Dictionary of London Immigrants |||

Italian Immigrants

Londinium was established in the summer of 43 AD, shortly after the invasion by Emperor Claudius. In 60/1 AD the so-called Battle of Watling Street took place between an alliance of indigenous Brythonic tribes and the victorious Romans. It secured Roman rule in Britain until 410. In its glory days, Roman London may have numbered some 25,000 inhabitants. With the departure of the Romans, London’s civilisation crumbled. The city recovered after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

The early stranger communities in London consisted of individual members of a multi-national merchant class. In 1303, Edward I signed the Carta Mercatoria, an agreement in which rights were granted to foreign merchants in return for dues and levies. Under its terms overseas traders were free to come and go, import and export. When the King granted a plot of land to goldsmiths from Lombardy, they created a financial empire with Lombard Street as its centre. Economically and socially self-contained, these merchant-bankers were moneylenders to the Crown. Commercial terms such as debtor, creditor, or bankrupt, were derived from the Italian. The first settlers were members of the Corsini family, a Florentine dynasty that made its fortune in the fourteenth century. Bankers Filippo and Bartolomeo Corsini accumulated enormous wealth - so much so, that Italians in the capital were referred to as Caursinis’. Subsequent Italian bankers in London were moneylenders to the Crown, but profit-making had its pitfalls. Four great companies would eventually be ruined by their dealings with English kings. The house of Riccardi of Lucca under Edward I, the Frescobaldi of Florence under Edward II, and the Bardi and Peruzzi under Edward III, all suffered the same fate of non-payment and commercial ruin. Financial pre-eminence was challenged by merchants from Northern Germany and the Low Countries once the Hanseatic trade organisation became increasingly powerful, but Lombard Street retained its position at the heart of London’s financial centre.

In the fifteenth century there was a select community of Italians living in London consisting of artists, merchants, and bankers. The Italian presence had a major impact on the development of English Humanism. Polydore Vergil [Polidoro Virgili], a graduate from the University of Padua and author of the bestseller’ De inventoribus rerum (1499), arrived in London in 1502 in the service of Pope Alexander VI. He counted Thomas More, Thomas Linacre, and William Latimer among his friends. Vergil is best known for his Anglica historia. Encouraged by Henry VII, he started research into English history soon after his arrival. A first manuscript version of his study (running to 1509) was completed in 1512/3 and first published at Basel in 1534 by Johann Bebel. This was followed by an enlarged second and third edition (1546, 1555) which ran to 1538. He left England in 1553 and died in his hometown of Urbino in April 1555.

In the aftermath of the Reformation many Italian Protestants found London to be a safe haven.

The first of the capital’s Stranger Churches (independent houses of worship) was led by Siena-born Bernardino Ochino in 1547 and served the Italian community. Fellow Tuscan Michelangelo Florio had converted to the reform movement in 1541. Seven years later he was arrested and detained in Rome. He escaped in May 1550, reaching England in November. Under the protection of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Florio was accepted into the ministry of the Stranger Church. He taught Italian to Lady Jane Grey and wrote her biography in 1561. His son John Florio was born in London in 1553. He continued in his father’s footsteps and became an outstanding linguist at the court of James I referring to himself as an Englishman in Italiane’.

The post of Latin Secretary to the King was established under Henry VII. Since Latin was the language of European diplomatic and scholarly discourse, the Tudors had to adept. Initially, linguistic competence was rare in England and the first persons to be appointed to that position were attracted from the Continent. It was the secretary’s job to handle official correspondence; to assist in the writing of (Latin) speeches; and to promote a culture of learning and writing. The first occupant of this position was the poet Pietro Carmeliano [Petrus Carmelianus, Peter Carmelian] who had moved from Rome to London in 1481. He remained there for most of his life. He was one of the King’s chaplains at Richmond Palace and acted as his secretary. Henry VIII replaced him in 1511 with Lucca-born Andrea Ammonio who held the post until his sudden death in 1517.

During the sixteenth century a number of Italian physicians who had been educated at Bologna or Padua were at work in London. Bologna’s School of Medicine dates from 1219 and was given prominence by Taddeo Alderotti who wrote the first medical study in Italian. Padua was also a centre of excellence. The oldest anatomical theatre was built here in 1594. Large numbers of English students were drawn to the city, including Thomas Linacre (founder of the Royal College of Physicians); John Caius (founder of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge); and William Harvey (prominent physician at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London). Italian physicians were invited into Royal service. Balthasar Guersie served as surgeon to Queen Catherine of Aragon around 1515 and he also acted in that capacity to Henry VIII. Having graduated at the University of Padua, Cesare Adelmare [Caesar Dadelmare] moved to England in 1550 where he attended upon Queen Mary and later upon Queen Elizabeth. Corresponding with William Cecil in 1563, Adelmare addressed him as his dominus and patronus’. Giulio Borgarucci [Dr Julio] was a Protestant refugee from Urbino and a member of the Italian Church in London. Living in Wood Street, he was involved in treating victims of the plague epidemic. He was made physician to the Royal household for life in September 1573.

