THE MINE OF MONTECATINI VAL DI CECINA (PISA)
During one my latest mining forays, I had a chance to enjoy the beauty of the wavy hills of Tuscany, their gentle air, the profile of the sturdy towers made of stone or bricks, that stand up proudly on the hillocks... All ingredients that have been always come together with invaluable historical, geological and mining resources, which are wisely exploited but that could still be further enhanced.
I am talking about Alta Val di Cecina, a part of Tuscany which is know by experts especially for its fumaroles in the towns of Larderello and Sasso Pisano, the alabaster and salt mine of Volterra, the brown coal and chalcedony spread across the area.
But my destination was more precisely an isolated and solitary mine located in the northern hills; a mine which every mineralogist should visit just for the historical importance it carries over.
The name of Montecatini - a history born in here.
For all the experts and technicians of this field, this name represents the Italian mining history and that of the industry of the last century. Still, very few know exactly where this label comes from.
Born on the 26th of March 1888 as Società Anonima delle Miniere di Montecatini (Anonimous Society of Montecatini Mines) from the ashes of Giovanni Battista Serpieri's private society, it established its first base in Florence. The main aim of the company was the development of the copper field in Montecatini.
After about ten years, thanks to the work of its charismatic leader Guido Donegani, the small company would become the most powerful Italian industry; it would then become the dealer of the major national mines, until mining saw its definitive economic decline in the early '40s: Brosso e Traversella (TO), Gavorrano, Niccioletta e Boccheggiano (GR), Valle Imperina (BL), Perticara (PU), Montevecchio (CA), citing only the most famous among many.
Since 1917, foreign companies started to take part in the business and it was from here that the new name of Montecatini Società Generale per l'Industria Mineraria (Montecatini General Society for Mining Industry) came from; name that later in the '20s would evolve in Montecatini Società Generale per l'Industria Mineraria e Agricola (Montecatini General Society for Mining and Agricultural Industry), restarting a post-war chemical plan. From this point on, an intensive development together with mining researches on iron pyrites, aluminum, barite and bauxite would be fulfilled. The company would also incorporate the main private mining societies of the country.
In 1938, half a century later than its foundation, the Montecatini company "runs nineteen sulfur mines, nine pyrite mines, three lead and zinc mines, one copper mine, two brown coal mines, three barite quarries, two hundreds ninety marble quarries and great systems for mineral production... In all this business about 30.000 people find employment." The second to last name will be then Montecatini Società Generale per l'Industria Mineraria e Chimica (Montecatini General Society for Mining and Chemical Industry) and, finally, Montedison.
The mine of Caporciano in the centuries.
Italy's greatest and richer mine has ancestral origins and a history made of irregular activity.
In Tuscany, copper can also be found at its native state, on the surface of the deposits. This situation was originally discovered in the surroundings of Florence, Arezzo and in Alta Val di Cecina.
It seems that Etruscan people had already learned to move from Volterra to Montecatini, in order to exploit this precious mineral: they used it to create the tools and fittings they needed. The richness of the deposit was such that it allowed a very easy extraction, compared to the rudimental techniques available at the time.
Around 540 BC, Volterra was the leading town of the north area of the Tyrrhenian Sea, and its power enabled it to open new emporiums in the cities of Pisa, Luni and Genoa. The copper coming from Montecatini was taken to Parma and Piacenza; from Cisa it also reached Populonia, through Val di Cornia, and crossing the sea it got to Pozzuoli and Sibari, in the south of Italy, where the buyers were Greek merchants.
The first interruption to the mining activity of Montecatini can be dated back to 476 AD, following the downfall of the Roman Empire by the Visigoth, and the consequent rise of a new social systems based on small villages with a masters-and-countrymen economy.
The resumption of mining is documented by a first concession dated 15th of March 1466; the town of Volterra, which had the rights of the subsoil of the whole area, granted Mariano di Matteo from Roma a license to "dig and to extract...in the surroundings and suburb of Volterra...gold, silver, copper, lead, iron, tin, iron and steel".
A curiosity: the mining license had the duration of 24 years with the commitment to pay a tax of 40 Italian lire; after the fourth year of production, 8% of the earnings was to be destined to the town hall.
The real change arrived in the 15th Century, when Cosimo of the Medici family, son of Giovanni of the Bande Nere, developed a policy aimed at the creation of a new state in Tuscany. From this point of view, particular attention was dedicated to mining resources and Cosimo himself, together with other famous people of the time, started a society destined to copper extraction in Montecatini.
