Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Natale Milani

It’s not easy to talk about someone you’ve never even met. But we all do it everyday, and we’re often out of turn. Half of the world’s population discusses the other half, without even knowing them. Today’s world talks about yesterday’s world with utter nonchalance, that’s what history is, be it personal or interpreted and filtered through the accounts of others and their memoires. I would have liked to have met Natale. While I read about his past, I try to imagine what it was like during the war, the time of reconstruction, the anxiety, the shortages, the desires and dreams that were sometimes shattered or came true. I think of Natale and I imagine him in shorts, a bit of an urchin, a watchful rebel, someone who always looked a little further ahead than the others but still kept ranks.
A chap that arranged a thousand sounds and turned them into music; who put a thousand tools in line and created a workshop; who worked with the love and precision of a goldsmith. I think of him in black and white, on dusty roads with horses and carriages. When the first cars were such a rare occurrence they had to sound their horn to gain passage through the pedestrians, who absent-mindedly walked anywhere, sharing the roads with bicycles and horses. Pedestrians stopped in amazement as the new beasts of technology passed by, regardless of the cloud of dust enveloping them.
I imagine Gallarate wasn’t much different to other towns at the time, like those documented by the great directors of post war films. I wasn’t around then and for me it’s all like a movie. His attitude was immediately clear, his creativity was innovative, he had energy to harness like the water of a mountain stream and diligence when doing things. Bicycles were his lifeblood. Whereas his two brothers lent an hand in the family business, Natale spent all of his free time on his bicycle. It was the time of Binda and the era when sport with a capital S was all about cycling and soccer.Natale eventually got the chance to explore his creativity, first at the Ponti Institute – where he studied drawing and design and then at his elder brother’s workshop.
This was MV Agusta, Gilera and Moto Guzzi territory, when the first prototype bicycles were taking form at Milani. In the meantime, they vented their passion in the saddle, riding the hills of the Varese area, conquering fatigue, the cold and the dark: the desire for change. Up early on Sundays to go out on the bike. Ninety kilometres to Domodossola as a warm-up, then one hundred and twenty at top speed, and you didn’t spare yourself, followed by another ninety back home. It’s the most heroic form of cycling. I think that designing bicycles was an important change in Natale’s life. Since he couldn’t follow in the footsteps of the cycling stars, he decided to work for them and try help them become even greater. And so, all his energy, his creativity and his flair came together like a game where the goal was creating new geometrical shapes. Making bicycles was a mission for him. Putting someone in the saddle was not simply a question of sport, it was for life.

A person that communicated with gestures and glances rather than words. A person who certainly wasn’t an easy character, since he was armed with an enigmatic tongue. Like anyone with a strong personality, you either loved or hated Natale. Often it was the first option, and even if the reaction was dislike there was always a great sense of respect nevertheless. His frames are still revered today by those who remain of his generation. Their extraordinary elasticity and geometrical proportion are still praised nowadays, despite the difficult and wary times where it’s often marketing that makes a triangle solid or a frame special. Natale was not just a capable cyclist; he was a skilled craftsman, so much so that during the Second World War he served in the Italian air force as a flight engineer, applying his craft in order to make missing spare parts for planes or applying improvements by modifying existing designs. This combination of craftsmanship and engineering know-how created and consolidated a simple man who was tenacious and rigorous at the same time: “Il Milanin” as he was usually called.

The forge was his precious and irreplaceable ally together with the blowtorch used for oxyacetylene welding: the main figures in a unique and almost impassable space. Observers remained entranced by his dexterity and experience, seen in how he “moved” the frames that went through a last stage when he subjected to them quick burst of the torch. This was his signature. I’ve seen his seventy year old work bench. I’ve seen a small notebook with a pencil sketch of a geometrical design and some numbers. A picture of a saint is pinned next to them, almost as if to protect them. I have found out that his son Celeste still uses those numbers today. I was surrounded by his old workbench, the old brazier, a template and a worn sheet of paper covered with old yet unchanging numbers. In front of me, there was the new Milani collection designed by his son. The only difference I could see was outside, since the road to Milan is now a three lane motorway.
Directly copied from the Milani Website

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