubs, Internazionale and AC Milan.

Stacchini studied in Rome and moved to Milan soon after graduating, setting up a partnership with the engineer Giulio de Capitani, building houses, offices and shops for private clients

Among his early projects was the Savini Caffè in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.  His style can be seen in a number of town houses commissioned by wealthy patrons, including Via Gioberti 1 at Via Revere 7, which feature linear designs.

He became involved with the Milano Centrale project when he won a design competition in 1912, although construction was delayed by more than a decade because of the crisis in the Italian economy that followed the First World War.

This 1964 photo of  Milano Centrale illustrates the enormous size of the building
This 1964 photo of  Milano Centrale illustrates the
enormous size of the building
The project gained momentum only after Benito Mussolini became Prime Minister, with consequences for Stacchini's designs.  It was originally modelled on the Union Station in Washington but Mussolini wanted the new station to represent the power of the Fascist regime and encouraged Stacchini to create a majestic building that would have a huge presence.

To some critics, the end result was an incongruous mix of Liberty, Art Deco and classical features, adorned with numerous sculptures, yet it was impressive for its sheer scale.  Its façade spans 660 feet (200mt) and is 90 feet (27mt) high with three enormous porticos, each almost 30 feet (9mt) wide and 53 feet (16mt) high. It dominates the Piazza Duca D'Aosta.

It was while the station project was under way that Piero Pirelli, the president of AC Milan, commissioned Stacchini to design a new stadium for the club on a site in the San Siro district of the city.

Stacchini's original stadium bore little resemblance to the instantly recognisable structure of today, with its 11 cylindrical towers, three tiers of seats and a vast roof, but was impressive at the time, consisting of two grandstands, one of which was partially covered, and two end terraces, with a capacity of 35,000.  The first match there was staged in September 1926, a friendly between AC Milan and rivals Internazionale that the latter won 6-3.

It underwent several expansions and reconstructions and became home to both Milan clubs in 1945.  It was named after the footballer Giuseppe Meazza in part because he played for both AC Milan and Inter. He spent much the larger part of his career with Inter, however, hence AC Milan fans prefer to describe the stadium as the San Siro.

Stacchini went on to design many more buildings, especially for the banking sector, before spending the latter part of his working life teaching architecture at the Milan Polytechnic.  He died in Sanremo, Liguria, in 1947, aged 75.

Travel tip:

Milano Centrale has 24 platforms and handles about 320,000 passengers per day, using approximately 500 trains. The station is a major hub on the north-south route between Bologna and Salerno and also has trains running daily to international destinations including Bern, Lugano, Geneva, Zürich, Paris, Vienna, Barcelona and Munich.

Photo of the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza
The Stadio Giuseppe Meazza today
Travel tip:

The new M5 metro line has made access to the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza easy to reach, with a new station (San Siro Stadio) situated directly outside the ground.  The line does not pass directly through the city centre but travellers using line M1 can change at Lotto, or at Garibaldi on line M2.   The Line 16 tram still runs from west of Piazza Duomo to the stadium, where the route terminates.  The journey by metro takes about 20 minutes, by tram half an hour.

(Old photo of Milano Centrale by Albertomos CC BY-SA 3.0)


22 February 2016

Enrico Piaggio - industrialist

Former aircraft manufacturer famed for Italy's iconic Vespa motor scooter

The Vespa is still among the most popular scooters in the world
The Vespa is still among the most
popular scooters in the world
Enrico Piaggio, born on this day in 1905 in the Pegli area of Genoa, was destined to be an industrialist, although he cannot have envisaged the way in which his company would become a world leader.

Charged with rebuilding the family business after Allied bombers destroyed the company's major factories during World War II, Enrico Piaggio decided to switch from manufacturing aircraft to building motorcycles, an initiative from which emerged one of Italy's most famous symbols, the Vespa scooter.

The original Piaggio business, set up by his father, Rinaldo in 1884, in the Sestri Ponente district of Genoa, provided fittings for luxury ships built in the thriving port. As the business grew, Rinaldo moved into building locomotives and rolling stock for the railways, diversifying again with the outbreak of World War I, when the company began producing aircraft.

