Looking Back at the History of Italian War Industry

Simone D'Angelo delves into the history of Colleferro, a small town outside of Rome once home to explosives factories during the two World Wars.

© Simone D'Angelo, from the series Santabarbara

During 1913, Italy was needing to build an explosives factory away from the borders shared with its neighbouring country, Austria. Two local Italian engineers chose to convert an abandoned sugar factory in the south of Rome as the perfect location. During the Second World War, the city was bombarded by the allies, and so the workers, police station, and local parish moved into the “shelters” - 6km long and 40 metre deep tunnels built under the town. 

After more than a hundred years, the area continues to host weapon factories and spaces dedicated to aerospace research. In his series, Santabarbara, Italian photographer, Simone D'Angelo, embarks on a photographic exploration, hoping to draw and cross the boundaries of a story embedded within Italy's war history.

What drew you to the topic of war in Italy and can you elaborate on the title?

Pure curiosity, and chance. Santabarbara started as a spin-off of I Must Have Been Blind, a previous personal project about my birthplace. I was so determined to go into depth on two barely discussed topics: the arms industry and the so-called company towns - places like Colleferro, born as settlements around industrial centres.

Santa Barbara is the patron saint of Colleferro. In Christian tradition, she, Santa Barbara, is invoked against sudden death by fire, lightning and explosions. For this reason, Santa Barbara has become the patron of firefighters, the bomb squad, and the military genius. Santabarbara, written as a single word, is also the name that was given once to storehouses for ammunition.

© Simone D'Angelo, from the series Santabarbara

When I look at your images I find myself questioning whether you are trying to tell us a contemporary issue through a historical fact. What are your thoughts on that?

I think history has a cyclical course - a past event can reveal something to us that concerns the present. What would we say about the arms industry that's not yet been said by the media? What I'm interested in the most is the effect this market is having on in its own geographical production area, sharpening the differences between the past and the present situation. During the two World Wars, both production and application were more practically related. For instance, one's mother could work in the explosives factory, while her son was risking his life on the battlefront. Today, that industry is still alive, but it is farther away from people’s daily life.

How are you getting access to the archival materials? What kind of objects are you specifically focusing on? Can you talk about the objects you have already photographed?

I'm talking to the archivists and witnesses of past events in this town - I researched at the local library and on the web. In here, I have found some interesting items at low cost such as old newspapers with B.P.D. company advertising and a gunpowder tin from the 1940's, which I photographed. Regarding the items, I'm looking for anything that could work as a proof, or anything that could evoke the fact that so many aspects of that story are involved.

 © Simone D'Angelo, from the series Santabarbara

How did you find out about the 6km shelter built under the city? How deep is it? What has it been like to photograph here?

I heard about the shelters because, in recent years, they have been opened to the public during the celebrations for Santa Barbara, but I didn’t know their extent, nor could I have imagined the relevance they had in people’s daily life during the war. The municipal offices, the police station, the emergency room and the parish were all shifted underground. The tunnels go up to 40 meters deep and the walls were coated with tar paper against the high humidity. Eight people were born in those shelters. In fact, I know they are still alive and I’d like to talk to them.

I know the work is in progress, but could you tell us what are some of your future plans with this project?

There is still so much to explore and I'm trying to figure out the right path to follow to come to an end. As for the content, I'll keep on looking for aspects that lie under the surface, probably involving noteworthy private stories in the immediate future. For what concerns the form, I'm a graphic designer, so I'd love to mix design and photography languages in a consistent body of work for a book.

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To learn more about Santabarbara, visit Simone's PHmuseum profile.

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Simone D'Angelo, born in Anagni, Italy, was Commended at the Sony World Photography Awards (2013) for his project, 'I Must Have been Blind', and he has also been awarded Best Project Leica Talent (2014); as well as an IPA Honorable Mention - Category Deeper Perspective (2015). He has exhibited at Fotoleggendo, Rome, and Tangram Festival, Fermo (2015). He currently lives and works in Rome.

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