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Modern Italy: the birth of service stations

Editorial Staff

06 March 2023

In the first half of the 1950s, Italian roads witnessed an important aesthetic change, with the onset of service stations. This innovation transported - directly from the United States - the idea of modernity to Italy, by transforming refuelling into a stimulating experience. These were the 1950s, a period when product consumption takes an increasingly defined role in the Italian society and economy. Simple distribution terminals, with possible water and oil check service, were replaced by spaces housing coffee shops, restaurants, small markets and eventually motels. Stopping at a service station meant carving out a relaxing moment, with first-rate products and unprecedented attention to the customer. It was the way Enrico Mattei decided to target the fuel market, by conquering market shares from those he called "the seven sisters", i.e. large global oil companies. By offering high-octane petrol - Supercortemaggiore, the "powerful Italian petrol" - in a modern space, equipped with all the amenities, the watchword became 'consumare italiano' (use Italian products).

The Eni's photographic archives maps out these modern architectures, with photographs by photographers such as Federico Patellani, which depict new corporate plants, yet rooted and perfectly integrated in their territories, while documenting a changing Country.

Transforming refuelling into a stimulating experience

The distinctive principle:their Immediate recognizability

In the 1951 financial statements - two years before Eni's foundation - we read: "Many service and gas stations were created to ensure any modern form of assistance to drivers. Some of the most important ones include the service stations in Brescia, Ferrara, L'Aquila, Modena, Parma, Pavia, Rimini, Rome (one in Ponte Flaminio, and the other in Porta San Paolo), Siena, Varese". The distinction between service station and gas station underlined this new vision, and paved the road to the new architectures, largely signed by Mario Bacciocchi. The hallmark of these new venues - as indicated by Enrico Mattei - was their visual uniformity. Bacciocchi writes: "They are all characterized by a pleasant common profile that sets them apart from the stations of other distributing companies, even from a distance". The yellow six-legged dog and the sharp and bold lines were featured on refuelling areas, on coffee shops, restaurants, motels, and even operators' uniforms. Everything had to speak the same language, everything had to speak Agip (and then Eni). Compared to the competitors' massive cathedrals looking out onto the Italian landscape, after the construction of the Sun Motorway, Agip stations claimed the distinctive principle of their immediate recognizability.

The original album of architect Mario Bacciocchi's 13 project types - dictating the new standards for the 1950s - is preserved at Eni's Historical Archive. The construction on the road followed quite soon after, with an effective and quick program, as testified by the drawings of the Agip technical unit staff, approved directly by Enrico Mattei. The President himself proudly talked about this massive activity in his speeches: "We often had to build special artworks, authentic masterpieces of technical architecture, unique in the Italian landscape."

They are all characterized by a pleasant common profile that sets them apart

Mattei to managers: "The stations should be clean and tidy"

The company's organizational machine took care of every detail first-hand, without leaving anything out: project, identity, training, marketing, communication, human relationships. A quick activity and cutting-edge constructions, which made President Mattei proudly state, in 1959: "this is no longer the same Agip organization of 15 years ago. This modern organization is the most competitive, effective and welcoming for drivers." And he added a commanding: "we need to know how to manage this network, and manage it well too. As I told you many times, the stations should be well managed, the shops should be tidy, everything should be clean, especially the sanitary facilities; you should work together to constantly select the management, and Agip's services should work properly, not just in our fantasy, but in reality."

The video below: "Servizio nelle stazioni di rifornimento" (Service at service stations), is a 1955 animation film, created to train Agip service station managers, and educate them on wrong and right behaviours to adopt with the customers, in an ironic and funny way.

Mattei:"We need to know how to manage this network, and manage it well too"

Service station on the press

On the motorway. The increase of civil motor vehicles was registered by the Italian press with growing numbers. The biggest type of the new Agip service station model took over the motorway network; many new services were experimented in it, and the module was easily replicated abroad.     

City centres. The smallest kiosks remained the only kind possible in central city areas, already encumbered by a chaotic concession system, not immune to popular humour. The new balance between function, materials and 'modern' lines also arose a little bit of nostalgia.

Rest areas. Many medium and large service stations were built near the cities' access points. Some of them, like the Ponte Flaminio and Aurelia service stations in Rome, became advertising models and offered literary topics on the collective imaginary on rest areas. 

Service. Agip specialized its service station personnel systematically. Internal press conveyed the new role and weight that service managers and operators took on for the company; and, at Mattei's will, the new 'Buon lavoro amici!' bulletin was created, sent by Agip to service station managers, with instructions and useful tips to offer quality services and train their operators.

The Ponte Flaminio and Aurelia service stations in Rome, became advertising models