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 created fifteen years earlier by Napoleon’s occupation of Italy to experience a adventure. Others went to the Americas, but François was attracted by the multiple possibilities that in those first decades of the 19th century, Tuscany and the Livorno area offered to enterprising people thanks to the very active local life intellectually, commercially and economically, fostered by many talented people, including many French and other foreigners.
We do not know what adventures led the young Francesco to the Metallifere Hills (colline Metallifere), in the area between Volterra and Massa Marittima, but the truth is that his training as a chemist, supported by previous research carried out by Francesco Hoefer, scientific director of the pharmacies of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany ruled by the Lorena family, soon allowed him to distinguish between “moffette” (by analogy with the bad smell of the skunk) and “putizze” (area devoid 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, used mainly as a disinfectant. The area of the discovery was near Montecerboli (Mount of the Devil in Latin and a good name if you take into account the smells, heat and smoke present there!), a stone’s throw from the Bagno al Morbo, which in turn was included in the larger area identified during the 3rd century AD by the Romans in the Tabula Itineraria Peutingeriana, where the ‘Volaternas’ baths were located.
Identifying the presence of the desired chemical was one step forward, but extracting it and then commercializing it was a different story! The first company, whose objective was the extraction of borax, was founded in 1817 by Francesco (no longer François!) Larderel together with two other compatriots; the extraction method was very primitive: the water from the lagoons was placed in large ponds heated by wood fires, the evaporation of the water allowing the crystallization of borax, which was then collected, refined and sold. But fuel was expensive and supplies of wood increasingly difficult and burdened by rising transportation costs. The borax extracted did not, therefore, have sufficient margin to maintain a healthy development of the company. Less than ten years after its creation, this first industrial experience ended and the company was dissolved.
Meanwhile Francesco Larderel had a brilliant idea: why, instead of firewood, not use the same heat that came freely from the subsoil at high temperatures to evaporate the water contained in swimming pools and thus crystallize borax at low cost? On this occasion, the way was clear to boost activity in the new facilities. In 1826 Francesco Larderel creates a new company – this time only in his name – which, 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 relatively short time, around the main factory that the Granduca of Tuscany Leopold II, in recognition of the work done by Francesco Larderel, called Larderello, new smaller factories were born in Castelnuovo di Val di Cecina, Sasso Pisano, Serrazzano, Lustignano, Lake Boracifero and Monterotondo.
Many would have been content with this state of affairs: a valuable product, a working company, secure profits. Francesco Larderel, however, went further, dealing not only with the ‘what’ but also with the ‘how’: Having been exposed to the ideas of the French Revolution, perhaps due to an innate humanistic belief, perhaps to attract the hand of competent work in areas at that time isolated, inhospitable and prey to malaria, he definitely wanted to improve the standard of living of those who were part of his industry: as the company became more prosperous, the industrial site began to have a school, a doctor, a pharmacy, a general store, a church, a social assistance system for people in need in the area, without forgetting the fun part with a municipal band to accompany the dances of the time. The entire organization worked according to Internal Regulations, drawn up by Francesco Larderel himself, which clearly established in writing the functions of each member of his company.
Old age, then the disappearance of Francesco Larderel did not prevent the company from continuing to progress, under the leadership of three successive generations of Larderel, innovating technically with a further improvement in productivity and new processes for refining Boric Acid (Adriana boiler), drilling deeper under the ground for the search for steam (hand drilling was gradually replaced by steam-powered drills), the utilization of steam pumps, and then, in the early 20th century, alternative energy production, using coupled alternators to steam turbines, powered by the same endogenous vapors, to produce electricity (the idea of a member of the family, Prince Piero Ginori Conti).
Francesco Larderel’s activity received well-deserved riches and honors that he shared with the many people who supported him. However, one of the best rewards received is contained in the Larderel family motto: ‘Honor summum Industriae munus’ (the reward of work is the greatest honor!).
The nationalization by the Italian state of Larderello SPA and its integration into the current ENEL (National Electricity Company) allow Francesco Larderel’s great adventure to continue, allowing a large part of Tuscany to receive electricity through renewable energies. Today, a visit to the Larderel museum in Larderello clearly explains the technological history started by Francesco Larderel and reveals a beautiful area of Tuscany, surrounded by gems like Volterra and Massa Marittima.