There is a place in Assisi, at Porta Perlici number 6, just inside the walls of the ancient city, which has an important historical memory, meaningful for the city and for the whole region.
It’s a hot Saturday in July when I meet for the first time Giampiero Italiani, the owner of a section of the property that belongs to his family since the 1950s. He immediately define himself as the “guardian” of this special place and tells me with great involvement the history of those walls and those courtyards animated by workers at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century: we are in the ancient Factory of Needles and Pins of Assisi. Why installing a needle factory in Assisi is a question that is unanswered, it is an area that has yet to be investigated and only a few hypotheses can be made. Certainly, this manufacturing activity has been one of the first experiences of industrial revolution in Umbria, witnessing the first attempts to subdivide the production process into work stages and hence the establishment of a young industrial enterprise.
The factory of Assisi was also special for other reasons, indeed both men and women could be hired and all activity was validated by a written regulation posted at the factory and respected by all workers. In addition of being an opportunity for the city’s population, the factory, thanks to its far-sighted Roman entrepreneur Nicola Bolasco, represented a prime example of regulated work with equal opportunities that safeguarded the conditions of workers, both men and women, each one with their own needs and without any kind of exploitation; by guaranteeing decent employment for the workers, Bolasco anticipated somehow the studies on labor law. The State of the Church is in agreement with Bolasco’s regulation so that it asks for its spread and application in all the manufacturing activities of its territories.
The Factory of Needles and Pins was an avant-garde thing, it was an happy island at a time when labor exploitation was so widespread. A written testimony is the regulation, dated 1st of November 1822, drawn up by the owner of Nicola Bolasco. It is made up of 17 articles and the preface implies respect for them not as simple imposition, but as a good standard to be respected, in a climate of participation in work to achieve a common purpose, i.e. a massive production made in a serene environment. Some articles reveal great modernity and mental openness; working hours are established, but entry and exit times may vary according to some needs dictated by the time of year, from daylight to cold. It is also possible to bring work to be done at home in accordance with the rules and everyone is allowed, after authorization, to visit the factory and to see the work closely. Everything is made in a public and transparent way.
The factory was built in the territories of the Pontifical State for which regulation is essential to demonstrate a strong moral integrity, especially because there are workers of both sexes, and therefore Bolasco defines other rules to be respected: the entry of male employees is retarded, so male and female employees will not meet each other. There are diversified tasks to be held in separate rooms, and for no reason is allowed access of a man to the rooms of women and vice versa.
Above every rule however, there is this one: all the employees, to be hired, must bring a written letter from their parish priest, called the Morality Certificate, a kind of letter of reference attesting the integrity and good conduct of life of the future worker of the factory!
The Current State
Today the old factory is not very visible to the profane eye. Thanks to a precious guide, I had the privilege of knowing, I can read some of the signs of architecture that make me wonder how the factory could be during its activity. Looking at the large entrance door, iron made, which separated the main courtyard from the pavement, one can observe a particular, a sign that stimulates the reflection. A symbol, probably a logo – a tip with two curls, an image that differs from many other symbols in the city – as a reference to the factory activity.
Entering into the large courtyard, Giampiero Italiani illustrates me the building made up with the stone of Assisi – which housed the manufacturing business and now has been housed for decades private homes – the entrance doors and the place where the old stairway leaded upstairs, where a large terrace now stands. It leads me to one of the main rooms, perhaps one of the largest, a stone and brick room that still has an ancient look, and then to the beautiful courtyard at the back where activities probably associated with manufacturing took place. One of the most quoted could be, at very precise times, the shearing of the sheep coming from the mountains by accessing through the Perlici Gate and this could also explain the strategic location of the factory within the city fabric. Currently this courtyard, immersed in the greenery lush bushes, fruit trees and shrubs of scented roses, is known by the Assisi population as the needle garden.
Since two years, the hall and the garden have been made available by Giampiero Italiani for cultural activities related to factory activity, but of great relevance: from the right to work to the rights of female employees and women emancipation, finding favor of associations and local institutions. The 1820’s Needle Factory is now a culture factory.
There is still much to discover on the needle factory: there are still many topics to look into and many are the unanswered questions; Giampiero has brought to light this reality and is working to convey as much attention as possible to this cultural asset. It is desirable that the curiosity of the researchers, coupled with the interest of the institutions, bring to light new realities that will enrich the local history of the Nineteenth Century with new dots.
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