The Florio family, whose history was intertwined for about one hundred and fifty years with the birth of Italy, were originally from Bagnara Calabra and came to Palermo after the devastating earthquake of 1783, eager to make a fortune. Shortly, and from nothing, they built a real economic empire, becoming captains of industry with 6,000 employees and owners of immense assets.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Palermo was a Bourbon maritime state that had to deal with the existing dominating power, England, with which, however, it had good economic relations. On Via Materassai, Paolo Florio opened a shop selling spices, drugs and colonial goods, called L’Aromateria. They were precious goods, and the context was favorable. In addition to the king and his court, there were many English merchants and entrepreneurs who circulated large amounts of money and business was good. In 1800, there was no grocery store like Florio’s for the large quantity of goods handled. In 1807, Paolo Florio died, leaving all his possessions as an inheritance to his son Vincenzo, who was only eight years old. Paolo’s brother from Calabria, Ignazio, was called and from 1808, the business would take the name of Ignazio and Vincenzo Florio.
Ignazio soon became one of the leading exponents of the Sicilian bourgeoisie, but he was very attracted to the aristocratic world and, in 1866, he married the baroness, Giovanna D’Ondes Trigona, from whom Vincenzo was born.
Ignazio undertook numerous commercial ventures, initially extending the range of goods sold in his shop not only to spices, but also to fabrics, copper and other products. Ships with loads destined only for its Aromateria began to arrive at the port. This well-being allowed him to expand his business and take advantage of the riches that Sicily made available to him. He was dedicated to the production of wines, such as the famous Marsala that bears his name. His beam was next to that of well-known English merchants such as Ingham and Woodhouse. With Ingham, he founded a shipping company, The Sicilian Steamboat Company and together they extended their interests to sulfur, founding the Anglo-Sicilian Sulfur Company Limited for the marketing of sulfuric acid and other sulfur derivatives. In 1874, Ignazio bought the islands of Marettimo and Levanzo for 2,000,740 lire and the traps of Formica and Favignana; he also invented a new way of preserving tuna. The Florio family, in fact, replaced the traditional preservation of raw meats in salt with cooking and preservation in oil, a method that is still used today.
The Oretea foundry and a spinning mill that employed 700 workers, with a canteen and nursery school, based on an Anglo-Saxon model, were opened, but Sicily was not yet ready for the modernity of the company and for female work and this experience, unfortunately, failed in a short time.
On May 13th, the landing of Garibaldi’s Thousand took place in Marsala and the conquest of Sicily began. The enterprise was supported by Francesco Crispi and by Vincenzo Florio who would benefit from it for his maritime traffic and would be elected senator. Vincenzo died in 1868 and left his daughters, Angela Giuseppina and his son, Ignazio, three hundred million lire, an enormous amount at the time.
In 1891, his uncle, Ignazio, also died and his son, Vincenzo, who was then 29, took over the business and became the true proponent of the family’s fortune, thanks to a very modern entrepreneurial mentality that combined his own economic interests with the political world and finance but also with the potential of its beloved territory.
His brother, Ignazio Junior, married Franca Jacona della Motta in 1893, whom D’Annunzio called Donna Franca, the name by which she was commonly known, a noblewoman who soon became a central figure of the Sicilian Belle Epoque, famous for her beauty, intelligent conversation and worldliness.
They had five children, of which only Igiea and Giulia survived.
Ignazio Junior soon had to deal with a world that had profoundly changed. The Bourbon kingdom and its ancient regime gave way to a centralist unitary state, relatively modern, but culturally very distant from Southern Italy. These were years of uncertainty and social tensions that were also reflected in business. The nineties opened with a very heavy crisis for the Florio shipping business. The government decided to review and restrict the agreements with the Italian general shipping and the port of Palermo which had already been selling commercial shares in favor of Naples and Genoa was in danger of closing.
