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Old 29th September 2019, 07:47 PM   #1
MForde
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Default Why Did Italian Sword Makers Die Out?

Hello all. A recent thread on here got me thinking: with the Italian blade makers being much-vaunted from something like the Middle Ages until the 1700s, why did the factories die out almost entirely by the 1800s? Of the handful that were extant in this later period (Lollini, Labruna, Gnutti) none seemed to have been able to make sword blades on a scale large enough to fully arm the variety of armies, militias and police forces found on the Italian Peninsula after the fall of Napoleon.

I've seen thousands upon thousands of Italian swords in the last three years and almost all of them had blades made outside of the 'Italian' borders.

So what happened to this fine tradition?
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Old 29th September 2019, 08:26 PM   #2
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"Italy" is a modern construct. The area we now know as Italy was a patchwork defined by a number of foreign influences; Austria, Spain, France, and their agents and vassals. Lots of push/pull with various foreign armies.

I imagine that would obscure origins, as well as prevent cultural stability. Also it would provide a good reason to move to areas which were relatively more stable, if one had the means to do so.[IMG]http://[/IMG]
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Old 1st October 2019, 06:43 AM   #3
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My impression of blade manufacture on the Peninsula pre-1800 was a multitude of mostly family-owned workshops, the best-known ones by repute being in relatively small towns like Bergamo, Belluno, Caino, and the like where blades were a specialty for many generations. A lot of product was distributed in other areas where cutlers assembled finished swords, putting hilts made by them or others on blades from various sources in Italy and abroad.

This was essentially the same situation elsewhere in Europe but the Industrial Revolution and with it the birth of modern factories and corporations changed all that. It should be no surprise that countries like Britain and France, which were unified states with well-developed technical, commercial, and financial bases, led the pack in this transformation. . Italy did not unify until 1870 and until then much of its territory was governed by foreign crowns. Also, the distribution of natural resources to support industrial production was not as extensive as that of certain areas in northern Europe.

Firearms manufacture in Italy presents an interesting area of comparative study. There, the artisanal workshop system also succumbed to the Industrial Age -- the centuries-old centers of high-quality gunmaking in the towns of Central Italy (Pistoia, Anghiari, Celalba, Brento, Florence, Bargi, Bologna, etc.) folded up almost overnight in the period 1840-60. The distinctive regional character that made Italian guns so recognizable for the previous 300 years vanished too, in favor of pan-European designs geared to new tastes and the requirements of marketing. Of the armory towns, Brescia was practically the only one to continue existence, indeed flourish, in modern times, and it lies in Lombardy, the industrial and financial heart of the "new" Italy. The sporting arms industry thrives with names like Perazzi and Benelli, but one firm, Beretta, has led the way in capitalizing on the fruits of the Industrial Revolution by making a huge name for itself in both military and civilian arms sales. Remarkable, for an entity which has existed since the first half of the 16th century.

So what about the blade industry? Perhaps because by the 19th cent., swords were so much less important to the militaries of the Western world that no Beretta-class players emerged in the field. Not to say that cutlery became a forgotten trade -- Italy has become famous for its fine shears, scissors, industrial cutting tools, and horticultural implements, which are esteemed and widely exported today. Product adverts in the 19th cent Italian press show that this swords-to-plowshares transition was underway in Lombardy well before the First World War.

A possible analogy can be found in Japan, where the Meiji-era abolition of the samurai class' privilege of wearing swords resulted in a big decrease in demand for new weapons. The transfer of talent and resources has led to that country's success in the manufacture and worldwide sale of high quality knives and tools in our time. Omnia mutantur et nos in illis mutamur. may be the watchword for crafts and industries which hope to survive as nations and societies evolve.

Last edited by Philip : 1st October 2019 at 07:06 AM.
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Old 1st October 2019, 10:00 AM   #4
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Thank you, gentlemen. It's certainly true that Italy was a patchwork in the 1800s and many states lacked significant funds to dedicate to establishing industrialised weapons production.

Philip, thank you for writing such a comprehensive answer. I suppose importing Solingen-made blades was more cost-effective than actually setting up proper centres of production, natively. However, many 'Italian' government-issued, German-made blades of the 1800s were married to their hilts and stamped by inspectors in 'Italian' factories so there were clearly large-scale official processes underway throughout the Peninsula. I also suspect that these hilts were made locally - and made to high enough standards. Those wholesale German prices must have been rather good.

Another thing that has always puzzled me is why the Sardinians adopted so many French models in the late-1700s and early-1800s, especially considering the great hatred for Napoleon amongst the upper echelons. Sure, France is close but Spain isn't too far away, either.
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Old 1st October 2019, 03:49 PM   #5
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Default the reach of industry / France's influence

Quote:
Originally Posted by MForde
Thank you, gentlemen. It's certainly true that Italy was a patchwork in the 1800s and many states lacked significant funds to dedicate to establishing industrialised weapons production.

Philip, thank you for writing such a comprehensive answer. I suppose importing Solingen-made blades was more cost-effective than actually setting up proper centres of production, natively. However, many 'Italian' government-issued, German-made blades of the 1800s were married to their hilts and stamped by inspectors in 'Italian' factories so there were clearly large-scale official processes underway throughout the Peninsula. I also suspect that these hilts were made locally - and made to high enough standards. Those wholesale German prices must have been rather good.

