The industrial boom of the 19th century reached Italy as well. Lots of factories were built from north to south revolutionising life between towns and villages with their production methods and corresponding infrastructure. Textile manufacturer Cristoforo Benigno Crespi was looking for a new factory site and turned it into Crespi d’Adda. This textile and workers’ village in Lombardy is widely regarded as the crown jewel of industrial architecture and was declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. However, Crespi d’Adda has been in limbo since the factory closed in 2004 leaving its future hanging in the balance.
The dyer dynasty Crespi
Crespi was a big name in the Italian textile industry of the 18th and 19th century. The dyer family strengthened their pre-eminence over the course of several decades, expanded broadly and added new lines of business. The production of cotton goods became a gold mine for the Crespi family, who needed a new factory. Cristoforo Benigno Crespi, born 1833 in Busto Arsizio (approx. 35 km south of Milan), was looking for an adequate site.
Crespi purchased a piece of land approx. 100 km east of his birthplace and started constructions on said factory. Due to the rather remote location, additional buildings had to be established quickly leading to the development of an entire company town with accommodations and infrastructure for factory workers from 1878 onward. His son and heir Silvio Crespi took over the company in 1906 and expanded it further. The younger Crespi was regarded as one of the most influential men of his time even signing the Treaty of Versailles and only had to give up his company in 1929 due to the Great Depression and the brutal fascist fiscal policy. The factory would continue to operate into the new millennium.
A village made on the drawn board
Cristoforo Benigno Crespi brought the latest production methods from England to his cotton mill. He needed lots of hydropower for it, which is why he bought a green meadow on the Isola Bergamasca peninsula, nestled between the rivers Adda and Brembo. A hydropower plant was eventually built years later in Trezzo, a few kilometres upriver, at his behest.
The factory was put into operation as early as 1875, yet the industrial magnate soon realised that the somewhat remote location was everything but ideal – both for his workers and for himself. Accommodations and infrastructure had to be established as quickly as possible. Crespi had a small village built near the cotton mill. Multiple-occupancy blocks, a hospital, a church with a cemetery, a school (the syllabus included the subject “cotton processing”), a theatre and a washhouse were constructed in record time.
Sound spectacular, doesn’t it? Well, what if we tell you that Crespi d’Adda actually became the first Italian village with modern street lighting? Crespi utilised Edison’s lighting concept for his company town towards the end of the 19th century creating more light along the roads. This friendly shimmer at night increased both his workers’ productivity and the quality of life as a whole. His son would go on to lead Crespi d’Adda to even greater heights.
Silvio Crespi’s evolution of the model village
Cristoforo’s son Silvio travelled a lot before taking over the company. One such trip lead him to the British town Oldham, another 19th century textile industry hotspot. Here he gained precious knowledge about state-of-the-art manufacturing engineering and new means of division of labour. Additionally, he found the town’s industrial charm inspiring and incorporated his insights into further expansions of Crespi d’Adda.
Silvio Crespi saw discord and discontent as the biggest potential threats to his inherited company town. Thus, he slowly got rid of multiple-occupancy blocks and started building new workers’ accommodations in 1892. Crespi d’Adda was instead equipped with single-family houses with gardens with the intention of providing more harmony and balance. It actually worked, as there were neither strikes nor social disorders for the entire 50 years of Crespi family management.
Guided tour through Crespi d’Adda
When travelling to Crespi d’Adda today, you land in a place where time seems to have stopped. The village hardly changed since the 1920s. Subsequent owners sold most of the houses to (former) workers, the factory closed down in 2004. Only around 450 people still live in the once flourishing company town, most of whom are house owners.
Crespi d’Adda is far from a ghost town, though, as several people still live here. The village life is very active, which is why you should respect local habits during your visit. We recommend a guided tour, because your guide knows best which places and buildings you can actually visit. Fascinating facts about the impressive history of this model village are an integral part of your tour.
Perfectly straight roads, carefully aligned houses, each with the same low fence and a vegetable garden, the high-rising factory smokestacks – no wonder Crespi d’Adda was seen as the ideal industry town. Further south you find the villas of white-collar employees and management, the old washhouse, which has since been converted into an indoor swimming pool, the small Renaissance church (an exact copy of the church in Crespi’s hometown Busto Arsizio) and the large workers’ cemetery with the family mausoleum. Walking through this village is equally unreal, fascinating, beautiful and somewhat unnerving. It remains to be seen how much longer it will be possible to do so.
The future of Crespi d’Adda
The World Heritage Site status is currently in question. The UNESCO insists on keeping the status quo as an industrial model village and would prefer either new factory owners or the establishment of culture and research institutions. Whether these ideas are realistic is another matter. Crespi d’Adda draws lots of interest from potential investors, but they would rather build large hotel complexes on the former factory site.
Entrepreneur Antonio Percassi has had his sights set on Crespi d’Adda since 2013. The former player and president of football club Atalanta Bergamo had been working closely with Benetton for several decades, founded various cosmetics companies and built a large shopping mall in the region. Percassi now wants to convert the village into the headquarters of his company empire and the family foundation. This plan, however, finds little approval and the project is currently on hold due to lack of permits. Local politicians and the entrepreneur have been trying to work out new deals since summer of 2018, but with little to no result as of now.
It remains to be seen what will happen to Crespi d’Adda, but this ideal of a company town is most certainly worth a visit. You will be amazed by the uniquely planned model structure, visit cute little streets and experience the equally unusual and impressive contrast between neat worker houses, vast villas and mighty factory architecture. Have fun on your tour!