The 19th century and industrial beginnings

The history of the Varese province from the Unification of Italy to the present does not differ from the experience of the whole country in its transition from an agricultural economy to the current predominant post-industrial model. However, even within this setting, industry has made the most significant impact on the landscape, population, attitudes and culture.

The area currently covered by Varese was granted administrative status only in 1927. It had previously been distributed between the northern Lombard plain from the River Adda to the River Ticino in the Como province and the southern part including the centres of Busto and Gallarate in the province of Milan. Since the nineteenth century this mountainous territory with little-developed agriculture but open to communications in all directions encouraged the presence of migrant craftsmen such as bricklayers and stonemasons. Silk and cotton production flourished thanks to a significant female workforce employed in the factories situated along rivers, in particular the Olona, but mainly thanks to the cottage industry operated by farmhands’ families in their free time. Economic activity bred a nucleus of businessmen whose interests were linked with Milan rather than Como. This led to constant requests for administrative autonomy from Como which was partially granted when the newly unified state set up an independent Chamber of Commerce in the administrative district of Varese. As well as the textile industry, the area counted on some paper mills, a few mines and stone and limestone quarries. The energy supply was provided by limited sources of water, woods and numerous peat bogs. The growth of the textile industry opened the way for the development of the metallurgical and mechanical sectors. The introduction of mechanical looms and the resulting need for maintenance and repairs favoured the reinforcement of this branch of industry with a cascade of positive effects on other sectors. The treatment of skins and leather started out from the animal-rearing sector but expanded gradually as economic development encouraged the mechanisation of animal-drawn transport.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the beauties of the local landscape gave rise to an important tourist industry which exerted a strong attraction on the city of Milan. Finally, between the 1850s and 80s, the first banks, which in the course of time created a financial system able to support industrial development, were founded.

This economic system was adequately diversified and integrated to allow farm workers’ families to experiment the transition towards forms of craft industry and proved to be an incubator of small-scale entrepreneurship. In addition, the vicinity of Milan offered ample opportunities for large, local companies to use and extend their financial, commercial and social networks, while Milan was able to decentralise important sections of its production in this area.

The twentieth century and peak of the industrial model

The 20th century provided the Varese area with the opportunity of rapid development. The First World War favoured an increase in both the quantity and the quality of the mechanical industry thanks to the founding of the motor vehicle and aeronautical branches. The activities of Caproni and Macchi made Varese the national pole of the new aeronautical industry. In the 1920s important innovations affected the transport sector. Rail transport had always been limited as the two main lines railway lines connecting the port of Genoa with Germany and France passed through Milan and cut off Varese, but the opening of the world’s first motorway from Milan to Gallarate in 1924 represented an important result. The chemical industry also contributed to the varied nature of local economic development by supporting the textile sector’s requirements. Lastly, some craft industries such as the manufacture of pipes acquired their first industrial premises, while the treatment of leather prospered as the first shoe factories were opened.

Industry took off in the province during the Fascist period and official recognition of its administrative autonomy arrived when provincial status was granted  in 1927. The industrial vocation of the zone was expressed fully, however, in the later post-war period. While the mechanical sector suffered the negative consequences of the war, leading to a drastic restructuring of the aeronautical branch, rising incomes and changing habits favoured the manufacture of electrical appliances and motor vehicles. Cotton production reached its peak by taking advantage also of the crisis that had started to affect more industrially advanced countries.

The crisis of the industrial system and the end of a historical cycle

As early as the end of the 1960s the opening of the market to products from emerging Asian countries led to a reorganisation of the textile sector. Large factories no longer drove the economy and the dispersion of qualified personnel who contributed to the various production cycles with independent activities began. In a short time the transformation of the Italian and world economies led to the contraction of most sectors involved in the industrialisation of the province. The fragmentation of enterprises has been the most relevant feature of the last decades. While on the one hand it expresses the vitality and adaptability of the industrial system, on the other it reduces the possibility of finding an effective solution to the problems posed by global market integration.

Other activities like services, transport , scientific research and training have expanded considerably and their success has been instrumental in the increasing importance of the tertiary sector in the local economy. As in all advanced areas of the country, post-industrial economy and society have become common terms.

The restructuring of large local businesses signalled the end of an economic cycle opened in the final decades of the 19th century and this change was also reflected on a social and cultural level. Faced with this momentous transformation, from the 1960s onwards men of culture, entrepreneurs and public institutions considered it their duty to narrate the history of companies and their products to the public, using the objects and settings of their production and placing them in the historical context of the local economy, technological evolution and changes in social customs. Through the 80s and 90s, when the vast dimension of the deindustrialisation process led to fears that the memory of the territory’’s industrial past would be lost, that sense of cultural responsibility drove businesses, universities and individuals to found permanent cultural institutions (museums, research centres, collections) and so keep knowledge of the past alive today.

The industrial tradition of Varese relives through these institutions which function as a cultural bridge between generations and help local communities to rationalise the historic break that has affected them and whose effects have continued to the present day.