Industry on Lake Iseo in the 19th Century

When considering how the Lake Iseo area appears today, the events of the 1800s must be borne in mind and particularly those processes of industrialisation which left a considerable mark on the area. A good part of the 19th Century, at least up until the 1860s, was blighted by a period of profound crisis, even locally. In 1857, Zanardelli wrote of “financial distress with no answer” and of “the saddest and most extreme economic conditions”. Between 1852 and 1853, the cryptogamic disease of the vines destroyed the wine production, followed by grape phylloxera; at the same time other invasions of parasites (pébrine) struck the already precarious conditions of the silkworm production. In the previous decades, epidemics had broken out reminiscent of the darkest ages: in 1816-18 and in 1827 petechial fever had spread, while scarlet fever broke out in 1826. Finally cholera raged in 1836 and 1855. Therefore, the description “pauperism along the shores of the lake” used by the provincial Congregation of Brescia in a report to the imperial lieutenancy was very close to the truth.

Generally speaking, the factories employed workers for six months or even less. In the case of silk reeling, the work was seasonal; in fact, the sector depended on the trends in sericulture and the feeding of the silkworm larvae with mulberry leaves. This process dictated the rhythms of production and work in the factories was often integrated with agricultural and/or domestic work.

The development of modern financial capitalism, with the consequent need to rationalise the production methods in order to counter the increasingly pervasive competition, led to a momentous process of change involving local economies.



The sandstone of Sarnico (also known as Sarnico stone) is used for local buildings and not only. It undoubtedly influenced the material and cultural development of the area. From the 12th Century onwards, it was used to make products for building work and also items of value: an example is the sepulchral urn dating back to the beginning of the 12th Century  in the church of the Cluniac monastery of  Santa Maria di Negrignano (St. Mary of Negrignano) in Sarnico, now within the former Manifattura Sebina factory. The Sarnico sandstone had been widely used in buildings and monuments in the high town of Bergamo and throughout the Lake Iseo area.

The quarry in Pilzone benefited from the construction of the Milan-Venice railway line under the Austrian dominion. After 1856, the lime quarried in Montecolo of Pilzone was transported along the Fusia canal near Sarnico and from here to the furnaces on the railway construction site.

The Torbiere del Sebino (Sebino peat bogs) are another environment that was created as a result of work: due to the scarcity of wood charcoal in the 1800s, peat digging became extremely important both for the iron and steel industry and for domestic use.

The iron and steel industry

In the second half of the 1850s, a factory was set up between Lovere and Castro belonging to Giovanni Andrea Gregorini, a great example of a captain of industry. The factory exploited the power of the Tinazzo stream, which had supplied a previous foundry, as well as the peat produced in the lower region of the lake. Processing the mineral from the Valle Camonica (Camonica valley) and from the Val di Scalve, the industry developed thanks to the constant attention paid to technological innovations. Just a few years after its foundation, the company had 500 employees. Realising the role of transport as a factor of economic growth, Gregorini was a promoter of the Sarnico-Palazzolo railway which, despite the resistance of Zanardelli, was built in 1876 and connected with the large expanse of the Po Valley.


The woollen mills

Wool production was widespread in the municipalities of Lake Iseo (Sale Marasino and Marone) even under the Venetian dominion. Lovere was the cornerstone of a wool manufacturing region that had been established and extended as far as Gandino. In the 19th Century, the wool industry continued on the Brescia side of the lake: the companies obtained raw wool imported through the port of Trieste and partly from the Valle Camonica, while the finished product was sold in Lombardy-Veneto, in Tyrol and in Piedmont. The wool industry boomed during the third war of independence (1866) thanks to orders from the army. The setting up of large wool factories between the 1800s and the 1900s (Lanificio of Gavardo and Lanificio of Manerbio) imposed a radical reorganisation. In the 1920s, the Industrie Tessili Bresciane was founded which took over the remaining wool industries and phased out local production in the 1960s.


Means of transport and communication routes

Of great significance is the theme of social overhead capital, that is to say those infrastructures that modernise production, involving first and foremost means of communication and transport. In the 1840s, steamboats began to sail on the lake. On 28th February 1841, a steamboat made its maiden crossing from Lovere to Sarnico, while on 19th April of the following year, the steamer Arciduca Ferdinando came into operation. Within a few years various navigation companies alternated with each other, all of which were set up by a group of notables from Lovere.

The need was felt to connect these regions with the great market of the Po Valley and with Milan and this gave rise to a period of intense debate regarding the infrastructures. In 1876, the Paratico-Palazzolo line came into operation, covering a distance of 10 kilometres. In 1885, the Brescia-Iseo light equipment railway line was completed: it was the famous “railway of obstinacy” according to moderate Catholic current affairs journalism. In fact, it was feared that the traditional local businesses would have been overwhelmed as a result. Moreover, at the centre of the debate over the railways was the clash between the Brescia and Bergamo sides of the lake. In 1883, the municipal council of Lovere asked for the town to join the province of Brescia. In the same year a brief was presented regarding the construction of the line linking the lake to the Valle Camonica.  Iseo should have been connected Iseo to  Lovere via the boats run by the navigation company. From here the railway line would run, “using the location of the National Tonale road”, to reach Edolo. The reaction of the Brescia side of the lake soon made itself heard, especially from Pisogne. Despite some voices in favour of the Lovere line, the provincial Deputation firmly opposed the idea. The section from Iseo to Pisogne was opened on 30th December 1907; the line reached Edolo in 1909. The effects of the railway on the urban landscape are clear to see. In fact, the railway track with its peremptory straight line ran through the convolutions of  the residential areas that had been formed over the course of the centuries.

In 1911, the Iseo-Rovato railway line was built. The need had arisen to connect the lake and the valley to the Milan-Venice railway line and the Brescia-Iseo light equipment railway was not able to transport the heavy goods required for the war.

The changes to the layout of the roads was also very significant. Traditionally, the connections between the plain and the Valle Camonica were mainly by water. The Valeriana roads were, in fact, unsuitable for transporting goods. Proof of this situation is the existence of a medieval xenodochium, in other words  an inn for travellers on the island of San Paolo (St. Paul). On the western shores of the lake, the coastal road connecting Tavernola to Sarnico was built in 1848, while the road leading to Lovere is dated 1915. On the Brescia side of the lake, the coastal road was interrupted between Iseo and Pisogne and Zanardelli remarked that the 24 kilometres between Iseo and Pisogne broke the road connection between Brescia and Sondrio. It was no coincidence that the Valtellina was amongst the backers that financed the building of this section of road. The work, which began in the 1820s, was completed in 1850. The building work involved redefining the residential areas along the shores of the lake: the great set of steps leading from the churchyard of the parish church in Sale Marasino directly to the lake was reduced in size to its current dimension, in the same way as the wall surrounding the park of the adjacent Villa Zirotti was moved back. The section of the coastal road between Vello and Toline was abandoned in the 1960s but remains as evidence and is available for touristic purposes.


Mauro Pennacchio

Iniziativa realizzata nell’ambito del bando Wonderfood & Wine di Regione Lombardia e Unioncamere Lombardia per la promozione di Sapore inLOMBARDIA

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