Milanese Architecture in Steinberg’s Drawings

Roberto Dulio

A building with a symmetrical façade: a classical design rhythmed by simplified architectural scores speaking to the poise of the avant-garde but recast in a monumental composition. A large staircase at the base of the pronaos, an attic on which towers the tricolore flag with the fasces, two side wings and an unusual depth of the lot in the foreshortening. A formation of nine aircrafts whizzes through the sky. A tram to the right of the scene sets out to cross it: one makes out the driver and the passengers, at the top the inscription "16 Lambrate" and at the bottom, the coat of arms of the city of Milan. Further back is a horse-drawn carriage. In the foreground, a man and a woman almost face each other, without looking at one another. The grim male figure wears a military uniform and performs a stiff, caricatured goose step. The female figure walks more freely in a skimpy fluttering dress, high heels and a short, carefully arranged hairdo. To the left, another male figure in plain clothes mirroring and symmetrical to the soldier engages in a ridiculous military stride, to which he adds the Roman salute. This is one of Saul Steinberg's best-known drawings: Milano 1938 (1970). It depicts with astonishing accuracy the memory of one of the most complex and dramatic moments in the life of its author.
The date in the title of the drawing is not accidental. 1938 is not only the year in which Mussolini had the Italian army adopt the German goose step by renaming it the "Roman step," but also the year when racial laws were enacted, which downgraded civil rights and marked the beginning of the persecution of all Italian Jews, Steinberg included. It was also the year that, as Steinberg recalls, marked the painful watershed between his education and the dramatic discovery of the real face of Fascism. Thus, it contained the end of a happy period and the beginning of a drama: on the one hand, the nostalgic memory of youth, which Steinberg always loaded with a karstic sense of guilt for his carefree attitude toward the regime; and on the other, the onset of one of the most dramatic periods in his life that culminated with his exile from Italy in 1941.

The painful memory of the latter event threads through the filigree of the drawing described above. The refined ability that Steinberg sharpened over the following three decades (the drawing is from 1970), the lightning-quick grasp of the society and contradictory rituals of those years, the lugubrious incumbency of Fascism on institutions and on life, turned his works into a reflection of everyday behavior. The Roman salute is in fact not flaunted by the soldier, but by the anonymous passer-by who, in plain clothes, walks at the same pace as the soldier. The female presence does not shirk the stereotype of the time, of which it displays the most conventional elements.
Public institutions were also under the aegis of Fascism: in the building, at the top of which waves the tricolore with the fasces, is the easily recognizable Palazzo di Giustizia in Milan, designed by Marcello Piacentini between 1930 and 1940. The architectural elements in Steinberg's drawing do not exactly match Piacentini's, yet the correspondence with the Milanese building is doubtless. Steinberg's drawings are not slavish, they do not exactly match the details of reality, but they succinctly capture the truth, the essence of a place, a building, or a personality. They do so by virtue of a non-literal adherence to the model. Paradoxically, in the case of the drawing in question, reminiscence does not obscure memory, but clarifies it.

Steinberg received his degree in architecture in 1940, shortly before immigrating overseas: he had a keen eye for observing the city, its monuments, and buildings. The one in the drawing is indeed the Milanese building, but it also closely resembles the public buildings constructed in the United States during the Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal projects. Steinberg knows how to capture such continuity in his works: in the drawing Cincinnati Post Office, from around 1981, he depicts the building bearing the same name - designed by architect Louis Adolphe Simon beetween 1936 and 1939!—which turns out to be strikingly similar to Piacentini's building.
While the aerial formation in the sky over Milano 1938 heralds the outbreak of war, the trolley tram pulls into the terminal at Lambrate, bringing us back within the confines of the Città degli Studi, where Steinberg lived between 1933 and 1941.
Piazza Leonardo da Vinci with the Politecnico, Via Pascoli, Piazza Carlo Erba, Piazza Piola, Via Ampère, Via Pacini, Via della Sila, Lambrate—all these places come back obsessively in Steinberg's memories: they appear in his drawings, they merge with the place names of Paris or New York, or are distilled from memory and superimposed onto visions of the same places, which Steinberg would see again and again during his trips to Italy. The Milanese tram carries not only passengers to Lambrate but also Steinberg's memories.
In 1986, the neighbourhood station became central to another synthetic drawing, Chateau Lambrate: an imaginary label for a Bordeaux wine "mis en bouteille à la gare" [bottled at the station]. 

