Tools & Technology

A Future Woven in Rayon

Jonathan Taylor reviews the Museo Territoriale Bassa Friulana in Torviscosa, Italy.

By Jonathan Taylor | November 2, 2009

Museo Territoriale Bassa Friulana
Piazzale Marinotti 133050 Torviscosa (UD)
+39 431 381363

In 1937 Italian textile manufacturer SNIA Viscosa began construction of Torviscosa, a planned company town in Italy’s northeastern Friuli region. Here one of its factories made rayon (viscosa) from cellulose obtained from the Arundo donax cane plant. Located an hour and a half from Venice and surrounded by formerly marshy land drained and planted with the cane, Torviscosa was inaugurated in 1938 by Benito Mussolini as a pillar of Italian economic autarchy and rational social planning. Today, its rich history is preserved in the Museo Territoriale Bassa Friulana.

Museo Territoriale Bassa Friulana

Museo Territoriale Bassa Friulana

The Museo Territoriale Bassa Friulana showcases the history of rayon production by Italian textile manufacturer SNIA Viscosa and the impact the SNIA factory had on local community life.

VideoEngineering - Gorizia, 2005

Torviscosa is little changed from the original vision of architect Giuseppe De Min, except for the 1961 complex containing the museum, dominated by an observation tower that looms over the town. The surrounding buildings are red brick, built in the Fascist-Modernist style, and the streets are strewn with monumental statuary. Employee housing is bundled with an array of communal spaces (theater, refectory, swimming pool, sports facilities, and a main piazza) on one side of town, while the other side hosts the factory, dominated by a pair of round, 200-foot chemical-conversion towers. One originally took the form of the fasces symbol, with a telltale axe-blade flourish that was later removed.

The town’s ideological significance, which SNIA chief Franco Marinotti vigorously cultivated, led to decades of lavish documentation and thus to a wealth of material for the museum, particularly photographs and film. Ambitious in its use of multimedia technology, the Museo Territoriale is a multilayered experience in historical consciousness, itself an artifact of the self-celebrating impulse that characterizes Torviscosa’s origins. Although the museum presents itself as documenting the history of the immediate region, and not just SNIA, the physical and social transformations wrought by the factory understandably overwhelm the resulting narrative. Even the Roman artifacts on display were unearthed only by the building of the new town.

While one exhibit surveys the industrial processes employed at Torviscosa over the decades, the museum’s broader focus centers on the town’s planning and construction, and its existence as a community. There is minimal space devoted to the original rayon product, which was itself part of a vision of improved modern living through technology. This point is well illustrated, though, by a 1949 short film on exhibit shot by Michelangelo Antonioni, Seven Reeds, One Suit, playing at the museum. The 10-minute publicity documentary begins in the cane fields and ends at a fashion show where models pose in rayon evening gowns.

This and other multimedia exhibits form the core of the museum, whose spirit hovers between homage to past glory and a detached interpretation of Torviscosa’s place in history. Items on display include films of Mussolini’s inaugural rally and visits by later dignitaries, along with a recording of the “Poem of Torre Viscosa,” written by futurist F. T. Marinetti to celebrate what he considered the utopian “City of Cellulose” where “the goddess Geometry” devours the cane and, with bisulfito di calcio, extracts the cellulose.

The museum’s enthusiasm for gimmickry sometimes seems to exceed what is called for: for instance, a “video-book” of documents, in which a visitor waves a hand over an image projected from above to “turn” the page ahead or back, gives little hint of what materials await and whether they justify patience with the contrivance. More useful are touch screens offering presentations on the architectural design of Torviscosa and interviews with retired workers. The architecture presentation’s images, combined with the written material (posted in English throughout), make clear how Fascist theories promoting “proletarian ruralism” and an elaborate social stratification were made concrete reality, shaping the lives of thousands of people—for many of whom it was a welcome improvement on alternative rural prospects.

After visiting the museum one can walk the streets laid out by De Min and view the buildings and spaces—apart from the factory—as they are in use today. The Museo Territoriale itself is but one exhibit in a larger de facto museum of architecture, technology, geography, and social history, made up of the entire built, and otherwise manipulated, landscape.