During the last quarter of the eighteen century small numbers of young Italians left their towns and villages around Lake Como and came to Britain. Amongst these migrants were skilled carvers, gilders, glassblowers, and scientific instrument makers. They were particularly known for their production of fine barometers.
While a tradition of scientific observation of atmospheric pressure lay behind their craft, political tension encouraged their departure. Lombardy at the time was ruthlessly exploited by the ruling Habsburgs. Right at the end of the century the socio-economic situation further deteriorated when the French invaded the province. The men of Lombardy were conscripted into their army. Many of the locals preferred to take their skills elsewhere.
They travelled to France, the Low Countries and Britain and their work was sought after. In London, the first Italian instrument makers scattered across a few streets to the north of Holborn, in the parish of St Andrew Holborn: Leather Lane, Greville Street, Charles Street, Kirby Street, Cross Street, and Hatton Garden. They settled there because the area had a tradition of skill with a concentration of craftsmen, including clock and watch makers, umbrella makers, gilders, carvers, and frame makers. To Londoners, it became known as Little Italy. Immigrants themselves preferred to name it ‘Il Quartiere Italiano’. Leather Lane was at the centre of London’s Italian community since the 1700s. It would remain so until World War I.
Lake Como was part of the Grand Tour and the remarkable skills of local craftsmen were reported throughout Europe. There are numerous references to the barometer makers in the writings of travellers to the region. Historian and clergyman William Coxe who toured Europe as tutor to various wealthy travellers, wrote from Chiavenna on 21 July 1779 that the ‘neighbourhood of Turnio [Torno], and the districts bordering the lake of Como, supply, for the most part, those Italian emigrants who wander through Europe vending barometers and thermometers, of whom numbers annually resort to England for that purpose’. The journey for these migrants was far from easy.
The ‘favoured’ route before 1799 was to go north from Como, across Lake Lugano towards Airolo, and over the St Gothard Pass. On the northern side, at Andermatt, the wild waters of the River Reuss crash down the Schöllenen Gorge. Travellers crossed this via the narrow sixteenth century stone Devil’s Bridge, a structure which had been improved in the 1770s to take carriages but not stagecoaches. J.M.W. Turner painted a number of dramatic views of this route in 1802. His dramatic image of the original bridge suggests what migrants had to contend with on their search for a better life. From Andermatt the road took travellers past the Swiss lakes and into France at Basel. Travelling up the Rhine or taking the land route through France, the migrants reached Rotterdam from where they embarked on a ship for England.
Local instrument makers were quick to offer employment to Italian artisans and introduce Italian designs. One of the first successful firms of Lake Como settlers in London was Martinelli & Co. They were producing barometers in 1799 out of no. 82 Leather Lane. Ronchetti was another important name among those barometer makers. The Ronchetti Bros. worked in London at no. 172 Strand until 1880. In 1799 instrument maker Caesar Tagliabue, also from the Como area, established a company in Holborn. Before the end of 1820 he had moved to no. 23 Hatton Garden in the heart of London’s scientific instrument making community. Louis Pascal Casella was born on 29 February 1812 in Edinburgh, the son of Pasquale Casella, teacher of painting, who had moved from near Como to Britain at around the same time. The young man was employed by Tagliabue. In November 1838 he married his daughter Maria Louisa. In the same year Tagliabue took his son-in-law into partnership, changing the company’s name to Tagliabue & Casella. In 1844, following Tagliabue’s death, Casella took over the running of the business. The firm was making and selling a wide variety of scientific instruments. By the 1860s Casella & Co. sold thermometers, hydrometers, and drawing and surveying instruments, as well as meteorological instruments and accessories for photography. Among the company’s customers were the British and overseas governments, universities, and other scientific institutions.
These firms were the first of many Italian instrument makers who would settle in London. The biggest name was that of Negretti & Zambra who, from the mid-nineteenth century continued its London-based business until late in the twentieth century. Henry Angelo Ludovico Negretti was born on 13 November 1818 in Como. He did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps in operating a horse-drawn coach service over the St Gotthard Pass and moved to London in 1830. He learned his instrument skills under two established fellow-Italian makers: Caesar Tagliabue at no. 23 Hatton Garden, and Francis Augustus Pizzala at no. 4 Dorrington Street. In 1841 Negretti moved into Angelo Tagliabue’s former workshop at no. 19 Leather Lane, recently acquired by Jane Pizzi whose late husband Valentine had been a glass blower and barometer maker. The cooperation of Pizzi & Negretti continued until 1844. He then formed a partnership with Joseph Warren Zambra at no. 11 Hatton Garden in 1850. The latter, a photographer and instrument maker, was born into a family of Italian immigrants in Saffron Walden. He was apprenticed to his father before coming to London where he settled in the Italian community around Leather Lane.