In 1982, Steinberg had been commissioned by Château Mouton Rothschild to design a label for one of its bottles; this mock label was drawn by Steinberg for his friend Aldo Buzzi. The Lambrate station, like the Palazzo di Giustizia in Milan, is not an exact copy of the construction. The drawing is not slavish but realistic; the station can be recognized from the small building at the center of the label.
The tramway also appears in other Steinberg's drawings, including one published in Look magazine in January 1952.
Clearly set in Italy, featuring the tricolore flag and the "Aperitivo Select" advertisement, this drawing in particular is extraordinarily similar to Sezione di tramway (1924) by Piero Portaluppi.
In addition to being Steinberg's lecturer and dean, Portaluppi was an alumnus of the Politecnico, a talented architect, and a brilliant and extrovert satirical draftsman, which most certainly did not escape the attention of Steinberg.
Portaluppi helped his pupil obtain his degree in the shortest time at a moment fraught with the strictures of the racial laws. Steinberg never mentioned Portaluppi in his postwar recollections and correspondence, but the professor's connection with the Fascist regime and Steinberg's complex relationship with his past certainly weighed on such omission.
Milanese architecture - the autobiographical architecture of the Città degli Studi - also appears in other drawings from the 1970s, a decade during which Steinberg first gave visual form to painful memories.
In Via Ampere 1936, also dating to 1970, a modernist church stands on the corner of the street, to the left a lot occupied by a garden and then a typically 1930s three-story residential building with a latteria on the ground floor. Two male figures, this time both dressed in uniform, are shown wearing fezzes while they march toward each other exchanging a Roman salute; meanwhile on the street, a young boy seems almost stuck on a running bicycle. A female figure in contemporaneous dress and hairstyle glances across the street. The only church that actually overlooks Via Ampère is the church of San Pio X, overlooking Piazza Leonardo da Vinci: indeed, the space in the drawing seems to intimate this urban forecourt. However, the church was only built in 1955, designed by the architect Giuseppe Chinigher: once again Steinberg superimposes the memory of the place in the 1930s over the vision of one of his later trips. Construction times and location are distorted, as they are with the latteria and the corresponding apartment block: some architectural features are altered, yet the ultimate sense of place is captured beyond the accuracy of the details depicted. To Steinberg, the Città degli Studi stands for the entire city of Milan in the 1930s, even though he is looking back at it from the 1970s.

Moreover, Steinberg's keen eye, together with his familiarity with the language of architecture, convince him that inter-war Milanese (and American) architecture is not taxonomically ascribable to a reassuringly banal expressive or historiographical category. Rather, it is the result of an interaction between several cultural outlooks. Thus, Steinberg's architecture floats in between and is informed by the style typical of Art Deco and the functionalist details of the avant-garde of the 1930s. This is true for Untitled from 1977, with a villa that is neither rationalist nor neo-futurist, but also not Bauhaus. Steinberg's eye here caught a disenchanted professional lexicon and identified its potential. The architecture of the 1920s and 1930s is not caricatured and ridiculed, as is sometimes claimed, but rather captured in all its complexity and contradictory nature against the backdrop of the disturbing dramas and tragically absurd events instigated by Fascism.
Drawings of Milan date from all periods of Steinberg's activity, from the 1930s to his death. They anticipate and condense certain themes and offer a surprising key to an extraordinary personality, who constantly attempts to maintain a fragile balance with his past.
Thus in an untitled drawing from 1975, showing a corpulent male figure (a teacher? a professor?) wearing the wide trousers and tapered shoes fashionable in the 1930s (characteristics reiterated by Steinberg in another untitled
drawing from 1957-60), who stares helplessly toward a classroom desk; on the wall, a map of Italy and a slender crucifix. 

The texts by Saul Steinberg included in the pages of this book and scattered among the images are taken from a series of conversations held in the summer of 1974 and in the autumn of 1977 with his friend Aldo Buzzi, who transcribed and edited them.
Some of these were only published in 2001 after Steinberg's death by Adelphi, under the title Riflessi e ombre (English edition, Reflections and Shadows, Random House, 2002).
In 2007, Buzzi turned over to The Saul Steinberg Foundation a selection of thirty-eight unpublished outtakes. He titled the group after one of the outtakes La rosa è della famiglia del cavolo (The rose belongs to the cabbage family) and referred to them informally as "pezzetti" ("little pieces").
For this volume we have selected nineteen texts: sixteen come from the "pezzetti"; the remaining three—Milano (Milan), Dal Vero (Drawing From Life) and Cosa mi hanno insegnato i pittori (What the Painters Taught Me)—were taken from Buzzi’s original typescripts, now at the Beinecke Library, Yale University. Milano and Dal Vero, were included in Riflessi e ombre, but with some deletions; two fragments of Cosa mi hanno insegnato i pittori were published in Riflessi e ombre; the full text here represents the unabridged version transcribed in 1976.