I can still see myself in the back of my Mum’s Mini Cooper entering a petrol station. Each time it was a thrill I waited with impatience, as a little kid. Mum lowered the window, smiling to the guy: “Il pieno, per favore” (Fill up, please), she said, and I got ready for the excitement. I loved the smell of petrol, it was strong, it almost made me dizzy. I had to wait for the right moment in utmost concentration because it reached the inside of the car, all of a sudden.
I knew it was going to happen, only I had to catch a very precise moment, the essence of it, before it overwhelmed me. Then I could close my eyes and daydream. That ritual also scared me. Daddy once said it could be dangerous: if only a spark was in the air, it could blow up the whole station. As a result, I was partly happy and partly terrified and maybe the mixture of both feelings made the whole thing special.
When I heard about a petrol station museum, in Tradate, near Varese, these emotions came back to me at once. The Museo Fisogni has been founded in 1966 by Guido Fisogni and awarded in 2000 by the Guinness World Records as the biggest collection of pumps and petrol memorabilia on planet Earth. Guido was a young guy when he started building petrol stations, in Italy, for the big oil companies. He had only one worker helping him, but the company grew bigger and bigger. “We often dismantled old stations to build new ones. I didn’t think of a museum, then, I just knew I had to preserve what I found, it meant a lot to me”. Eventually Fisogni organized his collection in a proper display, with one of his employees totally devoted to the restoration of the pieces he found or bought all around the world.
“I think you can learn a lot about culture and society from the way petrol stations were designed and each company developed a peculiar style”. The Michelin man (of which Fisogni owns such rare pieces that even Michelin itself doesn’t have) is just an example, but you can see also the first carts used by chemists at the very beginning of the motor era, when petrol was used basically for lighting or to fight lice. Also there is one of the pumps used in Buckingham Palace to fill up the Queen’s cars, plus road signs, ashtrays, pens, matches. There is a big oval glass table with the inside filled with old gadgets. “I used to sit for long meetings with trade unions and we all got bored after a while. I had this table especially made to give some amusement. Looking at such funny little things helped releasing the tension and we always ended up with an agreement”.
You can visit the Museo Fisogni each Sunday from 9 am to 11 am. But if you write an email or give Guido a ring, he will be happy to let you in, anytime during the week. “Few years ago I met a government representative to offer my complete collection to the Italian state. I didn’t ask for money, my only condition was that it should be displayed and not neglected like it often happens here. The guy said they didn’t want it, that they only cared for antiques. Ok then, I keep doing by myself. It may be just petrol stations for them, but it’s part of our culture for me”.