Piemonte’s Secrets Uncovered
Story & photos by Julia Maris/Semel
At the foot of the Alps nestled between France and Switzerland, Piemonte’s beautiful landscapes and history are no longer guarded secrets. The northwest province of Italy incorporates the perfect triangle from Turin to Biella and Alba. The easily-driven route offers remarkable wine, centuries-old traditions of weaving, and art.
With the Langhe’s recent UNESCO World Heritage classification for the rolling hills covered with generations of Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards, the area affords access to Michelin-starred restaurants and great vintages. Piemonte provides a quiet respite away from crowds with accessible nature and trails that also follow La Strada della Lana, The Wool Road, a result of its medieval heritage. The road is the fiber that connects the past to the present.
Biella, a world-class producer of cashmere and wool for designers, repurposed its factories and buildings into art galleries and textile archives. Abandoned buildings with smokestacks dot the landscape carved by the raging Cervo River that contributed to the development of the textile industry. Water power turned factory wheels and unique mountain water washed woolen fabrics.
Referred to as the Manchester of Italy, Biella incorporated all aspects of wool production (washing, carding, and weaving) in vertical multi-story buildings. With industrialization, horizontal factories changed the architectural heritage and textile landscape: Biella became a wool manufacturing capital.
The 1885 funicular railway connects Biella Piazzo, the medieval city developed on the upper hills, to Biella Piano and its Romanesque 11th century Baptistery and Piazza Duomo. Biella Piano’s shops and local company outlets specialize in wool with its history from 1245 when City statutes governed textiles and weavers.
On Sundays June through October, Biella Piazzo presents music events and access without appointments to archives and art exhibitions in medieval mansions near the porticoed Piazza della Cisterna. Cafés on cobbled streets serve local specialities that include vitello tonnato (veal sauced with tuna), risotto with mushrooms, and creamy polenta.
Nearby, the 13th century Sanctuary of Oropa dedicated to the Black Madonna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracts thousands of pilgrims.
The Fondazione Pistoletto Cittadellarte, established 1998 in the Biella Trombetta 19th century wool mill complex, is an art and education center. “Cittadellarte’s aim is to inspire and produce a responsible change in society through ideas and creative projects.”
Michelangelo Pistoletto, an artist born in Biella and who won the Venice Biennale’s award for lifelong achievement, reconfigured the sign for infinity. The Third Paradise, the new symbol for change through art, represents nature, artifice, and rebirth. The Third Paradise at Cittadellarte is the center of an international network of projects for a positive and sustainable transformation of society across fields that include culture, economics, and politics.
Pistoletto renovated the neglected factory buildings along the Cervo River, part of Biella’s industrial archeology. The renovation included the music and poetry rooms for factory workers that Trombetta built in the 1880s.
In Pray, the Factory of the Wheel or Fabbrica della Ruota, the former Zignone wool mill, houses a permanent exhibition of textile industry technology that includes looms and related machinery, in addition to art exhibitions and workshops. The Zignone mill used a unique system of hydraulic power through which water activated a turbine. The telodynamic system in which a large cast iron wheel transmitted energy to the factory with a series of smaller wheels and belts that powered the looms, is the principal element of the factory.
Pray is located on the thirty-mile Strada della Lana, the road that runs through valleys from Biella to Borgosesia, the old wool market. Along the route, industrial archeology of workers’ villages and mills developed during the early 1800s, when weaving moved from homes to factories with Belgian mechanical looms, dominates the countryside.
Wool frames the region’s culture zone and history. Sheep roamed Biella’s mountain pastures: highly pure water, low in sodium and minerals, washed fleece and transformed factories. Today, Australian and New Zealand merino wool and cashmere from Mongolia provide raw materials to fashion haute couture fabrics.
Two centuries of tradition and innovation reflect in Fratelli Piacenza, the Henokiens Association Bicentenary Family company, and producer of luxury cashmere. Artisans, with hands-on expertise passed from generations of textile families, use the finest “noble” fibers that include mohair and vicuña, with new technology for spinning and twisting.
The thistle flower that raises fibers during fabric finishing, Fratelli Piacenza’s logo and identity, used for over a hundred years is found in machinery exhibited at the Fabbrica della Ruota and at their corporate outlet. The company promotes sustainability and clean energy while reducing environmental impact, in addition to production accountability.
Felice Piacenza Burcina Park created in 1840 represents the company’s sustainability philosophy. Azaleas and rhododendron form a natural reserve adjacent to walking trails that traverse beech and cedar woods overlooking the hills of Biella.
The Trivero Panoramica Road, the sixteen-mile mountain drive that Ermenegildo Zegna, the founder of Lanificio Zegna Wool Mill, built in 1938, gives way to majestic Biellese Alpine views, trekking access to mountain passes, and retreats. Landscape development and environmental protection incorporated the principles of conservation and social responsibility.
Zegna planted 500,000 conifers and the Rhododendron Bowl that peaks May to June, and that Oasi Zegna integrated into the “open-air laboratory that enhances the relationship between man, mountain culture, and nature year-round.”
Walks through beech and ash woods for forest bathing or shinrin-yoku, the 1990s Japanese practice, reduce stress. Researchers believe that the chemicals plants emit benefit health and regenerate the body. Hiking and mountain biking trails lead to refugios and inns with local cheeses, salumi, and chestnut-based dishes, a culinary tradition.
The Foundation Zegna continues the philosophy of Ermenegildo Zegna of “protection of the environment, social well-being, and cultural development of the community.” The foundation promotes public art with outdoor contemporary installations and Casa Zegna, the cultural center, holds historical and textile archives from 1859.
Consorzio Biella The Wool Company, located in a former mill, sorts and selects lots of wool from European sheep farmers who were not able to sell raw wool that was considered a waste product. The collaboration and knowledge enables breeders and small companies to produce wool that is now part of the textile supply chain and used for yarn and clothing. The Consorzio maintains a small museum that promotes wool as a traceable and renewable product that also depends on characteristics such as fiber length and thickness.
Palazzo Comunale di Sordevolo, the oldest textile archive from the 1730s, documents the heritage of local wool production. In 1868, Serafino Vercellone granted his home to the community and his family donated archives to the municipality in the 1980s. Palazzo Vercellone opened in 2014 for research and exhibitions.
Almost seven-hundred feet of papers pinpointed exact production records: employees names and work schedules; sales receipts; invoices from manufacturers of equipment including machines and typewriters; accounting books from 1793; and inventory logs.
The records reflect the cultural history and social fabric from suppliers in Buenos Aires to tailors in Naples and customers in Turin. Samples and patterns in yearly collections illustrate fashion trends and documents relate to the1867 Paris Exhibition. DocBi Centro Studi Biellesi established the Biella Network Archives for Textiles and Fashion that also lists the heritage of the Fondazione Sella archives.
For more than twenty years, Julie Maris/Semel has photographed adventure travel. Her work features people, landscapes, and wildlife from Asia to the Arctic. As a photojournalist, she has produced articles for national tourist boards and editorial clients. Her images have appeared in magazines and on Nikon’s website and reflect the challenges of capturing the brief second between subject and camera, as well as the quality of light and color. Visit www.juliemarissemel.com