Driving along the west coast of Tuscany, as night began to fall, he came across some old fortifications. Slowing down to take a better look, he realised that what he was looking at were large buildings completely covered in brambles. These, it turned out, were the old dynamite factory, built by SIPE Nobel (Societa´Italiana Prodotti Esplosivi) the Italian explosives company set up in 1891. Further research revealed that it was Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel prize, who created the SIPE Nobel company in order to produce dynamite in Italy.
Alfred Nobel, born in Sweden in 1833 and known as the founder of the prize that to this day bears his name, was also and above all the inventor of dynamite, a colleague and friend of Ascanio Sobrero, the Turin chemist who first synthesised nitro-glycerine. When he was in his early twenties, Alfred Nobel worked in his father’s factory producing explosives for the Crimean war. After the Crimean war, when his father was bankrupted a second time, Afred Nobel built a shed to experiment with nitroglycerine, in an attempt to stabilise it. In 1864 his factory blew up in an enormous explosion which killed several workers, including his twenty year old brother, Emil. All that Alfred had to say about this was: “The real age of nitroglycerine began in 1864, when an explosion with pure nitroglycerine took place for the first time with the help of a very small charge of gun powder.”
Alfred built another shed and continued to produce nitroglycerine. It was several years, several sheds and several explosions later before he succeeded in stabilising it. The Swedish Government, fed up with his explosive experiments, asked him to leave the country, so he moved to Germany, where he set up the Alfred Nobel Company Factory in Krummel near Hamburg. The following year he established the United States Blasting Oil Company in the US. Then there was a violent explosion in the Krummel plant. Nobel decided to take to the river Elbe, before the German government threw him out, so he anchored a raft, in order to continue his experiments in the middle of the river. This was where, in 1867, he finally succeeded in mixing nitroglycerine with kieselguhr, a porous, siliceous earth, to create dynamite, which he patented in Britain. His reasons for this were that Britain had vast colonies and needed a lot of amunition for its many armies.
Alfred Nobel built his first factory at Ardeer, in Scotland in 1870. He exported explosives to war zones and mining sites all over the world and the factory soon became the biggest exporter of explosives in the world. This was the first of many explosives factories that Alfred Nobel built. He owned ninety factories by the time he died and his explosives empire spread out its tentacles from Scotland, France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland to the United States, Mexico, Brazil, the Pacific and many other parts of the world. Nobel kept tight control over his widely spread out business through the Nobel Dynamite Trust company, which he set up in 1886, to control the disposal of assets of the members, though each member was a separate corporate body. This involved constant travel. He once said: “My home is where I work and I work everywhere.”
Dynamite was also used for mining, in quarries, in the construction and demolition sector. It also fuelled much of the development of the railway network, particularly in mountain areas, as it facilitated the drilling of tunnels. The growth in demand for explosives led to a boom in the industry. By 1873 he was a wealthy man and moved to Paris to settle in Avenue Malakoff. In 1875 he invented gelignite, a more powerful and stable explosive and patented it. He established the Société General pour la Fabrication de la Dynamite in Paris and Dynamitaktiengesellschaft (DAG) in Germany. Later, his company ‘Dynamite Nobel’ set up a successful joint venture with the Società Italiana Prodotti Esplodenti, thus leading to the foundation of SIPE Nobel SpA.
Throughout his working career Nobel fought off competitors, frequently suing them for stealing his formulae or buying up their factories, such as the Pembrey factory in Wales and the cliff top explosives factory at Cligga Head, Cornwall. He either incorporated these factories into his empire or closed them down. The Nobel Dynamite factory in Avigliana (province of Turin) first opened its doors in 1879. Between 1888 and 1900, SIPE produced around 120-130 tons of dynamite. In 1891 it began production in Forte dei Marmi of smokeless powders for the Navy, then in 1901 at Spilamberto, in the province of Modena and finally in 1903 at Cengio, on the border between Piedmont and Liguria, where TNT was produced for the Italian army. Throughout the First World War, the SIPE Nobel factories churned out dozens of tons of explosive powders and ammunition every day.
These elements provided the starting point for a fascinating study on the history and the paradoxes of one of the most complex figures of the late 19th century: an inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist. The show features a selection of around 50 photos and various other kinds of documentation (photos, drawings, archive materials) on the SIPE Nobel sites around Italy, with particular attention given to that of Spilamberto. Pettena’s photographic work highlights the compositional value of the industrial architecture around the turn of the 20th century, and how they were integrated into the territory, often thanks to a kind of camouflaging with the surrounding vegetation, especially when necessary to reduce the risk of airstrikes.
Pettena observes the current condition of the factories almost clandestinely, and while he ponders the buildings’ state of abandonment, it is not with the aim of rediscovering an anachronistic taste for ruins, but to underline the exceptionality of places (often still waiting to be decontaminated) where time appears suspended – were it not for the vegetation reclaiming its space.
All images courtesy the artist