Not many people know about it, but if they did, they would fall in love with it without hesitation. Beneath the busy traffic in Milan’s Piazza Oberdan is a place that lies silent, a place where time has stood still, leaving everything as it was. Occupying a total surface area of 1200 square metres, it is divided into two main areas: a large entrance hall leading to a main hall which is divided into three aisles, and a spa with public baths which take up the majority of the space. Built for commercial and personal hygiene purposes, this is Albergo Diurno Venezia, designed by the Milan architect Piero Portaluppi: a marvellously stylish Art Nouveau gem that belongs to the not-so-distant past but has remained a well-kept secret for decades. Today, thanks to FAI, Fondo Ambiente Italiano (Italy’s National Trust), it has been reopened and now hosts temporary prestigious art exhibitions and design shows in conjunction with some of the most important artistic events in the Lombardy capital.
You wouldn’t even know it was there, were it not for an iron canopy that is on its last legs, lost amongst the chaos of the other things around it; if you didn’t look too closely, you could easily mistake it for the entrance to the underground. Instead, in the very heart of the Italian capital of fashion and design, we have one of the largest, most beautiful and well-preserved daytime public baths in the whole of Europe, built to meet the daily needs of a rapidly growing city, and inaugurated in January 1926. Open for fifty splendid years, Diurno Venezia, located near the railway station, provided facilities for travellers and Milan’s citizens who would go there to freshen up and wash in one of the forty-eight heated bathing cabins, which ranged from basic to luxury, with the very first showers and bathtubs. Patrons could also use the travel agency, Post Office offering typing and shorthand services, currency exchange, left luggage, telephone booth, refreshment stand, cable radio, men’s and women’s hairdresser, manicure and pedicure booths, dressmaking, washing and ironing facilities, newsagent’s and clothes shop. The whole enterprise was a huge success. It was a “place for everyone”, “a small city within the city”, “which so many of us remember and miss”, remembers Antonio Sorrenti, the well-known pedicurist at the Diurno. It is remembered by so many others, including Dino Buzzati and Luciano Bianciardi who were so fascinated by this hidden gem that they set a short story and a novel there. After 1990, when all the businesses had closed, except one which survived until 2003, it was forgotten. Until 2014 when, to mark the city’s spring celebrations, a project was launched in conjunction with the Municipality of Milan to restore, promote and reopen this space definitively to the public. The University and Politecnico of Milan are also involved in the venture, as they have set up a multidisciplinary research group to collect as much original information about Albergo Diurno Venezia as possible so they can rebuild and share its history.
So let’s see what becomes of this underground treasure and let’s keep an ear open for the voices that are bound to echo under Piazza Oberdan once again, because whatever its future is, it will undoubtedly be linked to its past. The journey back in time continues.
Albergo Diurno Venezia is open to visitors on certain days with guided tours organised by the Milan branch of FAI, bookings compulsory at:www.faiprenotazioni.it
For more information: www.fondoambiente.it – firstname.lastname@example.org