This Tuscan seaside town was born with Solvay
How many companies can boast they gave a city its name? On the coast of Tuscany, Italy, about 30 kilometers south of Pisa, Rosignano Solvay is a rare example in industrial history: a town that rose from scratch in the early 20th century around a chemical plant.
A choice based on logistics
At the time, with its industrial facilities spread out across Europe producing sodium carbonate (also known as soda ash) by using the revolutionary process patented by its founder, Solvay was a booming and already multinational company. Ernest Solvay had heard of a site in Italy that could be a good place to establish a new production plant and sent engineers to check it out. As a result, in 1912, a factory was founded on the coast, at the foot of the hills of Rosignano Marittimo.
Why there? Because the area had all the raw materials necessary for soda ash production readily available: rock salt from a mine nearby, limestone from local quarries and sea water. The place also enjoyed good logistics, as it’s right along the historic via Aurelia, connecting Rome to Northern Italy since antiquity, as well as a railway line.
The creation of the factory was such a success that an entire town blossomed around it, subsequently named after the company to which it owed its existence. And so, Rosignano Solvay was born. “There have been other similar examples in Italy, but this is the only place where the bond between the town and the company is still alive” says Antonello De Lorenzo, the site’s Communication Manager. “To this day, every year on August 20th, people celebrate the foundation of Rosignano Solvay.”
Industry and education
When Solvay arrived, there were only fields. Sticking to the Northern European architectural style they were familiar with, the predominantly Belgian engineers used bricks for construction (the first piece of infrastructure needed was a kiln to produce millions of them), and in a matter of years, dozens of houses, schools and even a theater had risen from the ground, in addition to the industrial buildings, which were also made of bricks.
But one big question remained: who would run the place? “There were only farmers in the area,” explains Antonello. “So engineers came to teach chemistry to the local population, overcoming the language barrier as best they could. It’s important to understand this project wasn’t just about creating industrial activity, but also providing education.” True to Ernest Solvay’s firm belief in doing business while also doing good for the people, the creation of Rosignano Solvay came with a strong will to create bridges between people and share knowledge.
For the past 110 years, Rosignano Solvay has been growing and evolving. During WWI, for example, its industrial production was switched from sodium carbonate to caustic soda (sodium hydroxide), a basic ingredient to produce many essential wartime products, such as paper, textiles and steel. Today, its population represents about a third of the 30,000 inhabitants of the entire Rosignano Marittimo municipality.
This project wasn’t just about creating industrial activity, but also providing education and social culture.
Still a strong presence
With time, the number of company employees decreased (from around 8,000 to 465 today), and many Solvay buildings were sold or donated, including the historical theater, built in 1924, and yielded to the city of Rosignano for €1 in 2017. But the importance of the industrial site remains huge, with its 1,500 workers altogether (in combination with some industrial partners as, for example, Inovyn and Ineos, companies to whom Solvay sold certain activities and who share the site).
Nevertheless, after decades of evolution, the population’s bond with Solvay also evolved. “More and more people settled here with no relation to Solvay,” explains Antonello (who has been living there for 25 years himself in one of the historical houses of Solvay Rosignano). “But the majority of the community respects the history of the town. I would say there is a strong feeling of trust towards Solvay, even though younger generations are more demanding and critical, which is a good thing. It’s up to us to reach out and share knowledge, and also to listen, including to critical voices.”