In 1917 the company bought a new plant in Pisa and in 1921 another in nearby Pontedera, which became a major centre for the production of aircraft engines and is still the headquarters of Piaggio today.   Aeroplanes remained the focus of the business, which Enrico and his brother, Armando, inherited with the death of their father in 1938, and the Pisa and Pontedera plants again became important production centres with the outbreak of World War II.

But their vital role in the manufacture of war planes made them a major target for Allied bombing and both were flattened during sustained raids on August 31, 1943.

Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn rode around Rome on  a Vespa motor scooter in the 1953 film, Roman Holiday
Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn rode around Rome on
 a Vespa motor scooter in the 1953 film, Roman Holiday

Italy suffered enormous damage to its cities and the country's efforts to get back on its feet after the War ended were hampered in particular by the terrible state of the roads.  It was this that prompted Enrico, who had responsibility for rebuilding the Pisa and Pontedera factories, to take the bold decision to switch from producing aircraft to motorcycles.

He had been impressed by the agility of the tiny American-built military motorcycles that were dropped by parachute to be used by Allied troops on the ground as they fought against the Germans in Milan and Turin and asked his designers to come up with something similar for civilian use.

It was Corradino D'Ascanio, an aeronautical engineer, whose design ultimately met with his approval. As it happened, D'Ascanio was no fan of motorcycles, which he thought were dirty and difficult both to ride and to maintain, so he set about eliminating all the elements he disliked.

His prototype featured small wheels, a large, well-padded seat, a completely enclosed engine and a tall shield at the front, protecting the rider's clothes from dust and mud.  Crucially, he moved the engine from its traditional central position, which required the rider to straddle the machine when mounting, to a position alongside the rear wheel.  This created a gap between the handlebars and the seat that facilitated easy, step-through mounting even for skirt-wearing women.

D'Ascanio (left) and Piaggio with the machine that made both their names
D'Ascanio (left) and Piaggio with the machine
that made both their names
Enrico looked at the distinctive body shape, listened to the buzz of the engine, and immediately commented that it reminded him of una vespa, a wasp.  The name stuck, and an icon was born.

The Vespa was immediately popular.  In the first year of production, in 1946, Piaggio produced just under 2,500 machines. By June 1956, one million Vespas had rolled off the production line.

As Italy embraced the freedom and optimism that came with peace, the Vespa became a symbol of the nation, almost a fashion accessory for handsome men and beautiful girls, its image as likely to adorn the cover of a style journal as a motorcycle magazine.

Its popularity spread around the world, particularly after Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck rode around Rome on one in the 1953 film, Roman Holiday.  As well as Italy, Piaggio found another huge market for the machine in Britain, where it became the conveyance of choice for the style-conscious Mod movement in the 1960s.

Enrico Piaggio, who lost a kidney when he suffered gunshot wounds in Florence in 1943, died in 1965, aged only 60. The company had by then passed into the control of the FIAT empire and has changed hands several times since but remains a major player in the motorcycle industry, with an annual turnover in the region of €1,200 million.

Travel tip:

The seafront at Pegli, near Genoa, the largely residential area where Enrico Piaggio was born
The seafront at Pegli, near Genoa, the largely
residential area where Enrico Piaggio was born

Pegli, where Enrico Piaggio was born, is a mainly residential area of Genoa but boasts a lively seafront promenade and a number of hotels. There are good links by road, rail and boat to the central area of Genoa, which is a city founded on its status as a busy port, but which offers many historic attractions, the most notable of which is probably the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, with its striking black slate and white marble exterior, originally built in the sixth century.

The Piaggio Museum has examples of railway engines and aircraft as well as the Vespa scooter
The Piaggio Museum has examples of railway
engines and aircraft as well as the Vespa scooter
Travel tip:

The town of Pontedera in Tuscany, situated about 30km from Pisa in the direction of Florence, is home to the Piaggio Museum, which was opened in 2000 and occupies 3,000 square metres of the complex where Piaggio started production in the 1920s. Visitors can see examples of Piaggio railway engines and aircraft as well as a large area devoted to the Vespa motor scooter, which celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2016.  For more information, visit