Mille Miglia:
cars and culture

Review of the talk by Dr Libby Horner
on May 23rd 2018
Dr Libby Horner

This was a talk with a difference!  Expecting possibly a dry exposition of the emergence of Futurism in Italian painting, we were treated to a dual track journey through a unique part of motor racing history alongside many familiar memories of Italian towns and their art, mostly their churches and piazzas.

Dr Horner framed the talk with the Mille Miglia, a race on open roads which started and finished in Brescia and ran between 1927 and 1957.  Sadly, its demise came when in one year too many racers and spectators were killed to make it sustainable in a world where such reckless disregard for safety was no longer tolerated.  Or was it bravery and heroism?

The racing highlighted the careers of Tazio Nuvolari (driving in the 1930 race at night with his headlights switched off to confuse other racers!), Enzo Ferrari as a driver as well as a car maker, and memorably the 1955 win (at an average speed of 98 mph) of Stirling Moss, co-driven by Dennis Jenkinson whose novel approach to making notes of the route helped Moss to make up the deficit in local knowledge.  We were told also of the glamour of the drivers; Clemente Biondetti who was the most prolific winner, and the Marquis de Portago who kissed the girls during his pit stops but later crashed and died.

Dr Horner knows her cars, with every model type of Alfa, Ferrari or Mercedes in detail described.  Uniquely for an Arts Society lecture, she illustrated the racing with old film clips which showed beautifully both the countryside in the mid 20th Century and also the risks that the drivers took.

While the racers were driving in a long loop from Brescia down to Rome and back they passed through the most beautiful and cultural of central Italian towns; Vicenza, Ravenna, Urbino, Orvieto and Sienna.

Dr Horner drove us through Palladian architecture of Vicenza, Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna, Giotto murals in Padua, the profile paintings of Federico Duc d’Urbino by Pierra della Francesca, the awful ruins of the 2009 earthquake at L’Aquila, the zebra striped cathedral at Orvieto, the architecture of Sienna around the Piazza del Campo and the 14 surviving towers of San Gimignano.  One wondered how much of this beauty the drivers noticed or cared.  From the picture of the oily face of Stirling Moss in 1957 the answer is “Not very much!”

Of interest to Arts Society members who journeyed to Emilia Romagna last summer was that the Mille Miglia route also went through the areas of family production of balsamic vinegar and parmesan cheese.

We were all breathless by the end.  This was a most interesting passage through two very contrasting aspects of Italian culture, delivered most professionally and with verve and humour.

Stephen Dennison


Related links

Mille Miglia - Wikipedia article
Mille Miglia reenactment