BRESCIA, CITY OF THE 1000 MIGLIA
The Lioness of Italy was always the heart of the Freccia Rossa race; Renzo Castagneto, Director of the Automobile Club of Brescia, pulled the strings of a huge organisation, 1,600 km in length, keeping in contact with car manufacturers and drivers from all over the world.
Despite having a difficult character, the “patron” was greatly respected and skilled at maintaining good relations with everyone, as well as having a remarkable insight for the tastes of the general public. His charisma meant that he was put in charge of other great events, thanks also to the close relationship with the Gazzetta dello Sport.
Known as the “director” he ran, as well as the Brescia race, also the Targa Florio, the Grand Prix of Italy and the Giro d’Italia cycling race as well as numerous other events, such as Tripoli-Tobruk. But his own creation, to which he was always inextricably linked, was the 1000 Miglia, his reason for living. He was also very fond of his hometown, Brescia, which he believed should support the race with collateral events. His intuition led him to furnish the city with the colours of the Freccia Rossa. Flags, banners, torches first and then lights, were everywhere. However, his masterpiece was the decoration of Piazza della Vittoria, with umbrellas and the characteristic wooden barriers (brilliantly recovered for today’s 1000 Miglia), which made it the most photographed Italian piazza of those years. Presentations and awards of the race were always held in exquisite venues such as the Ridotto del Teatro Grande and the Hotel Vittoria.
The townsfolk was involved with the setting up of huge boards, which were continually updated on Corso Zanardelli, allowing one to follow the race minute by minute, with speakers. Over the years, other events took place in the city, from competitions to children’s parades, exhibitions, coinage of medals, the issue of postage stamps, even to the “1000 Miglia for homing pigeons”. The atmosphere created by Castagneto, to aided by the international character of the city’s guests, made Brescia, for a week, what the “director” wanted: the capital of world motoring.
All the hotels in the city and in the province, including those of Lake Garda, were fully booked.
A delightful episode happened to the MG team, the Morris Garage, including exceptional drivers such as Sir Birkin, Lord Hove, Eystone and Lurani, in 1933.
At the hotel they were staying at in Piazza del Duomo (now Piazza Paolo VI), they were surprised and honoured to notice the letters “MG” embroidered on sheets, tablecloths and curtains. They were told that this was not dedicated to them but that they were simply the initials of the Hotel Moderno Gallo.
Boni: The Mayor of the 1000 Miglia
Paradoxically, while the 1000 Miglia deeply influenced the drivability of half of Italy’s roads – anxious, as hundreds of municipalities were to see their roads travelled by racing cars – in the city where it was organized, the race had to adapt to the changing urban characteristics. This does not mean that the city did not make itself available to the largest organized initiative on its territory, especially in the post-war period, when Prof. Bruno Boni was elected mayor. “Ciro” Boni, was an attentive and skilled administrator, and realized how the presence of an event of world interest could be useful to the community and he became one of the most strenuous defenders of the 1000 Miglia in Italy. As an authentic enthusiast, he successfully supported Renzo Castagneto in the organization. It is interesting to note that Boni never ever obtained his driving license. So while Castagneto, on the wooden platform of Viale Venezia, waved the checkered flag at the arrival, Boni was assigned the waving of the start flag; the “Mayor of the 1000 Miglia”, instead of the national “tricolor” usually used for the start of the races, preferred to wave a white and blue flag, the colours of Brescia. The real “highlights” for the city were however considered the operations of stamping and checking, where it was possible to meet famous people not only from the automotive world.
The birth of Piazza Vittoria
Contrary to what many believe – and as reported by some texts – the stamping was not always carried out in Piazza della Vittoria. The reason is very simple: the work for the construction of the square began only in 1929, razing to the ground an entire popular district, mostly of medieval origin. It was a devastating upheaval for the heart of the city, also because the work involved a larger area of the square, including the buildings of Via X Giornate, where the arcades that faced identical ones on the opposite side of the road, and still existing, were demolished to make room for the Hotel Vittoria. In place of the current “quadriportico” stood the church of St. Ambrogio.