The boats were old and needed constant maintenance. Inspections followed one another and the entire Florio policy was called into question. Ignazio Junior reacted and, in 1896, started the construction of new shipyards in Palermo, placing the Sicilian naval industry once again within the national one. It was a gigantic work, thanks to the agreements with the state that were renewed, even if they were less and less advantageous. Then it was faced with the problem of the chronic crisis due to the overproduction of sulfur and did so by pledging to buy, together with other British industrialists, the entire Sicilian production for five years.
In 1897, the Massimo Theater was inaugurated, in whose construction the Florio family had participated with their capital.
Donna Franca, very elegant, was present at the inauguration and obscured the English ladies, like a true queen. Palermo was once again the capital of culture and worldliness. Crowned heads such as Kaiser William II and Eduardo VII returned to Palermo and Donna Franca welcomed them to her famous dinners or she hosted them in her villas.
Ignazio Junior also bought the sanatorium clinic of Professor Vincenzo Cervello and transformed it into the Hotel Villa Igiea, thanks to the work of the architect, Basile, who also designed the beautiful furnishings, while the liberty style frescoes were by the painter, Ettore De Maria Bergler, who was also the artist of one of the many portraits of Donna Franca. Boldini was another painter who created a very famous portrait of the woman. She would also make other versions of it, arousing her husband’s jealousy.
In the same years, his brother, Vincenzo, creative (he was also a painter and designer) and gifted with a very modern mind brought to what we now call marketing, in 1906 established the Targa Florio, one of the oldest car races in the world, realizing that Sicily could also be relaunched thanks to a different economic system, such as tourism. The Targa Florio was not just a prestigious car race, but a way to make his land known, as well as to bring Sicilian entrepreneurs and artisans together with the rest of the world. In 1907, he also organized the first cycling tour of Sicily in eight stages, bringing cyclists to Palermo with a ship that left from the port of Genoa. The first tour of Italy took place in 1909.
In 1908, a terrible earthquake devastated Messina. Ignazio and Donna Franca went to help and while he dug in the rubble, his wife treated the wounded.
In 1910, Vincenzo organized the aeronautical week in Palermo, an aircraft race that took place in Mondello and, in 1913, he competed again in the Targa Florio. The same year, the impressive Mondello bathhouse was inaugurated, replacing the provisional cabins on the beach, and a tram and a vaporetto (waterbus) connected the city of Palermo with Mondello.
But in 1915, Italy entered the war and at the end of the conflict, Palermo was no longer the same. Ignazio and Franca tried to get back to normal but, despite their countless companies, their financial group was no longer as powerful as it was at the turn of the century. After the war, it was the North that dictated the strategies for the industrial development of Italy.
On the contrary, the Targa Florio experienced a moment of splendor in the roaring years. Peugeot, Mercedes, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, all competed at the Targa, which meant having the most solid car in the world. The technicians who worked in the pits were the best connoisseurs of modern mechanics. Bugatti won for five consecutive years, from 25 to 29, because it employed great driving champions (and even a woman), but it was a particular motorist who would soon become a legend to warm the public: Tazio Nuvolari. Sicily changed, but the public always flocked to the race in large numbers and Vincenzo Florio was always present at his event.
But the debts continued to increase, and Ignazio had to sell properties and businesses that turned into cash for creditors and mortgages. From 1921 onwards, their entire economic empire slowly disappeared, and the Florio family lost everything. They managed to save only the Villa Arenella, the residence of Vincenzo, the first of the architectural commissions of the Florio house, purchased by his grandfather in 1829 and rearranged by the architect, Carlo Giachery, and which still has enormous historical value today.
Known as Quattro Pizzi, due to the Gothic-style corner turrets, in 1845 it hosted Tsar Nicholas I and his family, who arrived in Palermo with a very large succession. Tsarina Alessandra was so impressed that she had faithfully replicated its brightest room in St. Petersburg, calling it Sala Arenella. There are family objects in the villa, including furnishings and even the wardrobes of the shop in Via Materassai, which contained the precious spices that made the fortune of the family.