The Swiss that helped build modern Italy

Swiss entrepreneurs like Carl Abegg from Zurich played a leading role in Italy's textile industry wikipedia

Italy is commemorating 150 years of unification. At a time of political upheaval in the mid-19th century, many Swiss played an important role in Italy’s economic development.

This content was published on March 16, 2011 - 09:50
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Numerous banks, grand hotels and cotton mills were in the hands of Swiss who, at the end of the century, represented the second largest foreign community in Italy.

A 16th century Roman noble, Marcantonio Altieri, wrote that the Swiss were barbarians, men not to be trusted, lacking in humanity and were the main enemies of Rome and Italians.

Altieri was anything but kind to the Swiss soldiers, who he thought were responsible for the exclusion of “worthy Romans” from the pope’s armed guard.

It’s not known to what extent the Roman population shared Altieri’s opinion or whether these battle-hardened mercenaries were as inhumane as the nobleman made them out to be. But one thing is certain: three centuries later the Swiss were making an important contribution to the building of Italy, in particular in the hotel and banking sectors and the textile industry.

Contrary to what would seem obvious, the Swiss presence was strongest in southern Italy during the first decades of the 19th century.

“The Bourbons [rulers of what is now southern Italy] put Swiss at the head of their regiments and this explains in part the ties created with southern Italy; and it’s also interesting to note that the Swiss community was comprised mostly of Swiss-German Protestants,” explained historian Mauro Cerutti.

Among the early pioneers were Jean-Jacques Egg, who arrived in Naples in 1812 with 100 families from Zurich to set up the first cotton mill looms in the then commune of Piedimone d’Alife.

Egged on

Many Swiss industrialists followed in Egg’s footsteps. They went in particular to Salerno where such families as the Wenners, Züblins, Vonwillers and Meyers were active.

Their factories were important not only for the south’s economy (for example, the cotton mills of Züblin and Vonwiller employed about 1,500 workers) but were major players worldwide. Salerno was sometimes called the “Manchester of the Two Sicilies”.

To the north, especially in the industrial triangle formed by Turin, Genoa and Milan, most Swiss entrepreneurs involved in the textile industry arrived much later – in the post-unification period.

“The presence of the Swiss textile merchants was very important, mainly around Bergamo and Turin,” Cerutti said, referring to people like August Abegg, founder of the textile plant Vallesusa, which was a leading company in Italy for many years.

By the end of the 19th century, there were 65 textile factories operated by Swiss merchants, including 16 in the province of Bergamo and 14 in the province of Turin. Many of these companies employed between 1,000 and 2,500 workers, according to historian Georges Bonnant, who at the beginning of the 1970s studied Swiss emigration to Italy.

Electric monopoly

Also worth mentioning is the central role played by the financial institution, Société Financière Italo-Suisse, founded in Geneva in 1902, which for a number of years had a near monopoly on the production and distribution of electricity in southern Italy, not including Sicily.

The Swiss also had an excellent reputation as hoteliers. “The best hotels are those of the Swiss,” wrote French author Gustave Flaubert.  

It may be a cliché but Flaubert’s view speaks volumes about the prestige and the know-how acquired by Swiss hoteliers, who were at the forefront of tourism in Europe, and brought their experience to Italy where they practically created the hotel industry in the second half of the 19th century.

“Before the invention of winter sports, hotels in the Swiss Alps, in the Engadine Valley for example, closed their doors in winter because the investment didn’t pay off. Therefore the idea was born to continue the season in the south, also moving their staff who otherwise would have been unemployed,” explained Cerutti.

Italian palaces

The Italian “palaces” of the age were created thanks to Swiss hoteliers like César Ritz, Alphonse Pfyffer, Joseph Bucher-Durrer and Adolf Angst. By the end of the 19th century, nearly 50 grand hotels were in Swiss hands.

This development was also made possible thanks to capital from private Swiss banks with branches in Italy.

The presence of Swiss banks goes back to the 18th century. In Naples, for example, an immigrant from canton Thurgau in 1762 founded the Banca Meuricoffre, taken over in 1905 by the Italian bank, Credito Italiano.

 

“Although the idea of banks was in part born in Italy – I’m thinking of the Monte dei Paschi di Siena -  the expertise of the Swiss was already well recognised at the time,” explained Cerutti.

The Genevans De La Rüe were the preferred bankers of Camillo Cavour, one of the founders of unified Italy. The De La Rües financed a number of important works such as the construction of the Turin-Alessandria railway line.

Industrialisation

Large Swiss financial institutions also entered the game as the industrial revolution finally took hold in Italy around 1890.

Basel’s Bankverein, Geneva’s Union Financière and Credit Suisse all participated in the founding of the Banca Commerciale Italiana which, together with Credito Italiano, contributed greatly to Italy’s industrialisation.

Capital invested in Credito Italiano came in part from institutes with Swiss origins, like Banca Vonwiller of Milan, Kuster of Turin and the Basler Handelsbank.

Credit Suisse, not satisfied with playing a role from afar, designated its own president of the board of governors of the Banca Commerciale Italiana as head of a textile empire with numerous branches across Italy.

Swiss activities in the country came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the First World War. By 1918, all Swiss textile mills had passed into the hands of Italians. Despite everything, ties remained strong.

Swiss in Italy

There are no precise figures on the number of Swiss living in Italy - or elsewhere abroad – in the 19th century or first part of the 20th. At the time, expatriates were not required to register with their embassies.

However, the Swiss mission in Italy estimated that there were 15,000 Swiss resident in the country in 1898.

An Italian census of 1901 found that the Swiss were the second largest community of foreigners in the country with 10,744 persons, behind the Austrians (10,922) and ahead of the Germans (10,715).

The Swiss mission estimated that the most important Swiss colony was in Milan (5,000), followed by Turin (2,200), Naples (1,200), Livorno (1,200) and Rome (700).

In 2000, there were 41,140 Swiss expatriates living in Italy but that figure has grown continually. In 2009, the figure was up to 48,638, of which 38,672 were dual nationals.

Today, the Swiss comprise the fourth largest expatriate community. Only the French (179,106), German (76,565) and American (74,966) colonies are larger.

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