From 1547 on, Hungarian experts in mining leaded by Zeglier took the management of the society, and, after Cosimo, it was Francesco I who put German technicians in charge of the activity of the mine.
Very important traces of the production of this period still exist; it could also be read that "there was so much material to extract that it could be possible to continue fusing 800 lb a day, for three years".
Tradition tells us that the mine kept running until 1630, year of the Great Plague in Italy. For the two following centuries we have information about unsuccessful tries to reopen it, until 1827, when Luigi Porte, together with Giacomo Leblanc and Sebastiano Kleiberg, decided to reactivate the mines looking for experts coming from Freiberg: Augusto Schneider and Sigismondo Hiller.
After some controversies and the creation of various societies that could run the management, attempts were made until 1836 in order to carry on the production. On this date Schneider made some important changes to the agricultural system, thus improving the method of extraction according to the mineral typology.
Thanks to this method, production increased and the number of 268 employed was reached; the sign of such an incredible development was the construction of the famous chapel in the rock, down at a depth of 114m - fourth level of the extraction gallery - decorated with a ceramic fanlight by Manifattura Ginori.
During this lucky period the main shafts were realized, Rostand and Alfredo, Pozzo Luigi Nuovo, and the gallery Maria Antonia to drain waste water. The development of the mine spread on ten interconnected levels, and the deepest of them reached 193m MSL.
In the following decades the mine was sold out to various societies, the miners decreased to 200 units and the first riots against poor work conditions began. Workers gathered to protect their rights and during the meeting of July 1891 they redacted a charter, the Statuto della Società di Mutuo Soccorso, Unione e Lavoro fra gli Operai della Miniera di Montecatini, consisting of 10 titles and 83 articles.
In fact, the structures of the mine of Caporciano were not updated nor improved; the extraction and processing methods were outdated and in 1902 the Montecatini society decided to progressively close its mine; some workers tried to take over the management with the establishment of their own enterprise, but in 1906 they had to eventually give up because of the fall of the price at which copper was sold. Official closure took place in 1907.
Then, in the '50s, the Montecatini society launched a campaign for research and at the same time the draining gallery was reopened, while underground and external structures and the archives were always maintained in efficient conditions during all this time. Nevertheless, considering the negative results, the mine was definitively closed on 24th of April 1963.
It is thought that during its eighty years of activity, the mine of Caporciano would have produced more than 70.000 tons of copper.
In 1974 the Montedison started to sell all the properties, lands and archives of the mine.
In 2000 what remained of the whole structure was purchased by the town of Montecatini, that started a project to develop the area, which is still in progress.
During my wandering in these places so full of mining history, with my eyes wide open and my notepad always at hand, I have been welcomed and accompanied by the special spirit of local people, who enthusiastically helped me in my work of piecing together a human and technological path which we cannot ignore.
I'll mention them dispersedly, hoping to forget nobody:
The mayor Sandro Cerri, who acted as the spokesman for the initiatives of the whole township in the area, particularly stressing the green politics adopted by Montecatini.
The former mayor Renzo Rossi, who has been since always the soul, heart and brain of this project which aims at developing the historical and mining resources of Montecatini.
Engineer Augusto Mugellini, the charismatic director in charge of the two most characteristic places you can find here, La Miniera and La Taverna del Minatore (www.vacanzelaminiera.it), turned into a charming hotel from 19th Century buildings that belonged to the mine. The hotel is located in a beautiful neighborhood surrounded by green cypress trees offering a magic atmosphere which seems to be stuck in the past.
It is in here, while one is reflecting upon the millenary history of this community, tracing back its fortunes, taking all the time one needs to do this, that it is possible to spent the night in one of those characteristic, comfortable and welcoming rooms... and what can I say about the local delicacies that comes from the kitchen accompanied by a great Rosso delle Miniere - a dark red wine which is typical here!
I must admit that this "gourmet touch" added by Stefania and the magic atmosphere of the place played their role in the emphasis I put in writing this article... But is it fundamental or not to understand and appreciate the beauty of this area in all of its facets, especially when they are so many and so varied as those Montecatini shows? Try it yourself.
As usual, concluding an article like this, putting it down in black and white I bet that in the next chapter, in my next visit, I will find another brick with the hope to help building something able to protect and stress the value of our history... that - useless to say - always starts with a mine.