14 marzo 2023
by Lidia Lombardi

Italy’s steel, for 139 years


Eighty years ago, at 10:29 AM on August 11, 1943, Terni heard the chilling rumble of war planes, the beginning of the Allied bombardments, of which a hundred and eight gutted the city of the Steelworks. This will be commemorated on March 10, when Arvedi Ast will celebrate the birthday of the “most beautiful iron and steel factory in the world,” as the Umbrian industrial center has been defined. The memory of the WWII air raids will overlap with what is happening today in Ukraine, where bombs rain down from the sky on industries, construction sites, and hydroelectric plants. You attack the enemy where you can do the most damage; Terni was hit hard to destroy those industrial warehouses where men and women were building deadly devices.

The Terni Steelworks have never stopped working and are turning 139 years of age.

Despite it all, the Terni Steelworks never did stop and tomorrow they will turn 139. Venetian entrepreneur Vincenzo Stefano Breda, Italy’s most internationally famous brand name, founded them in 1884. Mr. Breda died in 1903, after bringing employment to a region hungry for stable jobs and eager to get back on its feet after Italy’s Unification. The “Company for High Furnaces Foundries and Steelworks of Terni” was to become a symbol of the country's industrial breakthrough. The city was chosen for its Marmore Falls, now considered a tourist attraction, but created back in 271 BCE as major hydraulic works by the Roman Consul Manius Curius Dentatus, who ordered that a canal be built to drain the stagnant waters of Lake Velino towards the natural overhang of Marmore. The result was the highest artificial waterfall in Europe, 165 meters. The candid and frothy leap of the water was the perfect condition for establishing a steel mill, as turbines would capture the force produced by the waterfall and transform it into energy.

The first furnaces were lit up in 1886, a great event attended by Prince Thomas of Savoy, brother of Margherita, the first queen of Italy. From that moment on, the steel mill, whose production never stopped, became a major line of Italian industrial history, overcoming difficulties and dramatic events, such as two world wars and crises that developed over the decades. The last of such crises, and the most feared by the Terni workers, was solved by Acciaieria Arvedi SpA of Cremona buying out AST (Acciai Speciali Terni) in 2022, and now holding 85 percent of the share capital.

The armor plates of the most prestigious units of the Italian fleet, the bathysphere with which Auguste Piccard carried out deep sea explorations, the vessel of the Garigliano nuclear power station, all have emerged from the Viale Brin departments (their current location is the same as it has always been). After the two world wars, the site moved on from war production to special steels for civil use, eventually becoming a world leader in the production of flat stainless steels.

From the departments of Viale Brin (the current location is still the same) came the armor of the most prestigious units of the Italian Fleet

The factory is set in a fertile cultural environment; between the 1700s and 1800s, Terni played host to plenary painters, artists from many European countries attracted by the nature and landscape. They created the great artistic movement of En Plein Air painting, an innovation that would lead to Impressionism. Even in more recent times, the factory crossed paths with painters, sculptors, screenwriters and film directors. German director Walter Ruttmann made here his movie ‘Steel’ in 1933, based on a Luigi Pirandello story. Italian director Luchino Visconti too filmed here some scenes from his movie ‘The Damned.’ Here was also the set of ‘La Califfa’ (Lady Caliph) by Alberto Bevilacqua, whose most famous scene has Romy Schneider in front of a 12,000-ton press.

Even the workers strike a pose, both proud and reserved. In the background, they climb on gigantic wheels for the photo shoot. Maybe they don't notice the camera when they leave the site and ride home on their bicycles. There are also women hard at work on shells, because the enormous effort of two world wars required female labor to fill in for the shortage of men sent to the front. Other scenes show life outside the factory, at after-work clubs, in sports fields, near schools and kindergartens, against the backdrop of public housing. The Steelworks Historical Archive has a collection of photographs and documents open to the public. Together with the Library, it has been declared of “exceptional cultural interest” by the Ministry of Culture and protected by the Superintendency of the Umbria and Marche regions.

After the 108 bombings of 1943, which devastated Terni and ransacked the production plants, many artists arrived in the city of the steel mill to leave their mark in its time of rebirth. At the end of the 1940s, Renato Guttuso dedicated a cycle of paintings to the hard work done in the factory. Later came Arnaldo Pomodoro, Umberto Mastroianni, the American Beverly Pepper, Carlo Lorenzetti, Eliseo Mattiacci, Giulio Turcato, and Bruno Ceccobelli, who, together with others, disseminated their sculptures, often made of steel, in the streets and piazzas of Terni, a city that is no longer just a hub for iron and steel production, but also a “place for contemporary art.”

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