Despite all the comments of the time – presumably influenced by the political connotation of the project – they declared themselves enthusiastic about the magnificence of the square; the people of Brescia have never really appreciated Piazza della Vittoria. It should be noted, however, that the numerous foreigners (undoubtedly not influenced) were also very enthusiastic when they arrived in Brescia for the 1000 Miglia. The only positive memory to which those from Brescia associate the square is the 1000 Miglia. The work, between demolitions and new buildings lasted less than three years, which seems incredible today. Without waiting for the official inauguration, celebrated during Benito Mussolini’s visit in November 1932, Castagneto – who was not expecting to have enough space in the historic centre – brought the stamping operations to the new piazza in April of same year.
Much less certain is where the verification operations were carried out between 1927 and 1931.
Stamping before 1930
Many texts indicate the location of the first stamping as “the enclosure of the Wührer Brewery”.
As everyone knows, the area of the former brewery, which has now become “Borgo Wührer”, is located on the eastern outskirts of Brescia, in Viale Bornata, a continuation of Viale Venezia, from where since 1927, all the 1000 Miglia races started, a few hundred meters from the Mille Miglia Museum, which opened in November 2004.
The position, just because of the proximity from the place of departure of the race, would seem logical.
However, mentioning the enclosure of the brewery, many commentators described the confusion that the stamping created for the streets of the old town on the opposite side of Viale Venezia, beyond Piazzale Arnaldo, where the cars were brought to be weighed at the local Public Weighing House. The almost non-existent photographs, of extremely poor quality, are not useful for the solution of the doubt, except one that shows the cars placed in “closed park” after the checks, at the headquarters of the Automobile Club Brescia. A verbal research with some passionate elderly inhabitants from Brescia brought no results. We therefore conducted a small investigation. We discovered that the headquarters of the Regio Automobile Club was located in Corso Magenta n. 54. We went there and discovered that number 54, as well as the 52, do not exist! In their place, there are the gardens between the Conservatory and the Liceo Arnaldo. After recovering some texts of city history we discovered that a couple of buildings (presumably numbers 54 and 54h red) flanking the high school were knocked down, as well as a wooden “chalet”, known as the “Casino delle Rose” (no. 52) that stood in the middle of the current gardens. Before the war, in this chalet, the Wührer Brewery opened their second premises. It seems therefore conceivable that all the operations were carried out in Corso Magenta, at the RACI headquarters.
In 1931, or perhaps already in 1930, probably due to the need for more space due to the higher number of competitors, the stamping was carried out at the Foro Boario, in the street that today bears the same name, south of Viale Venezia.
The opening of Piazza della Vittoria solved all problems and, some time later, the headquarters of the Automobile Club were transferred here. The days of the 1000 Miglia were very intense for the organizers, with the few clogged phones in the headquarters. Things improved when a modern pressroom was set up at the Quadriportico in Piazza della Vittoria, with telephones and telegraphs.
The clubs loved by the protagonists of the Freccia
To relax, Castagneto, Maggi and Canestrini, in the company of the Mayor Boni then went to Corso Cavour, to the characteristic Taverna della Mille Miglia. The tavern extended from the entrance on the main road, in the premises currently occupied by a bicycle shop, to the alley that opens onto Via del Moretto, where even today there is a restaurant.
The tourist-gastronomic aspect, among the organizers of the 1000 Miglia, was anything but underestimated.
After the death of Mazzotti during the war, in 1949, his friends founded the Franco Mazzotti Mille Miglia Club, chaired by Aymo Maggi: he and Castagneto wanted to find a series of premises along the route onto which they wanted to attach a Freccia Rossa (Red Arrow) as a distinguishing mark for fans. The first place to boast the prestigious sign was a small restaurant (only four tables): the “Cuccagnina” of Tresanda del Sale, a street crossing Via Gramsci in Brescia; astonished patrons could observe – peering over a curtain – Boni and Castagneto sitting down to eat at the kitchen table, served as princes by the cook, the legendary Anita …
Brescia owes much to the “Four Musketeers”, in truth fallen a little into oblivion contrary to their creation. Only Renzo Castagneto has been remembered with a bust, however without any indication, placed in the gardens of Viale Venezia. Tens of thousands of people, witnessing the departure or arrival of the modern 1000 Miglia do not even know that they could turn, in the darkness of the gardens, to look at the image of the man who made possible what is happening on the other side, under the lights.
Only members of the Club Mille Miglia, (until its end in February 1998, in the company of his old friend Bruno Boni), go every year to pay tribute to the bust of Castagneto, waiting for a monument to remember all the founders, perhaps in that space – empty since 1945 – on the clock tower of Piazza della Vittoria.