Italy has 53 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the most of any country in the world, but not all of the sites are as well-known as the Amalfi Coast, the Cinque Terra, or the historic center of Rome. Crespi d’Adda is hamlet nestled between the Adda and Brembo rivers and the foothills of the Alps. Located in the province of Bergamo, Lombardy and it was added to the list of UNESCO sites in 1995. The village is an outstanding example of the 19th and early 20th century company towns built in Europe and North America by enlightened industrialists to meet their workers’ needs. It remains a rare example because its layout and architectural structure remain unaltered, having survived the inevitable threat posed by the evolution of economic and social conditions. The industrial village remains remarkably well-preserved including factories, housing and services facilities. This is primarily as a result of continued factory operation through 2004.
In 1869, Cristoforo Benigno Crespi, a textile manufacturer from Busto Arsizio (Varese), bought the 1 km valley between the rivers Brembo and Adda, to the south of Capriate, with the intention of building a cotton mill on the banks of the Adda. His plant was to use the most modern spinning, weaving and finishing processes and was opened in 1878. Next to the cotton-mill was a village. The residential area included homes, a medical clinic, school, theater, store, hotel, a sports center with swimming pool, church, rectory and a cemetery. A hydroelectric power plant a mile upriver was built in 1906. Both the town and the factory were illuminated thanks to electricity, making the village the first in Italy to have modern public lighting, which was free to the residents of the small town.
The entire town was laid out in a geometrically regular form, bisected by the main road from Capriate. The factory buildings and the offices were situated on one side of this road and the village itself on the opposite side. A tree-lined avenue separated the two. The houses differed from each other in style, offering a nice variety to the townscape. The architecture and town planning was done by Ernesto Pirovano, who for 50 years oversaw the construction and additions to the village. The factory is constructed in the neo-Medieval style, with a central entrance rich in decorative elements and 150 foot tall smokestacks. The warehouses are distributed in an orderly fashion along the main road with brick contours and friezes made up of eight-pointed stars. Rose windows in terra cotta embellish each facade.
The owner’s home, Villa Crespi, is commonly called the castle because its appearance recalls the medieval period with its towers, battlements and the use of exposed bricks. Inside forty-four rooms and three balconies overlook a large and spectacular three story central square atrium. On the ground floor there are two living rooms, a sitting room, master study, dining room and a billiard room. The service, laundry and kitchen rooms were located in the basement. Climbing the marble staircase you then access the family and guest bedrooms. Remarkably, all of the interior furnishings were made of wood and made by the village’s carpentry workshops.
In 1889, Silvio Benigno Crespi, son of the founder, became one of the directors of the company and began construction single and multi-family houses for the workers, each with its own garden. He believed that by creating a high standard of living, with comfortable housing and services for workers, it would foster an ideal working environment and act as a defense against industrial strife. His idea continued the success begun by his father. The quality of life and services provided were years ahead of their time, thus the Crespis, both father and son, were not only captains of industry, but philanthropists whose intention was not only to run their business, but to do so with a high degree of benevolence towards their employees. Although it created the modern version of a feudal fiefdom, it worked. There were no strikes, or any form of social disorder during the fifty years of Crespi management.
The Great Depression of 1929 and the harsh fascist fiscal policy resulted in the Crespi family selling the entire town in late 1930. It continued to manufacture cotton textiles until 2004, employing 600 workers, compared to 3,200 during its peak. Today the village is inhabited by a community largely descended from the original workers.
The village has retained all of it the original elements. Authenticity in form and design are evident in the street pattern layout and the survival of its buildings. Public, private and industrial buildings remain intact and have not been demolished, or substantially modified. About the only changes that has occurred have been the painting of houses in various colors, rather than the original white exterior with red brick window frames.
There are fascinating facts about the village. The Crespi school was reserved exclusively for children of the employees. Everything was provided by the factory and Crespi family – from meals, books and pens to accommodations for teachers. At the beginning of the 20th century, an indoor swimming pool with hot showers and changing rooms was built for workers. The village’s small hospital was equipped with the finest medical equipment available and could handle most issues, including minor surgery. Any more serious cases were sent to a hospital in Milan, paid for by the Crespi family.
The Crespi family itself has some interesting facts associated with them. Despite the village being in the province of Bergamo, Crespi d’Adda has a Milan telephone area code. This is a direct consequence of the Crespi family installing a private line between their castle in Crespi and their home in Milan in the late 19th century.
Cristoforo Crespi was an eager art collector: many of the paintings that belonged to the Crespi Collection, such as “La Schiavona” by Titian, are now shown in major art galleries and museums around the world. The Crespi family, through Cristoforo’s brother Benigno, became owners of one of the most influential Italian newspapers, “Corriere della Sera.” Silvio Benigno Crespi- son of the founder of the Village, Cristoforo – represented Italy at the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. He was also an auto enthusiast and supported the construction of Italy’s first motorways as well as the Monza racing circuit. The Crespi church, built in the Renaissance style, is a replica of the church from their original hometown of Busto Arsizio. The family’s castle and church were built to be facing each other. If you look out from the castle’s tower, it is possible to see directly into the church door and to the altar.