The Tuscan Adventure Of Francesco Larderel

The Tuscan Adventure Of Francesco Larderel

When in 1814, at the age of twenty-five, François Larderel landed in Livorno from his hometown of Vienne (in the Dauphiné in France), his intention was to take advantage of the situation produced fifteen years before by Napoleon’s occupation of Italy in order to live an adventure. Others left for the Americas, but François was attracted by the many possibilities that in those early decades of the nineteenth century, Tuscany and the area of Livorno offered to enterprising people thanks to the intellectual, commercial and financially very active local life, led by many talented people including many Frenchmen and other foreigners.

We do not know what wanderings brought the young Francesco to the Metalliferous Hills (colline Metallifere), in the area between Volterra and Massa Marittima, but it is certain that his training as a chemist, supported by past research conducted by Francesco Hoefer, a scientific director of the pharmacies of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany ruled by the Lorraine family, soon enabled him to recognize between “moffette” (by analogy with the skunk’s ill smell) and ‘putizze’ (area empty of vegetation due to the high temperature of the subsoil and the existence of small geysers, the “soffioni”) the presence of Borax, a very valuable chemical product at that time, mainly used as a disinfectant. The area of ​​the discovery was close to Montecerboli (Mount of the Devil in Latin and a good name if you consider odors, heat and smoke present there!), at a stone’s throw from the Bagno al Morbo, which was in turn included in the broader area identified during the 3rd century AD by the Romans in the Tabula Itineraria Peutingeriana, where there were the hot springs ‘Volaternas’.

Identifying the presence of the desired chemical was a step forward, but ectracting it and then marketing it was a different story! The first company, whose aim was the extraction of borax, was established in 1817 by Francesco (not anymore François!) Larderel along with two other compatriots; the extraction method was very early: the water in the lagoons was placed in large pools heated by wood fires, the evaporation of water allowed the crystallization of borax, which was then collected, perfected and sold. But the fuel was expensive and the sourcing of wood more and more difficult and burdened by increasing transportation costs. The extracted borax did not, consequently, have the sufficient margin to continue a healthy development of the company. Less than ten years after its creation, this first industrial experience ended and the company was dissolved.

Francesco Larderel had in the meantime a bright idea: why, instead of firewood, do not use the same heat that came freely from underground at high temperatures in order to evaporate the water contained in the pools and so crystallize borax at a small cost? This time, the road was clear to raise the activity on new premises. In 1826 Francesco Larderel creates a new company – this time in his name only – that with high yields, low production costs and high quality, progresses year after year contributing not only to the personal enrichment of the Larderel family, but also to that of Tuscany. In a comparatively short time, around the main factory which the Granduca of Tuscany Leopold II, in recognition of the work carried out by Francesco Larderel named Larderello, new factories of smaller size were born in Castelnuovo di Val di Cecina, Sasso Pisano, Serrazzano, Lustignano, Lago Boracifero and Monterotondo.

Many would have been content with this state of affairs: A valued product, a performing company, sure profits. Francesco Larderel, however went beyond, dealing not only with the ‘what’ but also the ‘how’: Having been exposed to the ideas of the French dramatical change, perhaps because of an innate humanist belief, perhaps in order to attract competent manpower in areas at that time secluded, inhospitable and prey to malaria, he wanted to definitely enhance the standard of living of those who were part of his industry: As the company became more thriving, the industrial site started to get a school, a doctor, a pharmacy, a general store, a church, a social assistance system for people in need in the area, not forgetting the fun part with a municipal band to join the dances of that time. The whole organization was run according to Internal Rules, drawn up by Francesco Larderel himself, that spelled out clearly in writing the duties of each member of his company.

Old age, then the disappearance of Francesco Larderel did not prevent the company from progressing further, under the direction of three subsequent generations of Larderel’s, innovating technically with further improvement of productivity and new processes for refining Boric Acid (Adriana boiler), drilling deeper under the ground to search for steam (manual drilling little by little replaced by drills pushed by steam), utilization of steam pumps and then, in the early twentieth century, production of different energy, using alternators coupled to steam turbines, powered by the same endogenous vapors, to produce electricity (an idea of a member of the family, Prince Piero Ginori Conti).

The activity of Francesco Larderel received well-deserved riches and honors that he shared with the many people who seconded him. One of the nicest rewards received, however, is contained in the Larderel family motto: ‘Honor summum Industriae munus’ (the reward from work is the highest honor!).

The nationalization by the Italian state of Larderello SPA and its integration into today’s ENEL (National Electricity Company) allow for the continuation of Francesco Larderel’s great adventure, permitting to a large part of Tuscany to receive electricity by replaceable energy. Today, a visit to the Larderel museum in Larderello explains clearly the technological history begun by Francesco Larderel and makes one discover a beautiful area of ​​Tuscany, surrounded by gems such as Volterra and Massa Marittima.

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