Mapping Italy’s banking history

Intesa Sanpaolo’s interactive guide to its roots – a World Map – tells us much about the past of finance and its future

Robert Galbraith


Intesa Sanpaolo’s historical archives reveal countless insights into the workings of the individual banks that joined the group down the years. Among the most interesting are their international strategies – which continue to bear influence today despite huge changes in global banking.

In recognition of their importance, the historical archives department has created a ‘World Map’ as an interactive guide to where the banks went and what they did. An event to present the project heard that the Intesa Sanpaolo Group is the result of around 300 banks merging into one organisation.

Barbara Costa, head of the firm’s historical archives, sees the World Map as a major landmark in the work of the department and stresses how its shows the “international vocation” of the respective members before they became part of the eventual group.

“We can see inside the workings of the group, but also how much bankers became a part of the country’s financial and economic system”

Barbara Costa, head of Intesa Sanpaolo’s historical archives

Archivist Federica Brambilla highlights the depth of the research, which involved reading thousands of documents produced by the banks. “The aim of the map is to provide a comprehensive view of how and where Intesa Sanpaolo’s network developed around the world and show how the individual characteristics of the institutions were maintained,” she says.

The abundance of information in the archives, much of which has still not been explored, provides vital insights into the evolution of the Italian financial system in the international context and the relationship between banks and Italian companies expanding abroad.

Banca Commerciale Italiana e Romena, Braila branch.
Photograph taken by unknown author in 1921.

“It is a varied history that has evolved out of the experiences of a large number of banks which, especially at the beginning of the 1900s, took different approaches to the need to operate across borders,” Costa says.

The two most prominent were Banca Commerciale Italiana (BCI), historically the group’s best-known franchise outside Italy, and the state-owned lender Banco di Napoli.

Giandomenico Piluso, associate professor in economic history at the University of Siena, highlights how the different statuses of the banks defined their strategies abroad. “One had obligations towards the government, while the other had none. They had different vocations which moulded their partnerships and international projects and created expertise and skills,” he says.

Federica Brambilla, archivist and author of the Intesa Sanpaolo historical map

BCI’s expansion was enhanced by a partnership with the French group Paribas and the friendly relations between some of the two banks’ directors. It started before the First World War and led to the creation of Sudameris, a bank whose expansion was strongest in the Americas.

BCI consolidated its position in the 1920s, following Italian business and the county’s export revenues around the world. “It was not just economic activity and investment,” Piluso explains. “The foreign operation was also diplomatic.”

BCI expanded in Europe, owning leading banks in countries such as Poland and Bulgaria and financing trade, exports and the investments of Italian companies before entering a period of retrenchment during the Cold War. One of Italy’s most important post-war bankers, Enrico Cuccia, who went on to manage the investment bank Mediobanca for many years, learnt his trade in BCI’s foreign network in the US during this period.

“The World Map should be seen not as a point of arrival but rather as a starting point. No one knows exactly where it will take us and it shows the importance of not limiting one’s horizons” – Barbara Costa

Banco di Napoli had a very different role, which was created when Italy realised the importance of migrant remittances to its economy. Italy was the first country to provide a designated channel for the flows of money being sent back to families overseas. The ‘Luzzanti law’ in 1901 introduced a system whereby official and transparent systems were created specifically for migrants. Not long afterwards Banca di Napoli was appointed as the official banker for remittances, providing for more secure and trusted transfers and deposits.

Other banks also developed foreign networks and their own specialisations. IMI, which eventually merged with Istituto Bancario San Paolo di Torino in 1998, funded reconstruction projects after the Second World War.

It also financed trade and investment by Italian companies, including the construction of FIAT’s auto manufacturing plant in Togliatti in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and that of Innocenti – another carmaker – in Venezuela. San Paolo and the savings bank Cariplo created foreign networks in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, some of which prepared the ground for the group’s later expansion.

Istituto Bancario San Paolo di Torino, Frankfurt branch.
Photograph taken by unknow author in 1987.

Banca Commerciale Italiana, New York branch.
Photograph taken by Santi Visalli in 1982.

Banca Commerciale Italiana, Tokyo branch.
Photograph taken by unknown author in 1973.

The World Map is Intesa Sanpaolo’s way of describing the various approaches and roles of the individual banks which came together in the group. “The banks’ experiences provide a detailed view of Italian banks and give us an international perspective. We can see inside the workings of the group but also how much bankers became a part of the country’s financial and economic system,” Costa says.

She highlights the potential for further research, citing examples of subjects likely to provide the richest insights. One of the most important is Carlo Bombieri, head of foreign operations and managing director of BCI between 1965 and 1973, who left behind a host of valuable documents that show the banker’s important diplomatic role during the Cold War.

A recently discovered film, which was made to mark the 50th anniversary of Sudameris and recounts the history of BCI in South America, is another. It gives a unique view of the bank’s experience there. A collection of recordings consisting of the personal accounts of staff who worked in the foreign department of the group is another area likely to provide precious sources of information.

Costa stresses that the World Map will continue to be developed as exploration of the archives continues. “The World Map should be seen not as a point of arrival but rather as a starting point. No one knows exactly where it will take us and it shows the importance of not limiting one’s horizons,” she says.


Banca Commerciale Italiana for Egypt, head office in Alexandria.
Photograph taken by Umberto Dorés around 1920.

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