Gruppo Toscano and Angiolo Mazzoni, Santa Maria Novella railway station (Florence, 1929-1935)


Florence railway station was built between 1933 and 1935 and is recognized as one of the masterpieces of Italian rationalism. Angiolo Mazzoni, the most prolific architect and engineer of railway stations under Fascism, was originally entrusted with the project. However, after a heated debate due to Mazzoni’s project being considered ambiguous and not modern enough, a public competition was announced in 1932, which was won by the Gruppo Toscano’s project. The group constituted the Tuscan regional unit of the MIAR (Movimento italiano per l’architettura razionale).

The building presents a low horizontal mass, bare and compact. The only element that interrupts the uniformity of the façade is the glass window composed of seven sections, the so-called ‘waterfall of glass’. The façade is free of any decorative elements, exemplifying the rationalist tenets of functional aesthetics. Three monumental fasci littori, one of the symbols of Fascism, placed on the Eastern corner of the façade and removed after the fall of the regime, were the only exceptions to this rule. Inside, the building is also marked by an anti-monumental and anti-rhetorical style. The space inside the station was rationalized and designed to cater for travellers’ different needs, including facilities such as a left-luggage office, several waiting rooms, a restaurant, a bar, and also a ‘daytime underground hotel’, which was later dismantled, featuring facilities for the passengers to rest and refresh.

The station was also, like so many Fascist public buildings, enriched with artworks, realizing the Fascist ideal of the constant involvement and education of citizens through the enjoyment of art. Two panels painted by Ottone Rosai, depicting Tuscan landscapes, were placed in the bar. Another artwork by Fortunato Depero was to decorate the restaurant, but was never installed. Finally, although his project for the station was rejected, Mazzoni did design the heating plant and main control cabin, recognized as a masterpiece of Futurist architecture.

Main Principles

  1. The Spatial Construction of the New Man’s Urban Reality

  2. Narrative Rationalization: Staging a Collective Spectacle


Santa Maria Novella railway station is one of the most significant and iconic achievements of the Italian Rationalist movement, and epitomizes architectural modernity in a building which was in turn a symbol of the modernizing mission of Fascism. The project was part of a broader national programme of modernization of the railway network – including the introduction of electrification – implemented by the Fascist regime, which demanded a corresponding modernization of railway architecture. Infrastructure constituted social and modernizing architecture par excellence. Railways, in particular, were the primary collective system of transport, and the regime therefore invested heavily in them. They represented the possibility of mobility and the promise of modernity made by the regime to all Italians, including the lower classes.

The construction of Florence railway station, and the polemic surrounding it, was one of the key moments of the architectural debate and the wider struggles for hegemony between antagonistic movements in Fascist Italy. It marked the peak of the rationalist front’s success, as Pagano’s article ‘Mussolini salva l’architettura italiana’, published in June 1934, demonstrates. Pagano triumphantly declared: ‘Ora l’architettura moderna è arte di stato’ (‘Now modern architecture is arte di Stato’). The polemics started with two letters from sculptor Romano Romanelli (who was not known for his modernist leanings), published on the newspaper La Nazione in 1932. In these, Romanelli questioned the validity of Mazzoni’s project, arguing that the railway station of a city like Florence, rich in history and artworks, should not be monumental but on the contrary, functional and self-effacing, like a lift in a beautiful palace. The argument continued to rage and the debate over the station’s construction received unprecedented public coverage, becoming the object of popular interest on a local and later a national level. On 12 March 1933 an exhibition was opened at the Palazzo Vecchio, in Florence, displaying the 102 projects submitted for the competition. In just one day, 40,000 people visited the exhibition.

The leading supporters of the rationalist front participated in the debate, almost unanimously praising the Gruppo Toscano’s project for its modernity and for applying the precepts of rationalist architecture. It was Mussolini himself, however, who gave the Gruppo Toscano’s project his seal of approval, after seeing the models of the station. The Duce received the architects at the Palazzo Venezia and pronounced a famous speech in defence of modern architecture:

I wish to unequivocally clarify that I am in favour of modern Architecture […] It would be absurd to not want a rational and functional architecture for our time. Every epoch has produced its own functional architecture (reprinted in Carli 1980, 95-96. Translation by Rifkind, 2012, 161).

Despite this endorsement, he would soon change his tune and increasingly favour monumentalist architecture.

As an exemplary functionalist building, the station’s linear and rational form mirrored its function, and reflected the shift in meanings and dominant perceptions associated with the idea of travel. The grand, monumental model of railway architecture that prevailed in the nineteenth and early twentieth century – exemplified by New York’s Grand Central Terminal, but also by Milan’s central station, which had attracted much criticism – corresponded to an idea of travelling as something exceptional and glorious. The qualities of plainness and constructive rationality which distinguished the new Florentine station, by contrast, embodied modernity in that they suggested a more humble, trivial, everyday idea of travel that was emerging in the 1920s and 1930s, and which the regime certainly encouraged.


Carli, Carlo Fabrizio (ed.). 1980. Architettura e fascismo. Rome: G. Volpe.

Conforti, Claudia, Roberto Dulio, and Marzia Marandola, Nadia Musumeci, and Paola Ricco. 2016. La stazione di Firenze di Giovanni Michelucci e del Gruppo Toscano, 1932-1935. Milan: Electa Architettura.

De Seta, Cesare. 1998. La cultura architettonica in Italia tra le due guerre. Naples: Electa Napoli.

Etlin, Richard A. 1991. Modernism in Italian Architecture, 1890-1940. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Mariani, Riccardo. 1989. Razionalismo e architettura moderna: storia di una polemica. Milan: Edizioni di Comunità.

Pagano, Giuseppe. 1934. ‘Mussolini salva l’architettura italiana.’ Casabella no. 78 (June): 2-3.

Laura Pennacchietti