At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Cristoforo Benigno Crespi - entrepreneur

Textile boss created industrial village of Crespi d’Adda


Cristoforo Benigno Crespi built a community from scratch around his textile factory
Cristoforo Benigno Crespi built a community
from scratch around his textile factory
The entrepreneur Cristoforo Benigno Crespi, who became famous for creating a company-owned village around his textile factory in Lombardy, was born on this day in 1833 in Busto Arsizio, about 34km (21 miles) northwest of Milan.

A textile manufacturer, in 1869 Crespi bought an area of land close to where the Brembo and Adda rivers converge, about 40km (25 miles) northeast of Milan, with the intention of building a cotton mill on the banks of the Adda.

The factory he built was substantial, with room for 10,000 spindles, but as well the capacity to produce textiles on a large scale, Crespi recognised that it was essential to his plans to have a contented workforce. Consequently, following the lead of other manufacturers in the textile industry outside Italy, he set about providing on site everything to meet the daily needs of his employees.

In addition to the factory premises, he built homes for his workers, a school, a wash-house, a hospital, a church and a grocery store.

Houses were built in English-style parallel rows, with gardens and vegetable plots, and the streets were the first in Italy to have modern electric lighting. The church was a replica of the shrine of Santa Maria di Piazza in Crespi’s home town of Busto Arsizio. The school was fully equipped with every requirement for the education of the children of the village; the Crespi family even paid the salaries of the teachers.

Crespi d'Adda had houses for the workers, a school, a church and a hospital in addition to a large factory
Crespi d'Adda had houses for the workers, a school, a church
and a hospital in addition to a large factory
Crespi built a large castle-like house for himself and was very much lord of the manor. But his benign governance of the town meant that the factory was able to avoid the strikes and social unrest that affected other parts of Italy.

Today, Crespi d’Adda, as the village became known, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognised as one of the best-preserved workers’ villages in Europe.  The factory is still intact, although largely unused, and the houses are occupied for the most part by the descendants of the workers’ families for whom they were originally built.

Cristoforo Crespi was from the third generation of the family to be involved with the textile industry, starting with his grandfather, Benigno, in the early 1800s.

His initial ambition was to become a priest but he began to help his father, Antonio, in the family business from an early age and eventually abandoned his spiritual leanings to study law at the University of Pavia.

Crespi d'Adda had its own school, built for the children of the workers in Cristoforo Crespi's factory
Crespi d'Adda had its own school, built for the children
of the workers in Cristoforo Crespi's factory
The death of Benigno, the family patriarch, combined with difficult trading conditions in the mid-19th century, brought another change of direction. In order to help support the family and the business, Cristoforo took a job in a bank and then in the offices of a cotton manufacturer in Busto Arsizio, while at the same time taking lessons in book-keeping

He left his job there after asking for a pay rise, hoping to save enough money to marry his girlfriend, Pia Travelli, the daughter of a lawyer, and for a time his future was uncertain.

But he made some money from speculating on the raw cotton market, persuaded his father to move from trading in textiles to producing them and a factory they leased at Vaprio d’Adda quickly became profitable.

Cristoforo arrived at Crespi d’Adda through a series of events, which ended with him deciding to break from his family and go it alone. The factory at Vaprio was lost after the owners decided to sell it at auction, and though the disappointment was eased when another at Vigevano brought more success, Cristoforo fell out with his brother, Giuseppe, over plans for expansion and left.

Crespi and his family lives in a castellated villa built for him by the architect Angelo Colla
Crespi and his family lives in a castellated villa built
for him by the architect Angelo Colla
His next step was to buy a paper mill in conjunction with two other brothers, Carlo and Pasquale, at Ghemme in the province of Novara. Again, as Italy enjoyed a period of sustained economic growth from the 1870s onwards, the venture was highly profitable. Yet ultimately Cristoforo decided he would rather be in sole charge.

It was at that stage that he found his plot by the Adda and Brembo rivers, about 20km (12 miles) southwest of Bergamo, built a canal to generate hydraulic energy and set about creating his dream.

In addition to his home at Crespi d’Adda, where the cemetery also housed the family mausoleum, Crespi engaged the architect Angelo Colla, who built most of the industrial village, to restore a mansion in Via Borgonuovo in the centre of Milan and build a villa on the shore of Lake Orta in Piedmont.  He began an art collection that included works by Titian, Canaletto and Rubens.

His son, Silvio - one of four children he had with Pia, to whom he was married in 1866  - became an important figure in his own right.  After taking over the running of Crespi d’Adda from his father, he invested in building Italy’s first motorways as well as in the race track at Monza.  He came to be regarded as such a significant figure in Italy that he was asked to be a signatory at the Treaty of Versailles following the end of the First World War.

Cristoforo, whose faculties were badly impaired after a stroke in 1906, died in 1920 at the age of 86. After the Great Depression took its toll on the Italian economy, Crespi d’Adda was sold in 1929.


Crespi had his Villa Pia, on the shore of Lake Orta, built in a Moorish style
Crespi had his Villa Pia, on the shore of
Lake Orta, built in a Moorish style
Travel tip:

Crespi’s Moorish-style summer residence on Lake Orta, the smaller lake to the west of Lake Maggiore, was named Villa Pia in honour of his wife. Nowadays, renamed Villa Crespi, it is an exclusive hotel owned by the chef and TV presenter Antonino Cannavacciuolo, and includes a restaurant with two Michelin stars.  It attracted poets, industrialists and even members of the aristocracy, including King Umberto I of Savoy, to live there during the 1930s after the Crespi family sold it. The architect Angelo Colla included features admired by Cristoforo Crespi in Middle Eastern architecture, including stuccoed walls and ceilings, while the building is topped by an immense minaret.  Colla also incorporated columns made from precious marble imported from a number of places in Italy and beyond.

The Museum of the Risorgimento is in the Palazzo Moriggia in Via Borgonuovo
The Museum of the Risorgimento is in the
Palazzo Moriggia in Via Borgonuovo
Travel tip:

Crespi’s mansion in Milan at No 18 Via Borgonuova, a stone’s throw from the high fashion stores on the Via Montenapoleone, is almost opposite the Palazzo Moriggia, which houses Milan’s Museum of the Risorgimento, a collection of objects and artworks which illustrate the history of Italian unification from Napoleon's first Italian campaign of 1796 to the annexation of Rome in 1870. The city of Milan played a key role in the unification process, most notably through the 1848 uprising against the Austrians known as the Five Days of Milan. The exhibits follow the chronological order of events of the Risorgimento, leading the visitor through 15 rooms. For more information, visit http://www.museodelrisorgimento.mi.it/

(Photo credits: View over Crespi d'Adda by Dario Crespi; Crespi School and Castellated Villa in Crespi d'Adda by blackcat; Villa Crespi by Torsade de Pointes; Museum of the Risorgimento by G.dallorto)

More reading:

How Karl Zuegg turned his family farm into a major business enterprise

The biscuit manufacturer who created Italy's Autogrill motorway services

Humble beginnings of the Ferrero chocolate empire

Also on this day:

La Festa di San Luca

1634: The birth of artist Luca Giordano


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