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An operatic tragedy

3 years ago

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Andrew English | Journalist


17 May 2021

The tram terminus on Milan’s Piazza Castello lies opposite the leafy entrance to the Castello Sforzesco and its Filarete Tower. It was there, in 1910, that legend places Romano Cattaneo, a young draftsman, who worked for a new Milanese car maker, Societa Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (A.L.F.A). He’d been asked to design the company’s emblems and was searching for inspiration. Perhaps dallying over an espresso, he idly looked across, past the big fountain, to the tower. At its top was the crowned, man-eating serpent of the Visconti family.

Eureka! Why not pilfer the coat of arms from the city’s one-time ruling family – the biscione snake, with the crusader’s red cross on a white background? It was there, over 110 years ago, that one of the world’s most convoluted, yet recognisable car badges was born.

Now best put on Maria Callas singing Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma here, because Alfa Romeo is a tragedy of operatic proportions. These cross-and-snake-badged cars were Italy’s original blood-red machines. Alfa Romeo was winning races when Enzo Ferrari was shoeing mules. It was building sleek supercars before Ferruccio Lamborghini saw his first tractor. Alfisti was common coinage at race tracks more than half a century before tifosi described Ferrari’s fans. Alfa was one of the greats, its reputation cemented by engineers such as Vittorio Jano, and drivers such as Tazio Nuvolari, who risked it all in dust-choked, frequently lethal road races.

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