by Laura Zazzerini
The city of Terni had one of the most prolific and renowned printer presses of the time, along with the first experiment of public lighting and the telephone line. But above all, the city owned an enlightened, forward-thinking man, with an entrepreneurial spirit aimed at spreading culture among the masses: Virgilio Alterocca.
«Me, Virgilio Alterocca from Terni, teacher by profession and vocation, and due to the facts of life, also owner of small publishing and telephone companies». These are the words with which he identifies himself in his last will and with which he humbly summarises his professional life. Virgilio was born in Terni as the second son of nine children from Ferdinando «coffee seller» and Maria Angeli «housewife».
A passion for teaching
Despite his humble background, his family wanted him to continue studying after primary school and so he was able to graduate from technical school in the school year 1870-1871. Then, following his father’s advice, in the years 1868-1870 he attended the local Music School where he learnt to play the saxhorn and the violin. Initially, obtained the basic license, he thoroughly devoted himself to teaching. In 1878, at only 25, he was appointed as headteacher of the primary school of his town but he was then forced to resign from the school in 1883 to take up his business. Throughout his life, he always gave great importance to education, both through his political activities as a member of the socialist party and through the pages of his weekly magazine, as well as a private citizen. Well known is his commitment to the cause of the Workers’ General Society that had the aim of «promoting the workers’ education, morality and well-being, so that they may also contribute effectively to the unceasing improvement of mankind». He was also active in the Charitable Committee for people’s education, an organisation that «believing that society will never be really civilised as long as the category of illiterates exists, intends to do what is necessary to ensure that the law on compulsory primary education (promulgated 13 years before, but treated as a dead letter) is thoroughly applied here in Terni». As the Public Education councillor for the Municipality of Terni, in 1903 he founded the League for people’s education against Early School Leaving. Then, since 1904, he committed himself to making sure that a professional school was established in Terni in support of large companies; the school opened in October 1909 with 125 students.
Printing presses and illustrated postcards
However, as mentioned, his passion for teaching was accompanied by an equally strong passion for entrepreneurial activities in particular, but also artistic activities, as we will see. In fact, in 1877, he started up a printing press that would later become the source of his success in Italy and abroad. The idea of starting this business probably came from his father Ferdinando who, already in 1871, was listed as a bookseller in the registry of Italian Booksellers, publishers and typographers and was the owner of a small stationery shop. After the death of his father, Virgilio decided to follow in his footsteps founding a new printing press that in 1886, thanks to the purchase of two new machines, was able to print 50,000 copies per day; a much larger number if compared with the 2,500 copies roughly printed by standard machines. The purchase of more innovative machinery – that he had probably had the opportunity to examine at the Berlin Exposition of 1893 – enabled him the following year to win the first prize at the Milan Exposition for an advertising calendar printed in various colours and also, starting from 1897, to begin the production of illustrated postcards on a large scale.
Therefore, Virgilio Alterocca was one of the first to introduce the illustrated postcard into the Italian market; it had been invented only the previous year for the wedding of the future King Victor Emmanuel III and Princess Elena. The first postcard in the first series (consisting of 18 views of Terni and surrounding areas) was dedicated to the Cascata delle Marmore, incredibly beautiful waterfalls located in the territory of Terni. Soon, the architectural and natural wonders of Umbria were accompanied by other postcards of artistic nature that reproduced the salient acts of theatrical and lyrical operas, something never seen before. The idea was to allow the audience to take a piece of the show home with them but also to allow those who could not attend the shows to learn about operas and artists. Still pursuing his educational goals, Virgilio Alterocca applied his work also to the masterpieces of Italian literature such as The Divine Comedy, thanks to an agreement with the Alinari Brothers following a competition won by Alberto Zardo, or The Betrothed, a series printed in numerous copies to be used by schools.
Always interested in new inventions, following an agreement with the Pathé Brothers of Paris, his printing press, starting from 1904, began to produce illustrated postcards representing the most significant scenes of films of the time. It didn’t have much luck, instead, the invention of the talking postcard launched for the first time in 1905 in the Alterocca manufacturing plant. It was a phonographic postcard which through «a small and elegant mechanism» registered the sender’s voice and allowed the recipient to listen to the recorded message many times.
The importance of being an advertiser
In December 1883, Virgilio Alterocca founded the weekly magazine «L’Annunziatore umbro-sabino» (which in 1887 changed its name in «Il Corriere umbro-sabino») with the aim of enhancing the industrial progress of his city that had seen the launch of a weapons factory in 1881 and that of the renowned Terni Steelworks the following year. The publication of the first issue of the magazine coincided with the first test of electric lighting in the city, which was praised with great positivist spirit in the pages of the magazine: «Terni, destined to be the Manchester of Italy, is lit with electric lighting!». With the foresight and the skills of a modern entrepreneur, he understood the importance of advertising as the text that appeared on the back cover of each issue of the magazine demonstrates: «Advertising is the backbone of commerce, of civilisation, of progress. What is not known might as well not exist. It is the ultimate path to riches […] who does not believe in advertising does not believe in light ». The magazine had to close though when Virgilio Alterocca, completely engaged in other work activities (in 1886 he had been appointed manager of the Politeama theatre and the following year he would sign an agreement with the town for advertising and billboards), realised that he could not be able to guarantee the necessary intellectual independence to the magazine.
And there was the telephone
In 1884, Virgilio Alterocca had another winning idea, also founded on a modern entrepreneurial vision: not long after his invention, he decided to set up in Terni one of the first telephone lines. He was absolutely certain of their importance and of their future success: «Initially, as it is for any new thing, there will be people who may find the adoption of the telephone unnecessary or premature. Then, as its many advantages become known to all, even porters and shoe shine boys will want one. You’ll see». The telephone network started with just 50 subscribers but it expanded very quickly. The following year it had 72 subscribers and in 1907 Terni was connected to several Italian cities.
In 1908 he was awarded the very coveted investiture as Knight of Labour and the gold medal that the Ministry of Education offered only to meritorious teachers. He passed away in Arrone after a long illness.
The content of this article was mostly taken from the book by C. Armadori, Virgilio Alterocca (1853-1910). Biografia analitica con cenni sulla sua famiglia, Arrone, Thyrus, 2016 to which we refer for a fully comprehensive bibliography of Virgilio Alterocca.
 The professions of the parents are deduced from a birth certificate of their fifth child. Document mentioned by C. Armadori, Virgilio Alterocca (1853.1910). Biografia analitica con cenni sulla sua famiglia, Arrone, Thyrus, 2016, p. 18.⇑
 In 1886 Virgilio Alterocca bought from a company a run-down theatre, the Gazzoli, that he completely renovated turning it into a modern theatre that thanks to manager Ciro Scognamiglio would feature an interesting programme. The Politeama would be ceded to the Cassa di Risparmio di Terni in 1894.⇑
 Albano, Ancona, Arezzo, Avellino, Bologna, Caserta, Castellammare di Stabia, Cava, Florence, Foligno, Forlì, Frascati, Genoa, La Spezia, Naples, Nocera Inferiore, Perugia, Pesaro, Rome, Salerno, Scafati, Tivoli, Turin, Torre Annunziata and Torre del Greco.⇑