As already mentioned, agriculture is still, in Italy, the basis of the national economy, but it can no longer be said today, as it was sixty years ago, that Italy is an exclusively agricultural country. The progressive development of large modern industry is, indeed, one of the most salient facts that characterize the transformation of Italy after its unification. In fact, around 1870 the industry was still almost only at the stage of small domestic manufacturing or craftsmanship, which had given Italy a glorious primacy in the Middle Ages and at the beginning of the modern age and had also created very noble traditions of work and industrial art with precious workers and skilled and expert workforce.
Large modern industry, hampered by the scarcity of hard coal, also hampered by the multiple legacies of political fragmentation, has slowed to develop, in comparison with other better-favored large European states; but, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, it showed clear signs of an upward movement, which became more and more lively in the century. XX, especially in tandem with the progress of the use of hydroelectric energy. This movement has determined not only the transformation of the old domestic or artisan industries, but also the rise of entirely new branches, which today are certainly not the least advanced and active (see industry: Origins and development of large industry in Italy).
According to TOPSCHOOLSINTHEUSA, industries are located in Italy in a very varied way, according to the influence of different factors. Some, especially among the most ancient, are still closely connected to the places of production of the raw material, such as, for example, several of the food industries (wine, dairy, sugar factory), such as the silk industry, linked for a long time to centers of mulberry cultivation, which are also those of silkworm breeding; others are rather linked to the centers of consumption of the product (such as the pasta factory and certain mechanical industries), or to ports, when it comes to industries whose products are widely exported. But some industries, especially the most recent ones, have instead been located from the outset at the large hydroelectric plants; this has happened to several chemical industries and also, in several cases, of metallurgical; the latter were then already largely localized in the Alpine circle, since remote times, that is, when the raw material mainly came from the Alps. Finally, for other branches of the chemical, metallurgical and mechanical industries, the location near the large communication nodes is evident, the most suitable for favoring the irradiation of products to a large extent.
Due to the complex of these causes, rather than due to a greater attitude of the population or other historical-social factors, the most industrial regions are today found in northern Italy. According to the industrial census of 1927, out of 1000 inhabitants over the age of 10 there were 129 employees in industries as a global average for the whole of Italy; but the percentage rose to 253 for Lombardy, 202 for Liguria, 192 for Piedmont; close to the average of the kingdom, but a little above, were Venezia Giulia, Lazio, Tuscany, a little below Veneto (with Venice Tridentina) and Emilia; all the other compartments came a long way back.
Food industries. – The three main food industries, the wine, the dairy, and the sugar refinery, are located near the production centers. The former has not so far reached the level of progress it has achieved elsewhere, especially as regards the preparation of constant types of fine wines intended for export. In this regard, alongside some wines from Tuscany (Chianti) and Piedmont, special types are important, such as marsala, sparkling wines (Asti, Conegliano), vermouth, etc. However, exports have contracted in recent years, also due to the prohibition regime introduced in the United States and elsewhere. The dairy has as its center the Po Valley, from which both butter and well-known types of cheeses come, in such quantities as to supply not only the rest of Italy, but also other European countries. However, Lazio, Campania, Sardinia and Sicily should also be mentioned for cheese, which pack types with sheep’s (and even buffalo’s) milk. The total production of the cheese exceeds 2 million quintals per year. The breeding of pigs, which also thrives, as we have seen, in the Po-Veneto plain, but also in central Italy, etc., feeds the flourishing industry of cured meats. We have already talked about the sugar factory previously.
Other food industries are located at the major centers of consumption or at the ports, such as the pasta factory (Naples and surroundings, Rome, Genoa), the industry of food preserves, jams, chocolate. Also worth mentioning are the beer industry, which has almost entirely freed Italy from foreign imports, but which nevertheless cannot have a great diffusion in a country so richly endowed with wines; the preparation of alcohol and spirits (800,000 hl. per year), the preparation of carbonated waters, that of liqueurs, which has reached a remarkable perfection, etc.
