Vitale Barberis Canonico

VBC: History… on Letterhead – Part One

The Vitale Barberis Canonico Wool Mill’s historical archive conserves a unique lithographic plate. A special stone, a compact limestone block on which a skilled artisan set to work with a grease pencil to reproduce, in reverse, an image that passes on a piece of history. The lithograph, produced by the famous firm of Almasio in Intra (renowned among collectors of illustrated postcards), constituted the matrix for the iconographic “frieze” on a letterhead. As was once quite common, companies – and not just those in the fabric sector – chose to present themselves through a portrayal of their production site. There was pride and a degree of indulgence size-wise on these letterheads (even small factories often “grew” significantly in these images, sometimes to the point of implausibility), but despite this potential for exaggeration such lithographs nearly always represent interesting documents. Such is the case here, where the depiction of the wool mill of the time appears quite accurate.

Photo of a letterhead engraved on a lithographic plate.

The letterhead on the lithographic stone

The lithograph is undated, but we can pin down its chronology with a significant degree of precision. We may not be able to attribute it a specific day, month or year, but it is possible to define a general period, stretching from 1921 to 1931. In fact, we can narrow it down even further: between 1921 and 1927. A time “suspended” – though no one could know this at the time – between the two world wars. A time of terrible memories and new hopes. Fashion pursued the desire for a future and the warm colours of soft fabrics suggest a sober happiness and confidence. With World War I behind them, people glimpsed possibility and prosperity. The time had come to build.

The historical fabric of the archive.
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Photo of fabric no. 13.3346/2
The fabric of the Vitale Barberis Canonico collection.

This is what Guglielmo and Luigi Barberis Canonico must have thought. The lithograph speaks of them. If this is the case, you might ask, why is it here? Before answering this question, we need to take a closer look at the image. It’s a “photograph” rich in details and talking points. But in order to grasp them, we’d best stop looking at it in reverse.

Photo of a letterhead.

Now that it’s been flipped around, what do we see? At bottom, the road that goes up from Ponzone to Trivero, today’s Via Diagonale. In the centre, the layout of buildings that in large part no longer exist, or whose appearance has changed radically. We can nevertheless make out the shape of the modern-day factory that today forms a continuous structure, whereas in the past a broad courtyard separated the two historic nuclei. But if we look more carefully, we can still note the broken line at the edge of the wall evident in the lithograph. At the time, this segmentation was quite pronounced, and not coincidentally. This is an important point, because the letterhead speaks of a single company, while the image shows two, indeed, three distinct focal points. The first, on the left, is the oldest. The four shed-style bays abutting the 19th-century-style building bear witness to a first adaptation of the original structure, around 1890. The industrial history of the Barberis Canonico family began inside those walls that feel more like a home than a factory. Notice that the original manufacturing plant had its own gate, a boundary wall, an area all its own. It was there that old Giuseppe Barberis Canonico learned his trade and then put it to good use, and in 1908 he decided to expand the company (truth be told, he built an entirely new one, but this story deserves a separate telling), and then did so again between 1913 and 1914, southwards, towards the right in the image. Another gate, another boundary wall, another area all its own. A dozen shed-style bays, a building with a roof terrace, the smokestack …

A new factory, with many new machines, for the new century. And, most importantly, for a family organization that was by no means simple to manage. And here another story begins …

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