Italian architects and artists were in demand in sixteenth century England. Nonsuch Palace, just south of London, was built by Henry VIII in 1538. Many artists from the Continent were involved in the project, including Bartolommeo Penni who moved from Florence to London around 1519 in company of fellow artist Antonio di Nunziato, known as Anthony Toto. They spent most of their time working on the palace, designing elaborate stucco work. Henry VIII was also actively involved in recruiting musicians to the court. Ambrosio Lupo was born into an exiled Spanish family of Sephardi Jews who had settled in Milan and Venice. In 1539/40, he was one of six string players (known as the Venetian Brethern’) recruited by the king. Ambrosio served in the court string consort until his death. His sons Pietro and Josepho also joined the group. Until the end of Henry VIIIs reign the viol consort was the province of foreign, mostly Jewish, musicians (in spite of the 1290 Edict that had banned Jews from the country). The five Bassano brothers may have been Jewish as well. The family stemmed from Bassano Del Grappa, near Venice. All of them musicians and instrument makers, they settled in London in 1539. The brothers made up a consort of five recorders, being joined in 1550 by Augustine Bassano to form a six-member group, the only such permanent grouping known before the twentieth century. In 1552 they set up a shop in Mark Lane, near the Tower of London. Their instruments (recorders, cornetts, crumhorns, curtals, flutes, lutes, and viols) were in demand both in England and on the Continent.

Eighteenth century London was a miniature Europe’, a cosmopolitan hot pot of different cultures and styles. The early appeal of Italian artists and musicians was maintained throughout the Hanoverian period. The artistic domain was overrun by performers. Italian musicians, sopranos, and castrati appeared everywhere. The world of music was torn apart by politics, rivalries, and factionalism. During a performance of Giovanni Bononcini’s opera Astianatte at the King’s Theatre on 6 June 1727, a riot broke out between followers of Faustina Bordoni and those of her rival Francesca Cuzzoni. The battle’ of the prima donnas was widely reported. The contention between Bononcini (backed by the Tories) and Handel (supported by the Whig party) was recorded in an epigram by John Byrom in which the phrase Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee’ made its first appearance in print. In 1733 a group of aristocrats led by Frederick, Prince of Wales, set up the Opera of the Nobility in order to rival the (Second) Royal Academy of Music under Handel which was assisted by George II. It was not just in the theatre and concert hall that Italian performers were a dominant force. In art and architecture the prevalent taste was (Venetian) Italian as well. A procession of architects, painters, sculptors, decorators, marble masters, plaster workers, stuccoists, bronze founders, carvers, and gilders moved to England. Never before had a Protestant nation succumbed so completely to the impact of a Catholic culture, although voices of protest were raised.

In March 1709, a competition was announced to decorate the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. A coveted commission, it attracted such talents as James Thornhill, Antonio Pellegrini, Pierre Berchet, Louis Chéron, and Giovanni Battista Catenaro. By 1710 the field was narrowed to two candidates, Thornhill and Pellegrini, each being required to execute their designs on a model of the cupola. In June 1715 the former was awarded the commission. Patriotism played a part in the decision. Archbishop Thomas Tenison’s alleged insistence that the painter to be employed must be an English Protestant has not been recorded, but it echoes a growing patriotic sentiment. Irritation with the dominant presence of foreign artists became more widely expressed in the 1730s. Venetian painter Jacopo Amigoni had arrived in London in 1729. As an architectural decorator he joined forces with Gaetano Brunetti working on Lord Tankerville’s house in St James’s Square in early 1730 and on the Duke of Chandos’s residence at Cavendish Square, Marylebone, in 1735. His work was fashionable in aristocratic London, but the taste for Venetian Rococo painting had started to decline by that time. It raised nationalistic hackles (by William Hogarth and others), leading to a movement in favour of a more robust English style in art and architecture.

From the 1740s onwards an increasing number of Italian Jews settled in London and some of them made remarkable careers. A strong impulse had been given to Anglo-Italian trade through the establishment in London of a branch of the great Venetian and Levantine banking house of Treves. Italian merchants were flocking into London. Ferrara-born merchant Benjamin D’Israeli moved to England in 1748. At first he was employed in the counting-house of Joseph and Pellegrin Treves in Fenchurch Street. Soon after, he set himself up as a trader specialising in the import of Leghorn hats, as well as Carrara marbles, alum, currants, and other merchandise. In 1769 the business had become one of London’s leading coral merchants (a trade dominated by Jews). His grandson Benjamin Disraeli was elected Prime Minister in 1868. It had taken only two generations for an immigrant to rise to that position.

