Moving Mountains10 March 1998
A unique photographic exhibition, which chronicles the hydro power exploits of Italian firm Umberto Girola earlier this century, was held recently in Switzerland. Simon Jones gave Water Power an insight to the event.
The expansion of the Italian hydro industry during the early part of this century, was the cause for celebration at a recent exhibition in the Swiss town of Winterthur. ‘Moving Mountains — Girola’s Power Stations in the Alps’ displayed some l00 monochrome photographs which were selected from the huge archives of Italian firm Umberto Girola. Taken through the view finder of company photographer Antonio Paoletti on repeat (often monthly) visits to the mountains, the images amount to a photographic inventory of the firm’s heroic efforts to tap energy from the North ltalian Alps.
The Alps have been under attack from humans for centuries. Legends of gold veins and crystals drove medieval miners to the mountain interiors, but the mining and road building of earlier times were as nothing compared to the efforts of the Italian hydro sector during the early 1900s. Water power was not only valued as the country’s sole source of cheap energy, but also held the promise of freedom from foreign-controlled gas and coal. A campaign against German influence in Italy’s pre-war hydroelectric sector was part of a national drive for prominent status in the realms of industrial power.
The famous Italian financier and industrialist Giuseppe Volpi was among the first to see the potential for large-scale hydroelectric development. The Societá Adriatica di Elettricitá (SADE), founded by Volpi in 1905, soon came to control the power industry in the northern provinces of Venice, Emilia and Romagna. The ‘electric village’ built in the foot of the Alps at Verampio, with its fortress-like central station surrounded by workers tenements, symbolised Italy’s long-term commitment to the mountains. The rich gardens, water fountains (often a playful feature around hydroelectric plants) and the imposing facade of the Centrale Alessandro Taccani, part of the Trezzo d’Adda plant completed in 1906, all express the self-confidence of an entire industry in these trail-blazing years.
Nineteen hundred and six also saw the founding of Umberto Girola, the Milanese firm which over the next 35 years pushed Italian interests ever deeper into the Alps. By the 1920s ltaly’s power sector was underpinned by Swiss holding companies, but the technical exploits of Girola recorded in this photographic exhibition brought huge prestige to Mussolini's regime — with good reason. Paoletti's thousands of photos show the amazing human efforts, both mental and physical, needed to develop central stations such as Valdo, Rovesca, Crevola and Cadarese, as well as the huge dams at Cignana, Toggia, Agaro and Morasco in the most unfriendly terrain and climate.
Paoletti took most shots in bright, dry weather, but views of one site after an avalanche strike, and another hidden in dense fog and rain, show more typical scenes in the mountains. Often the hardest job was gaining access to the proposed site. (Girola reports proudly in a letter of 1937 that the company used 300,000kg of dynamite in blasting a road through to open up the Formazza valley for hydro power.) Most of the hydro plants were designed by company architect Piero Portaluppi. Environmental concerns (voiced even in the 1920s) over the impact of such huge developments in unspoiled regions are proved unfounded by Paoletti’s photos. Once the inevitable upheaval of building work was over, the simple curving walls of the Lanza plant or the Agara dam fit unobtrusively into the landscape. Such solid, functional structures, made from granite and other local materials, take their place naturally in the mountains.
The scale of achievement in building massive dams, pressure pipes and central stations in remote Alpine valleys is brought home in one photo taken in 1935. Featuring two lone figures perched precariously on a high mountain crag, it looks like a shot from the pioneer days of mountaineering — but bears the simple company caption ‘developing a new access road for the Goglio plant’.
At the exhibition, panoramic images which could come from a Biblical epic, show a vast workforce labouring in all seasons on famous plants such as Morasco, Agaro and Goglio. Workers are often dwarfed by giant cranes and half-completed dams, which themselves are dominated by mountain peaks circling all around. Not content with ground shots, Paoletti also photographed from atop the giant metal structures — shaped like huge switchback rides — used in dam construction (see photo left). He also worked at night — a photo from 1938 shows work under floodlights on the final section of the Agaro dam, with the company name lit up in huge letters above.
A similar daytime scene reveals conditions unlikely to impress modern health and safety officials, as non-helmeted figures work inches from the dam face (see photo above). No wonder Paoletti also records workers at on-site religious services.
With his camera in hand, Paoletti followed each hydro project chronologically, from the initial levelled site (or as level as possible in this region) through years of construction to the final plant complex. There are even photographs of a workers’ open-air meal to celebrate the Agaro dam’s inauguration.
When shown publicly for the first time in Winterthur, Paoletti’s industrial photographs created a unique display. The exhibition proved to be an inspiring record of this remarkable conquest of the Alps and is a fitting tribute to those involved in the Italian hydro sector earlier this century.