For this series of posts I normally pick Italian books that have an English translation as well. I do it to give people the opportunity to read good Italian books even if they can’t read in Italian.
However, I’ve decided to make an exception today because the book I want to tell you about tells a true Italian story that is really worth knowing even though you won’t read the book.
The book I am referring to is Al di qua del fiume by Alessandra Selmi. If you are subscribed to Un giro in Vespa, my newsletter in Italian, you may remember the article I wrote about the book, which I sent quite recently. However, I was not done talking about the book and I thought that it would make a good blog post, so here we are.
Al di qua del fiume is a historical fiction book, which is a genre I normally do not like very much because I usually get frustrated not knowing what is true and what is fiction but this time it felt different. Since the book is not about one single person but follows the lives of many characters, I had the feeling that I could easily separate the true story of the family and its business achievements from the romanticized lives of each character.
The book tells the story of the Crespi family, a family that has played a very important role in Italian history, especially when it comes to business and entrepreneurship. Everything started with Cristoforo Benigno Crespi, the first son of Antonio Crespi, who descended from a family of textile producers from Busto Arsizio.
At first, he helped his father with the trading of dyed fabrics, but he had the dream of doing something big and in 1878 he started his own factory in Capriate San Gervasio, near Bergamo, where he introduced the most modern spinning, weaving, and finishing processes.
Actually, his dream was even bigger: he wanted to create a place where his workers could live in decent conditions and close to the factory so that they didn’t have to travel a lot. This is why he created the village of Crespi d’Adda, a small town with houses for the workers, a school, a church, a hospital, and places where workers could gather after work like a restaurant, a theatre, and a community center.
Cristoforo Crespi’s idea was to create some sort of an ideal city, where workers could live “a perfect life” that revolved around the factory (we might argue about this ideal of a perfect life so closely linked to the factory where people worked but my purpose today is just to tell this Italian story).
The work of Cristoforo Crespi was continued by his son Silvio, who was involved in many activities and had a career in politics as well. Unfortunately, at the end of the 20s, due to bad investments and a change in the trade and economic scenery, the factory went bankrupt and Cristoforo’s dream ended.
However, the village of Crespi d’Adda still exists today and is inhabited by a community that is mainly made of descendants of the original workers (you can visit it on your own but you can also take a guided tour, which is something I really want to do one day).
But the village is not the only thing that the Crespi family left us. Cristoforo Crespi, the head of the family, was incredibly wealthy. In 1879, he bought a piece of land in Orta San Giulio, on Lake Orta, where he built a villa for his wife Pia. In fact, the magnificent Moorish-style house that is famous today as Villa Crespi (it is now a luxury hotel with a Michelin-star restaurant), was once called Villa Pia and was the place where the Crespis spent their time off.
Finally, we owe to Giulia Maria Crespi, a descendant of the family, the founding of the FAI, Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano, a non-profit association that follows the example of the British National Trust and has the aim of protecting and enhancing Italy’s historical, artistic, and landscape heritage. As you can see, the Crespi family has been a big part of Italian history and culture.
The book tells the story of Cristoforo and his son Silvio and follows the lives of many other characters who were linked to the family and the factory they built. It is very absorbing and a real page-turner, one of those books that you really can’t put down. In case you want to try and read it in Italian, I’d say that it is recommended for B2 – upper intermediate – students but it’s 500 pages long, so I’d keep that in mind also because it can be a challenge. But if you feel like it, I’d say “read it!” because it is a really good book.
And even though you won’t read the book, I hope you’ve found this glimpse of Italian history interesting!
If you are looking for interesting ways to practice your Italian daily, I’d suggest you check my program called Giorno dopo giorno, a daily Italian practice.
If you sign up for Giorno dopo giorno, you will receive an email every other day for 365 days. Each email will contain a prompt, a little exercise, something to watch, read, or listen or something that will gently force you to practice your Italian every day, making it part of your daily routine.