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The Florios
by Michele Parisi

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Tonnara Florio at Arenella, Palermo.If there was a Sicilian family of nineteenth century entrepreneurs and industrialists that transcended the ordinary, it was the Florios. Paolo Florio, a Calabrian, established a pharmacy in Palermo in the early years of the nineteenth century but it was his son, Vincenzo, who developed a market for what used to be called "patent medicines." Today, many of these substances and potions derived from natural herbs would be considered food supplements. He later entered the Marsala wine trade, first established decades earlier by several English families, and a famous brand still bears the Florio name. The evolving market for Marsala wine was to be found abroad. This early phase of business pointed toward the sea, either through fish packing or trade. Perhaps Vincenzo Florio's most innovative business, though based on an ancient industry, was tuna processing. He established several tonnare (a tonnara being a place where tuna schools were captured and the fish processed), including the one at Arenella, near Palermo. (Arenella's Neo Gothic structure is shown here.) Vincenzo Florio's tuna firm is generally credited with being the first to preserve fish in olive oil rather than dried in salt, and this revolutionized the fish packing industry.

In 1840 Florio signed a partnership with the Ingham firm to establish a steamship line. It would not be the family's first such venture. Vincenzo invested in other industries as well, including a foundry and sulphur mining. He actively supported Italian unification and the new unitary state, the Savoys' proposed Kingdom of Italy, during the revolution of 1848 and the Piedmontese invasion of 1860. This political posture earned him the respect of the new regime, though not that of the old aristocracy.

It was the next generation that married into the aristocracy and made the Florios famous as patrons of the arts and philanthropy. Ignazio Florio Vincenzo's son, continued the family businesses. In 1881, he entered a partnership with a Genoan company to establish the Italian Steamship Line, which was quite profitable for a time.

During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Florio firm also encouraged what may be described as the development of "modern" Sicilian tourism by building a large sanatorium, Villa Igiea (now a hotel), on the coast at Arenella. It was designed by the architect Ernesto Basile, planner of various Neo Classical and Art Nouveau theatres and palaces in Palermo. True, Taormina was already frequented by distinguished English expatriates, and Sicily had long been part of the "grand tour" of Europe, but this was probably the first organised attempt to attract travelers generally.

However successful they were, the Florios were also envied, especially by the lethargic Palermitan nobility, which generally preferred bonds and land to commercial investment. This social class was slow to comprehend that the economy was changing, evolving with new means of industrial production and a new approach to marketing. Ignazio Florio was aware of the shortcomings in such logic but could do little to actively discourage such attitudes. Unfortunately, he came under increasing attack in the press and in the financial community.

For this reason, his son, Ignazio junior, founded an independent newspaper, L'Ora, to defend the interests of his businesses and others like them. This national publication soon attracted some of Italy's best journalistic talent. By 1900, competition from foreign quarters threatened the Florios' activities in Italy. The introduction of American sulphur, mined with more efficient methods than the Sicilian product, put an end to Sicily's virtual monopoly on the sale of this mineral so necessary to industry. This was the beginning of the end of the Florio business empire, which now found itself with few allies. Some of the firm's difficulties could be attributed to management and strategy, but the hostile business climate certainly didn't help matters.

Like the Anglo-Sicilian Whitakers, the Florios often played host to foreign royalty that stopped at Palermo during Mediterranean cruises, and Franca Florio, Ignazio's wife, became one of the city's most famous hostesses. This, too, earned the antipathy and envy of many local nobles.

By the end of the First World War, which in its wake swept away both monarchs and industrialists, Italy was a changed country economically, and also socially. The aristocracy, and the monarchy itself, tried to hold on for another generation, but financial ruin was already engulfing some of Sicily's less important aristocratic families, something foreseen by Ignazio jr. In western Sicily, the "Florio experiment," as it could be called, was an isolated case of creative commercial endeavour rather than a general economic trend, though several other families were involved in international commerce in a lesser way. Sicily's true industrial future, as it was to develop, would prosper at Catania, on the Ionian coast.

By 1920 the Florios themselves, as they had been, were but a vestige of the past, their fortunes dwindling. Except for a few palatial homes, their most visible legacy is the Marsala wine bearing their name (a company long since sold) and Sicily's Targa Florio classic automobile rally. Even so, the Florios of the nineteenth century are a cherished memory.

About the Author: Michele Parisi, who presently resides in Rome, has written for various magazines and newspapers in Italy, France and the United Kingdom, as well as Best of Sicily.

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© 2002 Michele Parisi