Cristoforo Benigno Crespi
Starting from a sound
The clattering of hundreds of looms can be heard coming from the windows of the town. The scene takes place in Busto Arsizio, a city in the province of Varese, famous for having a textile machine in every home since the Middle Ages.
In the early 1800s, Benigno Crespi was one of many residents that sought to gain a foothold in the industry, and in 1805, decided to open his own business. His specialty was dying moleskins and cottons and selling them throughout the territory of Milan. But his son Antonio, once he had learned the trade, proved himself more capable in the business. He was able to sell other artisans’ fabrics as well. In 1845, Benigno Crespi’s business was the 10th largest in terms of number of looms.
Then, on 18 October 1833, Antonio’s first son, Cristoforo, was born. No one could have imagined that the baby would grow up to change the lot of the Tengitt, or dyers, the local nickname of the Crespi family.
Varese is not only known for its expertise in textiles, but also for its religious fervour. It is no coincidence that before discovering his true talent, 15-year-old Cristoforo believed he had a higher calling, to become a priest.
While receiving a humanist education at the seminary, he continued to be involved in the family business, and when he had a bit of free time, he accompanied his father on sales trips to Milan in a wagon.
Hanging up his cassock
In the end, his business savvy was stronger than his spiritual leanings. After finishing secondary school, Cristoforo hung up his cassock and enrolled in university to study law.
However, in 1853, the economic and social situation was difficult and the following year Benigno, the family patriarch, died. Antonio could no longer support his son’s education, who once again changed his future by studying bookkeeping in the evenings.
After receiving his diploma, his first job was with a bank, then in the offices of Francesco Turati, a cotton-processing business in Busto Arsizio. It was as though the art of spinning and weaving were ingrained in Cristoforo’s DNA.
Antonio was able to achieve increasing market share for Benigno Crespi’s business, and in 1857, Cristoforo prepared the first written financial statements for his father.
A few years later, Cristoforo fell in love with Pia Travelli, the daughter of a local attorney. However, he needed more money before he could ask for her hand in marriage. So he went to Francesco Turati to ask for a raise. His request was denied and Cristoforo immediately decided to quit his job.
Cristoforo’s economic prospects were not exactly stable after resigning. When he thought about what kind of work he would like to do, he knew he wanted to return to his roots in textiles, but this time, in speculation. Using the 500 lire he had, he began buying and selling raw cotton. At that time, prices could fluctuate significantly because of the American Civil War and the cotton shortage.
With a bit of risk-taking, and a bit of luck, Cristoforo was able to accumulate a considerable amount of capital in a short period.
Although Cristoforo was able to save up a bit of money for himself, he was always aware of what his father was doing with the family business. His dream was not just to sell, but also produce, an ambition that would become associated with a more urgent one – to industrialise production. For this reason, it wasn’t too difficult to convince Antonio to lease a textile factory in Vaprio d’Adda.
The National Factory of Count Giuseppe Archinto in Vaprio d’Adda was in dire straits. Under Cristoforo’s management, it began to achieve excellent manufacturing and commercial results, and the next step was to open an office in Via Meravigli in Milan.
The office sold the yarn produced in Vaprio and his father’s textiles.
Although the factory was turning around, the creditors of Archinto factory decided to sell it at auction. Cristoforo wanted to buy it, but didn’t have enough money.
Duke Raimondo Visconti of Modrone, however, had the necessary resources, and spent 1,600,000 lire to purchase the factory. It was yet another disappointment for Cristoforo, a dream that went up in smoke.
In 1866, Cristoforo was finally able to marry Pia Travelli. Although busy with wedding preparations, he continued to search for a location for industrial production of yarns. He found a site in Vigevano, equipped with a few thousand spindles, and began operations.
On 24 September 1868, Cristoforo became a father for the first time. His son was named Silvio Benigno Antonio.
The Vigevano factory was professionally and commercially very successful, but his brother Giuseppe, who was also involved in managing the workshop, undertook certain initiatives that Cristoforo did not agree with.
Their differences were so great that Cristoforo decided to leave the business and start again elsewhere.
This time he chose a paper mill in Ghemme, in the province of Novara, which he converted into a textile mill.
Due to favourable political events, after 1870 Italy no longer had competition from other large European countries and began the first true industrial growth of its brief history. The economy began to flourish.
This time, Cristoforo went into business with two other brothers, Carlo and Pasquale. There is little information about this period, but it is certain that, at a certain point, Cristoforo became tired of working with family members. He decided to set up a business in which he was the only decision maker.
The enterprise’s beginning
Cristoforo abbandona Carlo e Pasquale al loro destino, individua un luogo selvaggio in provincia di Bergamo e acquista decine di ettari di terreno. Si procura la possibilità di sfruttare le acque del fiume Adda e inizia la costruzione del canale che servirà a produrre energia idraulica.