Metal industries. – They are linked to the need to import the greatest part of the raw material and therefore have not developed in Italy comparable to that of other countries, whose subsoil is richer in metal minerals. The major iron and steel centers are located either at the places of iron production (Elba, Piombino; Cogne in Val d’Aosta), or near the ports and centers of mechanical industries (Savona, Voltri, Sestri, etc. in Liguria ; Trieste, Bagnoli near Naples), or near large hydroelectric power sources (Terni). The production of cast iron and steel, brought to great development during the world war, later declined; but in 1922 it had a lively recovery, then considerably surpassing the production of the war period itself. In fact, in 1929 over 670,000 tons of cast iron were produced (pre-war average 370,000; war years 465-470,000) and over 2¼ million iron and steel (pre-war average 970,000; war years 1,300,000). Since 1930, production has been decreasing. The production of copper, zinc, etc is of very little importance; aluminum is on the rise (8763 tons in 1930), which today is extracted not only from bauxite but also from leucite, much more abundant in Italy, with a national process (Blanc process).
Among the mechanical industries, only those of vehicles of every category have a truly significant importance: first of all ships, as is obvious in a country in which the seafaring activity is so ancient and developed (large shipyards in Liguria, Livorno, Naples , Palermo, etc.); then the railway material (locomotives, wagons, boilers, rails), bicycles and motorcycles, cars and trucks, a recent industry that has taken on great development in Turin and Milan, and finally airplanes. The progress of these more recent branches of the mechanical industry has enabled Italy to compete with other European countries in conquering foreign markets.
Another highly developed branch of the mechanical industry is that of war materials: armor, cannons, rifles, projectiles (Terni, Turin, Sampierdarena). Among the less developed branches we can mention the manufacture of agricultural machinery, precision instruments, cutlery, the manufacture of printing characters; for all these and other branches, Italy is still bound to imports from abroad (especially for machines of all kinds and precision instruments).
Chemical industries . – Another branch of industries of recent diffusion in Italy, and in ever growing development, is the one that is generically designated with the name of chemical industries.
They are located mainly or in the vicinity of large power plants, which supply energy, or in the vicinity of major consumption centers. The products are very varied and find the most diverse uses. Taking into account the entity of the manufactured product, the manufacture of sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrochloric and citric acid, that of calcium carbide, tannic extracts, superphosphates, superphosphates and other fertilizers are in first place chemicals, caustic soda, coloring substances (both mineral and vegetable), pharmaceutical products; then the manufacture of matches, candles, soaps, etc.
Other industries . – A very recent industry is that of rubber, which processes imported raw materials (mostly from Ceylon, Indochina, the Sunda Islands) and transforms it into the most varied items (coatings for electrical conduits and cables; tires, etc.) in part also exported. The major centers are in Milan and Turin.
An ancient and flourishing industry is that of paper; the major plants (385 in all) are located in the provinces of Novara (Varallo, Borgosesia, Serravalle and Romagnano), Varese, Vicenza (Arsiero), Ancona (Fabriano), Rome (Tivoli) and Frosinone (Ceprano, Isola del Liri); the raw material (wood pulp and cellulose) is almost all imported; production approaches 3.5 million quintals per year.
The cement, hydraulic lime and brick industry is very scattered in Italy, with prevalent centralization in the vicinity of large urban centers. The purely national porcelain industry is instead concentrated in two large factories (Doccia near Florence and S. Cristoforo near Milan), while that of majolica and ceramics, very old, is very scattered; it requires skilled labor, equipped with a sense of art, and it still remains in some smaller centers, rich in glorious traditions, in the state of craftsmanship or small industry (Faenza, Pesaro, Deruta, Gubbio and other places of ‘Umbria; Castles in the Teramo area; Caltagirone in Sicily, etc.); few large recent establishments (Laveno).
The glass industry is underdeveloped, but it is spreading; only some special branches (for example the blown glass in Murano and today in some small Tuscan towns, etc.) have a wide reputation. But for many categories of fine products, Italy is still a customer from abroad (Bohemia, France, Belgium).
Among the minor industries, the furniture industry is very flourishing and widespread; large factories are mainly in Lombardy (Milan, Monza, Varese, Cantù, Brianza); but the small, very active factories are scattered all over the place. Finally, there are the leather and derivatives industries, fed largely by national products (glove factory, shoe factory), the polygraphic industries (Turin, Milan, Rome, etc.), the processing of buttons (Oglio valley) fed in part from products from the Colonies (dum palm kernels), etc.