Vitale Barberis Canonico’s modern woollen mill on the banks of the Sessera has its origins in the nineteenth century. An interesting history is hidden among the old buildings and the present futuristic facilities. Giovanni Maria Tonella (1852–1907), founder of the firm from which Vitale Barberis Canonico acquired the buildings in 2001, left Cereie di Trivero at the beginning of the twentieth century to start over. That’s what people say, isn’t it, when they’re looking for another possibility somewhere else, after an unfavourable period? Following the bankruptcy of his first enterprise, Giovanni Maria understood that he would need more mechanical power and a greater surface area. The Flecchia district (at that time the municipality of Flecchia still existed, and this area was part of it, whereas today it belongs to the town of Pray), on the right bank of the Sessera, was just what he needed. The desire for a factory worthy of the name fulfilled the need of another Triverese entrepreneur, Pietro Piantino, who wished to rent out a perfectly functioning building.
Pietro Piantino, Giovanni Maria Tonella’s associate, had built the Flecchia woollen mill in about 1880, after launching his activities in the hamlet of Botto di Trivero. Around 1885, his brothers, Ottavio Antonio and Celestino, had built a textile factory quite close to Pietro’s. This is the building that still exists, in a state of abandonment, right opposite the Vitale Barberis Canonico factory gate, on the other side of the street.
The story is a bit complicated, but it is worthwhile pursuing, because it contains many curious details. Above all, it reveals the dense fabric of relationships and affinities among major and minor industrialists who, at the time, were weaving their splendid futures.
Ottavio Antonio Piantino died in 1888 at the tender age of twenty-five. His brother Celestino, born in 1871, was seventeen years old and was in no position to manage a business. So it was that, with the help of his remaining brothers and sisters, he rented out the building on several occasions. In the early 1900s, after marrying his brother’s widow, Marietta Zignone (daughter of Carlo Zignone, at that time owner of the ‘Fabbrica della ruota’), he signed a rental contract with Giuseppe Barberis Canonico – more precisely with his brother Valerio. Here, then is the solution to the mystery of the auxiliary headquarters of the Pratrivero woollen mill. That’s right: the Barberis Canonicos were already active in those parts around 1902, only they did not occupy the current factory, but rather the one across the road. This situation ended with the outbreak of World War I. And in 1920, the mill was sold to the Trabaldo Pietro Togna firm.
Returning to Giovanni Maria Tonella, it is important to specify that, in about 1902, he received only part of the building from Pietro Piantino. The rest was rented to Angelo Zegna Baruffa, father of Ermenegildo Zegna, who had begun to move his looms there after earning a living as a primary school teacher and watchmaker. A very respectable associate, in hindsight!
Advertisement for the Giovanni Maria Tonella & Figli firm from the 1920s. Shed-style buildings had already been added to the original Manchester-style establishment (on the right). Note, in the foreground at the bottom, the racks for drying the fabric.
Whereas Angelo Zegna Baruffa returned to Trivero in 1906, the Tonellas stayed where they were. On 19 September of the following year, Giovanni Maria Tonella died. On 9 May, he had formed a business with his sons Adolfo, Gennaro, and Enrico. Before he passed away, perhaps foreseeing his imminent end, he had wanted to set things in place. Four business partners, forty thousand lire of nominal capital. A partnership, established in the presence of the notary Giuseppe Sandretti di Borgosesia, created for ‘the manufacture and commercialisation of fabrics’.
Giovanni Maria’s children immediately set to work, attempting to consolidate their productive capacity, but without departing from the ‘style’ dictated by their father. The Vitale Barberis Canonico archives bear witness to a certain consistency, but in a spirit of innovation. This is clearly seen in the Winter 1912 sample book.
It was precisely in 1912 that Adolofo (1878–1949), Gennaro (1881–1935), and Enrico (1885–1960), joined by the young Valerio (1889–1936), formed a company with their cousin Guido under the name ‘Filatura Tonella’ (‘Tonella Spinning Mill’), with headquarters in Pray (probably in the same woollen mill that, in reality, was in Flecchia). The ‘Filatura Tonella’, specialising in ‘wool and cotton spinning and the sale of yarn’, lasted only two years but remains a sign of the firm’s dynamism.
‘Giovanni Tonella & Figli’ sample book, Winter 1912.
In 1918, the owners of ‘Giovanni Tonella & Figli’ acquired the factory that they had been renting. The old Piantino woollen mill became theirs for all intents and purposes.
In the 1924 Elenco delle organizzazioni industriali e delle ditte associate of the Federazione Industriale Biellese, one reads that the ‘Giovanni Tonella & Figli Woollen Mill” was devoted to the ‘manufacture of woollen fabrics, and in particular double-face overcoats; clothing; and, carded, combed, and mixed textiles’. Two years later, the Associazione Italiana dell’Industria Laniera indicated in its Annuario Generale that the Tonellas dealt in ‘carded yarn, produced independently; weaving, dyeing, and finishing woollen materials; textiles for double-face overcoats; ratinée; beaver; fabrics; and imaginative carded wool’.
Fascism had already begun its forced Italianization, even in textile terminology: paletots double-face were transformed into pastrano doppio verso – a translation process that would be completed over the course of a few years. Indeed, in the 1934 Annuario Generale della Laniera, one reads: Production: ‘carded yarn produced independently, weaving, dyeing. Textiles made of carded and combed wool; fabrics for pastrani [overcoats], double-face, ratinati, castoro [beaver], panni, cardati di fantasia in genere’. At that time, the Tonella brothers employed a workforce of 300 for 3700 carding spindles and 100 looms. Everything was powered by a 30-horsepower hydraulic system and a 150-horsepower electrical one.
A few photos from the Fascist era are preserved in the Centro di Documentazione dell’Industria Tessile [Documentation Centre of the Textile Industry] of the DocBi Centro Studi Biellesi (Fabbrica della Ruota). Here are two:
The Giovanni Tonella & Figli Woollen Mill under Fascism, when ‘the nation’s salvation lay in work and discipline’.
In 1959, the mill wished to enlarge the finishing room (planned by the architects Graziosi and Morbelli and the engineer Mancini, active at the time in Biellese textiles, which were undergoing significant expansion), but in 1968, the flood that struck the eastern Biellese area damaged the buildings closest to the Sessera. In the meantime, production did not change much, since in 1962 the leadership of the company was taken over by Enrico’s sons Ermanno and Giovanni. Adolfo and Gennaro had no heirs. The 1980s marked another generational passage when ‘the collection had expanded and included fabrics for caps and trousers, flannel, wool and wool linings; products intended for civil and military purposes, but also fabrics for priests and nuns’, as stated on the giovannitonella.it website. In fact, from the same source, we learn that ‘in addition to producing goods for the Italian market, the Lanificio sold its fabrics internationally, and since the 1960s they had been exporting them to Germany, Holland, France, Austria, and Switzerland’.
Vitale Barberis Canonico made one more change, twenty years ago. However, this evolution did not erase an important history that absolutely deserves to be preserved. The history of the Tonellas is woven into that of Vitale Barberis Canonico, and today the warp of the former and the weft of the latter have formed a prized, robust fabric.
2003 ‘Giovanni Tonella & Figli’ sample book, the last from the mill in Pray preserved in the Vitale Barberis Canonico historical archives.