Early Italian immigration into London had been of a select professional nature. Talented entrepreneurs, skilled physicians, sophisticated artists and musicians were invited to participate in high society life. Continuous conflict in Europe would fundamentally change this pattern of migration. Between 1796 and 1815 the Italian peninsula was under French rule. The turmoil during that period left Northern Italy devastated, its agriculture destroyed, its industry in tatters, its cities collapsing. Venice’s proud independence was finished. In February 1789, Paolo Renier was succeeded by Lodovico Manin as Doge of Venice, the last person to hold this office. A weak figure in a time of decline, the latter was forced to abdicate by Napoleon. The presence of the French lasted but a few months. In the short time available, Napoleon - the Godfather of Art Robbery - confiscated many of the city’s art treasures. By disassembling her remaining naval fleet, he left the city in a defenseless position. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna decreed Venice to Austrian control where she would remain until unification. In 1867 Mark Twain wrote about a city that had fallen into destitution. Her glory departed, she slumbered among stagnant lagoons, forgotten by the world. Venice’s former reputation had dissolved.

After Napoleon’s defeat, the victorious Great Powers (Russia, Britain, Austria, and Prussia) called for the Congress of Vienna to deal with territorial issues, including the reorganisation of Italy. Under Napoleonic rule there had been tendencies towards a unification. The Vienna Congress reinforced the traditional split of the land into the Kingdom of Sardinia; the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; the Papal States; and Tuscany. Lombardy and Venice were brought under Austrian rule. Peace may have been restored, but the agreement left an economic wasteland. From the 1820s onwards people started to leave en masse. Chain migration meant that workers from certain particular locations did not travel as individuals, but in groups. Up until the 1870s the chain was formed by instrument makers from the valleys around Como; hat makers from Leghorn (Livorno); plaster cast makers from Lucca; restaurateurs, ice cream makers, and waiters from Ticino; glass makers from Murano; artists’ models from the Abruzzo; street musicians from Naples and the South. When unification was achieved, it did not solve the country’s economic problems. Emigration remained high in the following decades, owing to various crises in agriculture and the inability of industry to generate enough jobs. Improved means of transport in Italy itself (the railway network) meant that emigration lost its earlier regional character.

Although economic conditions dominated early migration, there were political factors as well. The decisions made at the Vienna Congress caused an intense discontent in certain circles which gave rise to the Risorgimento. Unsuccessful revolts in the 1820s by the secretive Carbonari movement were followed by similar risings of Mazzini’s Giovane Italia movement a decade later, which in turn provided ammunition for the Revolution of 1848. The suppression of these nationalist movements forced many participants into exile. A prominent Carbonari-exile in London was Antonio [Anthony] Panizzi. Having fled via Geneva to the capital in May 1823, he was appointed Professor of Italian with the foundation of the University of London in 1828. He later joined the British Museum’s famous library (now: British Library) where he remains a revered figure. Early political refugees in London were well received. Socialite Sarah Austin hosted a literary salon from her home at Queen’s Square, Westminster. Having befriended the insurgent Count of Santarosa, her house became a meeting place for Italian exiles. Central to the cohesion of the group was Pietro Rolandi’s bookshop in Berners Street, Fitzrovia. His re-issue of Silvio Pellico’s Le mie prigioni fired British sympathy for the cause and was paradigmatic in the construction of an image of Austrian repression and cruelty. When Mazzini opened the first Italian school in Britain in November 1841, he was backed by British friends (including Charles Dickens).

Under the leadership of Camillo Banso, Conte di Cavour, and in alliance with Napoleon III, Italy made a formidable step forward towards unification in the north. Garibaldi and his Red Shirts seized the southern part of the peninsular in 1860. Having turned over his conquests to Victor Emmanuel, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in 1861. Subsequent political problems came from within the newly born nation. On 17 November 1878 Giovanni Passanante made a failed attempt to kill King Umberto I which led to a ferocious repression of anarchist and left-wing movements. The policies of ammonizione (restriction of movement) and domicilio coatto (internal exile) were imposed by the government of Francesco Crispi (the Mussolini of his time’). Arrests were made indiscriminately and victims had no legal right to defend themselves. Those under suspicion fled abroad, to Switzerland in particular. Fear of anarchism throughout Europe led to a general tightening of the laws on political asylum. By 1894 anarchists were expelled from Switzerland, France, and other nations. London was the only safe haven to those who were persecuted. Under pressure from press and public opinion, British political attitudes were changing as well. It would eventually lead to the 1905 Alien Act which ended the liberal policy towards asylum seekers.

