Perspectives on the past

Official archives of the Intesa Sanpaolo group throw light on a century of Italian banking history – and have an important role to play in preserving the country’s cultural heritage

Robert Galbraith

30/05/2017

A little history goes a long way. Intesa Sanpaolo’s historical archives were once little more than a cupboard full of banking records and client details. Today they have grown into a store of invaluable information which, if laid out in a line, would stretch for eight kilometres.

The original archive belonged to Banca Commerciale Italiana (BCI), the prestigious Milanese bank that formed one of the cornerstones of the modern group. Banks in Italy are obliged to store business records to comply with regulations regarding cultural heritage in the ‘Beni Culturali’ code.

In 1984, the decision to manage BCI’s assets started a process that would focus the corporate memory.

It was part of an international movement that saw active management of archives being undertaken by other banks in Europe. Intesa Sanpaolo is a founding member of the European Association for Banking and Financial History Archives, an organisation started in 1990 to create dialogue between European bankers, academics and archivists.

The archives are a valued source of information to groups and professions outside of the bank, including historians, architects, industry experts and members of the public
Photo: Francesca Pino, head of the Intesa Sanpaolo group archives


Francesca Pino, head of the Intesa Sanpaolo group archives, is keen to dispel any preconceptions about such collections of historical material. “A lot of people imagine an archive as a room full of paper and anonymous files gathering dust,” she says.

“It is nothing of the sort; it is an expanding environment that includes works of art and historical objects, one in which interaction and investigation are central parts of the function.”

Photo: Council of Europe in Strasbourg: in the front-row Alessandro Casati, Winston Churchill and Mario Cingolani; behind, second from the right, Stefano Jacini, President of Cassa di Risparmio delle Provincie Lombarde, August 1949 (unknown photographer).

Material from BCI, which had offices all around the globe, provided a fascinating chronicle of its activities over the past century, not least in details and photos of the buildings that it occupied. At home, the legal obligation on banks to keep historical records has meant that each bank merging with Intesa Sanpaolo has been able to contribute its own archives and throw light on the history of the area in which it operated.

Now three archives are managed in Milan and another in Rome, with further archives overseen by banks scattered around the regions. Together they contain millions of documents, images and objects. Online catalogues have been created for 12,000 boxes and 35,000 personnel files, 7,300 registers, 44,000 photographs, 2,900 museum items and 4,300 maps.

"It is an expanding environment that includes works of art and historical objects, one in which interaction and investigation are central parts of the function.”

Photo: Inauguration of the Stock Exchange Palace in piazza Cordusio in Milan, October 11th, 1901 (photographer: Leone Ricci)
(In the group, the third from the right is Federico Weil, Executive Director of Comit until March 21st, 1908, when he was nominated CEO).

The archives are also a valued source of information to groups and professions outside of the bank, including historians, architects, industry experts and members of the public. They provide an effective background to some of Intesa Sanpaolo’s cultural operations, especially Progetto Cultura – an outreach programme designed to make Italian heritage and art available to all.

“The archives can be used to check if an art work is genuine and to trace its origins, for example. They show how and when it was bequeathed, donated to the bank or taken over after a bankruptcy and so on,” Pino explains.

The bank’s methods for storing and managing its historical archives are also available to share. Intesa Sanpaolo organises workshops for students of history and archival science in which they are given items or documents to analyse. In this way they learn the techniques of classification and gain practice in digitalisation and digital curation.

Photo: Lodovico Toeplitz and family on the deck of a ship during a travel to South America, 1914 (unknown photographer).
(Lodovico Toeplitz, born in 1868 in Varsavia, was the brother of the CEO of Banca Commerciale Italiana Giuseppe Toeplitz and was the first chief of Servizio Estero of Comit).

Just how the archives are used can be gleaned from statistics about the types of research conducted. Most applications for access, more than 450 of them, were for studies into the history of banking, finance and associated subjects, 140 related to business history and 124 had to do with general history.

The importance of the images stored as part of the collection can be inferred from the fact that 182 applications were made to study architecture, art and photographs in the archives. A further 42 were on local history.

Pino emphasises how fluid the process is as archivists find new ways to organise the material and researchers explore fresh avenues of examination.

One of the more recent developments has been the cataloguing of the Raffaele Mattioli papers. Mattioli served as managing director at BCI from 1933 to 1960 and then as president until 1972. He was a patriarchal figure at the bank, influential and prominent in Italian business and finance for many years. He was also a very private man who shied away from public appearances, communicated infrequently and revealed his opinions or ideas only in particular contexts such as annual general meetings.

The Raffaele Mattioli papers are therefore a record of the little he did say, but also of the many insightful things he did. The inventory reveals something of the thoughts and actions of an individual whose impact on both the Italian economy and culture has been considerable.

The wealth and scope of material in the Intesa Sanpaolo archives – such as the Mattioli papers – has generated other projects, some of which will be dealt with in future articles.

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