Another thing that has always puzzled me is why the Sardinians adopted so many French models in the late-1700s and early-1800s, especially considering the great hatred for Napoleon amongst the upper echelons. Sure, France is close but Spain isn't too far away, either.


You hit the nail on the head. A bunch of small producers with pre-mechanized technology couldn't compete with a modern factory when it came to pricing. Recall that the steam driven textile factories in England exported so much cheap and uniform-quality cloth to India that it drove a lot of cottage-industry weavers out of business during the Raj. Which is why Mahatma Gandhi used home looms as such a potent symbol of India's return to economic self-sufficiency under the independence he envisioned. (We also see English corduroy covering the scabbards of Tibetan knives and swords, goes to show you the reach of such manufacture!) Metal and ceramic crafts in China also suffered with the import of cheaper factory made Western goods beginning at the close of the 19th cent. -- the flip side of today's situation.

You can imagine that military purchasers of the time would be thinking along similar economic lines. If Solingen came in cheaper than Milan, why not go easy on the budget and buy accordingly? Italy as a whole did not have the wealth that, say, France commanded at the time of is unification.

Regarding the Sardinians, maybe they liked the Spanish even less. Spain ruled the island, as they did Sicily and the southern half of Italy for centuries. As in Mexico and the Philippines, the Spanish rulers milked their territories and responded brutally to any sign of resistance. Poverty and corruption were the general legacy in these lands.

Pragmatism often wins out when it comes to things like buying arms. During the period you mention, France was a leader in arms design and either supplied or influenced native design in many areas. The Russians hated Napoleon for good reason yet the regulation pattern swords and muskets of the Czar's troops of the era are unmistakably French in design. American relations with France were far more cordial so many of the first standard-issue US military arms, including swords, look very Frenchified. even up to the Civil War. (some of the earliest tooling supplied to US military arsenals was imported from France, and believe it or not the screw threads were in metric pitch). Look at the regulation sabers of some Latin American countries -- hilts, again very French looking although the weapons themselves may have been made in Germany. In Europe, the German kingdom of Bavaria, the Italian state of Piemonte, and other areas all used military weapons of heavily French design.
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Old 1st October 2019, 06:17 PM   #6
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Yes itís sad that some of these venerable Italian sword smiths disappeared despite the high quality of their work. As was previously suggested, the fragmentation of the states on the Italian peninsula probably did not help. The Austrians ruled the Veneto region and were probably not keen to promote arms industries in that potential hotbed. Instead domestic Austrian arms industries in Wiener Neustadt and elsewhere were supported by government contracts which helped them to build economies of scale. The Italian smiths were probably also limited in terms of who they could export to. Austria subsequently fought against Italy in a number of wars. Solingen with its proximity of Cologne could reach scale by supplying the German lands and then add more by exporting. Klingenthal got the government contracts to supply the French army, etc.
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Old 1st October 2019, 10:02 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Victrix
. The Austrians ruled the Veneto region and were probably not keen to promote arms industries in that potential hotbed. .


Back in the 1970s there was an exhibition of traditional Balkan arms and I recall the catalog mentioning that Habsburg-administered areas like Bosnia suffered restrictions on the local manufacture of weapons, even the wearing of yataghans and other blades, in the 19th cent.
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Old 2nd October 2019, 08:50 AM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Philip
Back in the 1970s there was an exhibition of traditional Balkan arms and I recall the catalog mentioning that Habsburg-administered areas like Bosnia suffered restrictions on the local manufacture of weapons, even the wearing of yataghans and other blades, in the 19th cent.


Yes as part of the Divide et Impera policy where the Habsburgs ruled over ethnically diverse lands through a personal mandate, I think it made sense to discourage the access of arms which could be potentially used against the Royal and Imperial Army (K.u.K.). In Bosniaís particular case this was futile as demonstrated by the tragic assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914.

The Royal and Imperial Habsburg Army fought the Italians in the revolutions of 1848, the Risorgimento, and WWI. So made sense to not encourage arms industries in those lands under their control. Even Hungary was quite prone to rebellion although there was sword manufacturing allowed in Slovakia (then part of the Hungarian Kingdom).
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Old 3rd October 2019, 01:06 PM   #9
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I think suppression by the Austrians is a most valid point and one that I hadn't considered.

The reason I ask this is because I'm cataloging the Italian regulation swords in the 1800s and there really isn't much written in English about it all and I'm rather chained to Google Translate at the moment as my Italian is sadly limited to ordering coffee.

I've just finished translating cherry-picked sections from L'Armamento Individuale dell'Esercito dal 1861 al 1943 and it is one of the first works (of many I've translated) that touched on the manufacturing capabilities of the various states. Interestingly, just after Unification, the three main centres of production at the Royal Factory of Turin near Valdocco, the Brescia factory and that of Torre Annunziata were happily churning out rifles and bayonets but not sword blades. I think, as has been suggested, this is partly due to the waning of the sword's importance.

I would love to know who were producing the hilts!
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