Economic self-sufficiency, which had been the Italian government’s aim from the 1920s, with the “Battle for Grain”, was definitively imposed in the ‘30s following the League of Nations’ embargo to punish Italian aggression in Ethiopia in 1935. In reality the economic sanctions imposed in Geneva did not effectively cause difficulties in Italy, but the Fascist government used them skilfully to create cohesion amongst the population, by appealing to national pride. Posters and plaques crying “Infamy” appeared on town hall walls and propaganda campaigns to support the state were launched, like that of the “Day of Wedding Rings”, which called on Italians to donate their wedding rings to the country’s struggle. At the same time, Italy choose the road to autarky, the economic system aimed at self-sufficiency, and maintained it even after sanctions were suspended. During the war in Ethiopia, Mussolini announced that autarky was no longer considered a momentary phase in Italian life, but a definitive project that required the whole productive effort of the nation.

The policy of autarky was supported by a widespread advertising campaign promoting local products, encouraging research into alternative raw materials and launching social messages against wastage. The poster was the main means of propaganda: Fascist political posters, displayed in places of power and everyday life, together with the radio, spread through schools, factories, offices and homes, and became the means to educate the masses and instruments of awareness.

The problem of cellulose

The decision for autarky led to serious consequences for the supply of certain raw materials. One of the most heavily debated problems was that of cellulose, which was almost entirely imported from abroad and was essential for the production of paper, fabrics and explosives. The problem, which had already presented itself in earlier years, now became a dramatic one: the difficulty of procuring raw materials through foreign commerce, the rapid development of artificial textiles, and the prospects of a war that would require an extensive use of cellulose for explosives made finding a solution urgent. Italy, which had no sources of the purest cellulose – cotton and timber trees – had only two choices, beyond saving paper: reforestation with rapidly growing broad-leafed trees and the use of annual plants.

In order to promote the development of cellulose manufacture from home-grown raw materials, the National Cellulose and Paper Organisation was founded in 1935 to support research and experimentation, focusing on the use of giant cane.

However, it was SNIA Viscosa, under the leadership of dynamic entrepreneur Franco Marinotti, that was the first to create a large plant to extract cellulose from giant cane (Arundo Donax). The SNIA (originally the Società di Navigazione Italo-Americana, or Italo-American Shipping Company) was at the time one of the main Italian producers of cellulose and artificial textiles. For many years it had particularly focused on producing ‘artificial silk’ – rayon – and for this reason it changed its name in 1922, adding that of its main product and becoming SNIA Viscosa (The National Rayon Manufacturing and Application Company). The company presented its project to the government and obtained suitable guarantees of economic and financial support.

The production of cellulose from cane

SNIA Viscosa immediately began to look for an area suitable for cultivating giant cane on a large scale and to build a large new industrial plant to process it. The features of the new plant were described by its president Franco Marinotti in a letter to Mussolini, as “…not affecting lands already used for intensive agriculture and in an advanced state of production, but preferring areas affected by unemployment and with easy internal communication leading to notable savings in transport costs”. The area that met all these requirements was Lower Friuli, in Torre di Zuino, a small 18th century hamlet.

SNIA Viscosa purchased around 6,000 hectares of land surrounding Torre di Zuino and organised it for its cultivation needs. It created a special company, the SAICI (Società agricola industriale cellulose italiana, or the Italian Industrial-Agricultural Cellulose Company), whose aim was to manage the agricultural and industrial programme of producing cellulose from giant cane. In the meantime, thanks to the prospect of a new industry, the Land Reclamation Consortium finally obtained the funding needed to complete hydraulic drainage works. Work began on building the plant for the chemical treatment of cane and cellulose production at the same time. It was a 400,000 cubic metre structure, which became 600,000 in 1940. It required an enormous workforce for the small area of Lower Friuli: 1,700 workers to build the plant and at least 4,000 people involved in agricultural activity.