Between 1900 and 1914 mass migration from Italy, particularly from the rural south, continued unabated (in 1913 alone close to a million people left the country). The war only put a temporary stop to migration. The flow resumed after hostilities ended. In 1920 over 600,000 Italians left home, half of them sailing to the USA. London remained a magnet for migrants as well. The figures are extraordinary. A 1927 government study estimated that over nine million Italians were living overseas. From a contemporary point of view, immigration during the 1920s acquired a familiar pattern. In London, the first delis were established. Gazzano’s Delicatessen in Farringdon Road was founded in 1921 by Alfonso Mariani who had arrived in London from Minori on the Amalfi coast. The firm was taken over by his son-in-law Giuseppe Gazzano and survives to this day as a model Italian deli. In 1929 the brothers Ennio and Isidoro Camisa opened their business Fratelli Camissa in Old Compton Street, Soho, specialising in the manufacture of fresh pasta and ravioli.

During the 1920s a number of designers and film makers settled in London. Giovanni Leonardi founded his firm in Elthorne Road, Holloway, where he produced a range of Art Deco plaster figures, animal bookends, lamps, and wall masks. Biba during the 1970s reproduced some of the Leonardi lamps. Film producer Mario Zampi came to London in 1923. In 1937, he and compatriot Filippo Del Giudice (a refugee from Fascism) founded Two Cities Films, originally envisaged as a production company operating from London and Rome. The company’s first film was French without Tears (1939). A string of popular films would follow. Giuseppe [Joseph] Janni was born into a cosmopolitan Jewish family. Finishing his engineering studies in Milan in 1939, he was not granted a degree because he was of the Jewish race’. He left for London. In 1948 Janni set up his own production company Vic Films at Franklin’s Row, Chelsea. His first film A Glass Mountain (1949) was a box-office success. His talent as a producer was most clearly expressed in Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971).

At the beginning of World War II the Italian community in London was well-established and integrated. When Mussolini decided to side with Hitler’s Germany, Churchill ordered to collar the lot’. An explosion of anti-Italian feeling grasped the nation. Over 4,000 men were arrested and interned in camps across the country. Of those only seven hundred were accused of having Fascist sympathies. The tragic effect of this indiscrimate government action is shown in the fate of the family of the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. His parents had moved from Viticuso in the province of Frosinone to Edinburgh in the early 1920s. In 1925 Paolozzi’s father rented a confectionery shop at no. 10 Albert Street and the family moved into the flat above it. In June 1940 the shop was looted by an angry mob. His father and grandfather were arrested under the emergency powers of the Enemy Aliens Act. Both men drowned with eight hundred other Italians and Germans when the Arandora Star, transporting them to an internment camp in Canada, was sunk by a German U-boat.

Between 1945 and 1948, a renewed Italy emerged from the disasters of Fascism and war. In June 1946 a popular election abolished the monarchy in favour of a republic and a new constitution was adopted the next year. The Christian Democrats, the Communists, and the Socialists became the leading political parties in the country. The largest of these parties, the Christian Democrats dominated the government after 1948. With massive American aid, (Northern) Italy underwent an economic recovery that saw rapid industrial expansion, but the situation was different in the South where poverty remained rampant. Soon after the war, British politicians recognised that the reconstruction of the economy required a large influx of immigrant labour. The Royal Commission on Population reported in 1949 that immigrants of good stock’ would be welcomed without reserve’. The appeal for workers was aimed primarily at white (non-Jewish) Europeans. Migration to Britain (particularly from the South) started again. Workers were recruited for specific purposes. During that period the London Brick Company actively encouraged labourers from the regions of Puglia and Campania to settle in Bedford or Peterborough.

Italy in the meantime joined the international family of nations (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in 1949, the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, and the European Common Market in 1958). The 1960s were marked by continued prosperity. Immigration tapered off and practically stopped in the 1970s. Those who did arrive - designers, restaurateurs, pizza bakers, and coffee shop owners - helped London becoming a hothouse of fashion. When, in 1959, Mario Cassandro and Franco Lagattolla opened La Trattoria Terrazza (known as the Trat’) on Romilly Street, Soho, their success owed as much to its design by Enzo Apicella as to its gastronomic quality. Its Positano Room created a sensation. The restaurant became a haunt of artists, writers, models, film directors, actors, and photographers. Apicella co-created London’s Swinging Sixties.