Cristoforo left Carlo and Pasquale to their fate, found an undeveloped area in Bergamo province and purchased dozens of hectares of land. He obtained the rights to use the Adda River waters and began building a canal to produce hydraulic energy for spinning.
Having bought the land, free of any encumbrances, it was the perfect site for the project Cristoforo had in mind. The project was ambitious, in terms of size, its innovative ideas, and its functionality combined with aesthetics. This latter element was itself rather remarkable, considering that during this period of the Industrial Revolution, aesthetics were all too often considered irrelevant.
Cristoforo decided to build a factory that could hold at least 10,000 spindles, although in the beginning he would only be able to install 5,000. The equipment was all state-of-the-art, imported from England, and introduced the use of hemp ropes, the best available, for transmissions of the machinery.
Working and living
His dream began to take shape. But in order to make it not only match his dreams, but also the needs of the factory and its workers, Cristoforo needed another leap forward.
He visited the new village from his home in Milan several times a week. He supervised the increasing bustle of activity outside and inside the factory, and sought to understand the needs of both manufacturing and daily living, talking with assistants and labourers. Shortly after, other buildings began to spring up: the residential buildings, pre-school, school, pub, and small shops. Inside the factory, there were now 10,000 spindles.
Cristoforo also wanted his business to be distinct from the many low quality Italian textile manufacturers. He aspired to be able to compete with British manufacturers, and began producing yarns from Egyptian cotton and worsted wool, considered the finest and virtually unknown in Italy.
Mansion in Via Borgonuovo
In the centre of Milan, in Via Borgonuovo, a building was constructed in various phases beginning in the Renaissance. Cristoforo purchased the building in 1884 and used the ground floor for his company’s offices and the upper stories for living space.
He commissioned the architect Angelo Colla, who had previously worked on the factory, to refurbish the building.
Now that his first dream was well underway, a second dream began to take shape in his mind: develop a collection of paintings, entrusting the buying decisions to a group of experts.
Hundreds of paintings were purchased for the collection, some of which had great artistic significance. It is believed that Cristoforo spent around 350,000 lire, the equivalent of several million euros today. The Crespi mansion began to host illustrious guests who came to view the masterworks on display.
Cristoforo’s character that did not back down from challenges. While on one hand, he was a keen businessman who evaluated investment opportunities, he also had another side that entertained fantasies involving the splendour of ages past. The mansion and art collection in Via Borgonuovo are one example.
However, Villa Pia was another architectural diversion that revealed this other side to his character. The villa is located in Novara, not far from Orta Lake, and is straight out of a fairy tale, with Arabic outlines, particularly with its minarets providing a panoramic overlook. Cristoforo stayed here often, considering it a place of entertainment and enjoyment.
On Christmas Eve in 1889, Cristoforo was 56 years old. Silvio, his heir, had just graduated and, having worked abroad, was fluent in both German and English. Perhaps tired, his father wanted to spend less time working and more time enjoying the fruits of his labours, and decided to step back from the business, naming Silvio the general manager of the factory.
Despite the change, Cristoforo remained very involved and supported his son in the town’s second phase of development.
It is 25 July 1903. In Crespi, festival bells are ringing. At 10:00am, mass is celebrated, after which the inhabitants and local authorities moved to the factory entrance. A large drape covers what appears to be a sculpture. Someone dramatically removes the covering, revealing a bust of Cristoforo commemorating the factory’s founder. Immediately after, there is a party with music, fireworks and games.
Upon seeing the bust, Cristoforo was not entirely pleased. He had just turned 70, and this sort of commemoration seemed a bit premature – he still felt young and vital.
In 1906, Cristoforo suffered a stroke that impaired his mental faculties. Against his will, he was forced to completely hand over the business to his son.
Cristoforo withdrew from society and led a contemplative life, passing his time enjoying his mansion in Milan, occasionally leaving home to play cards in an exclusive club or to attend shows at La Scala. He also spent more time at Orta, where he could enjoy his family in a serene and isolated setting.
Sale of the art collection
On 20 December 1913, Cristoforo’s beloved wife Pia Travelli died. It is only one of several difficulties he faced in that period.
Daniele, his second son, loved the good life – fast cars, horses and gambling. Too often Cristoforo had to use company funds to cover his debts. Silvio intervened for his brother, and attempted to limit the damage by establishing another company. However, at the beginning of 1913, the situation became so difficult that the only way to resolve it was to sell the art collection.
The auction took place in Paris in 1914, and although the profits were large, they were lower than expected. Cristoforo began to live in a fantasy world. During the last years of his life, he was increasingly withdrawn from daily life, until his death on 5 January 1920.