The quality of the firm’s work became apparent at the 1851 Great Exhibition where they were the only instrument makers based in Britain to receive a prize medal. They were subsequently appointed instrument makers to the Queen, the Greenwich Observatory, and the British Meteorological Society. The firm became one of the biggest instrument makers in London, with workshops in Hatton Garden and Cornhill and a retail outlet on Regent Street, as well as a specialist photographic equipment emporium at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham. Zambra himself took numerous photographs of the latter building which are now among the iconic surviving images of the structure. The firm’s 1859 catalogue described 2,134 items and instruments and this range doubled a few years later. Negretti was naturalised as a British subject in April 1862. When Giuseppe Garibaldi visited London in 1864, he was invited to lead the Italian reception committee. The company of Negretti & Zambra prospered well into the twentieth century, diversifying into aircraft and industrial instruments in 1920, but eventually succumbed to a 1981 take-over bid by Western Scientific Instruments.
In 1845 Vincent Palotti, founder of the Pallotine Fathers, requested the building of a Basilica-style church at no. 136 Clerkenwell Road to serve the community of Little Italy. Irish-born architect John Miller-Bryson modelled the Italian church on Rome’s Basilica of San Crisogono in Trastevere. It was consecrated as the church of St Peter of all Nations in 1863. In a good Italian tradition, food and wine could soon be purchased close to the church. Luigi Terroni was born in 1853 into a poor Tuscan family of small farmers. He left home in 1870 and walked to Paris. On blistered feet he continued his journey to London, where he lodged in Clerkenwell. In 1878 he opened a food shop in Summers Street. It was London’s first Italian deli. Having married his childhood sweetheart, the couple set up home in Warner Street, Little Italy. Business flourished and Luigi opened a second shop, adjacent to St Peter’s. Its cellars extended beneath the church and it is said that worshippers could smell the fragrant aromas of cheese and dry cured salumi. To this day, the shop remains on the same site next to St Peter’s and still bears the name of its founder.
In spite of strengthening ties within the Italian community, the nature of Little Italy changed in the course of the nineteenth century. Large numbers of impoverished immigrants moved into the area in search of work. It became a district of paupers and young thieves, home to Fagin in Dickens’s Oliver Twist. By then, Little Italy received predominantly immigrants from the South, while Soho attracted Northern Italians. The Soho contingent consisted of tailors, watchmakers, artists, domestic servants, and those working in the hospitality industry. The Neapolitans and Calabrians of Little Italy held occupations of an itinerant nature, such as organ men, ice vendors, ambulant merchants, plaster bust sellers, and models for artists. It was also a safe harbour for political refugees. Giuseppe Mazzini, the apostle of Italian freedom, arrived in London after being expelled from Switzerland. He initially lived above the Italian barbers at no. 10 Laystall Street. Later, whilst living at no. 5 Hatton Garden, he set up the Società per il Progresso degli Operai Italiani which served the purpose of harnessing nationalist feelings among the immigrant community. Education was considered of crucial importance. With funds provided by supportive Scottish and English friends, he opened a free school where two hundred deprived Italian children received a rudimentary education. Established on 10 November 1841, it was the first Italian school in London. Charles Dickens was a benefactor.
Reminders of the Italian impact on the manufacture of precision instruments in the capital remain to this day. Comitti of London was founded in 1845 by Onorato Comitti, a precision instrument maker who had started a business manufacturing barometers in Little Italy. He opened his first workshop in 1850 alongside other specialist makers in the area. He quickly achieved an unsurpassed reputation for his recording instruments, including high quality mercury and aneroid barometers. During the late Victorian period the company gained renown as one of Britain’s finest clockmakers, receiving the Diploma of Honour for its workmanship in 1888. In 2015, Comitti remains a family-owned business with a proud Italian history.