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From candle to light bulb

by Amedeo Massetti and Mario Tosti














By the light of a flame

In the nineteenth century, going around at night in Fratta was not at all easy, especially when there was no moon. Our ancestors took care to establish the rules in the Statute of Fratta.

"We establish and order that no person should go to the castle at night from after the third sign of the bell rang by the town crier, to one hour after sunset for the time in which a miserere is recited, under penalty of 10 soldi per each person and each time.

Those who bring lights or embers lit in the vicinity of the house or shop are excluded from the penalty; or doctors or others who brought medicines for the sick or who went to look for the midwife; or even the bakers or whoever brought or brought back the bread from the oven; or for other legitimate causes approved by the podestà.

Anyone found by the podestà or by the secret guards with the light or the ember that has gone out against their will, by the wind or other accident, is also excluded from the penalty, provided they are under oath. "

Since it was not very convenient for everyone to take their torch for a walk, after a few centuries it was agreed to install fixed night lamps in the most popular places in the historic center of Fratta.

Only four or five oil lamps illuminated the darkness of the alleys in the early nineteenth century, as scrupulous and attentive guardians who watched the intimacy of the family and covered the profiles of the houses with soft and suffused light. But they too quickly went out and the faint lights of the few icons, embedded in the walls, which the piety of the faithful lit up every now and then, remained on.

In the year 1845, the Frattisan nights were lit by only seven oil lamps. One of them, that of the Piazza dell'Orologio, was larger than the others, with a "more modern" crystal tube; it made more light and consumed more oil. According to the lighting man, it required more work than all the others put together ... The halo of faint light cast by the flames should have created a serene and romantic atmosphere. The maintenance work was less romantic, since the Contractor had to "prepare the street lamps, turn them on and dim them by climbing them by means of a ladder which, being contrary to sound police laws, was a burden to the Contractor himself ... All for 62 scudi a year. "

















At the end of the century there were 28 street lamps, but the town had also grown and the brightness remained very dim. They remained lit all night only on days of celebration or danger; at the first light of dawn, the man in charge of the street lamps made the rounds to turn them off in order to save the oil, which was at his expense.

The arrival of electricity

With Perugia, Sansepolcro and Città di Castello rejoicing in the light of the bulbs for some years, Umbertide could not afford to remain in the dark. We began to talk about this need in 1912: the soul of the initiative was Francesco Andreani , a lawyer of great value, elected mayor of Umbertide after the elections of 30 January 1910, which determined an epochal turning point in the Municipality.















A preliminary study had been made, probably inspired by the 39 oil lamps currently in existence: perhaps due to the concern about the costs of the new light source, an attempt was made not to take a step longer than the leg, assuming the installation of 35 lamps. .

Walking along the way, the appetite increased: the originally planned lamps increased to triple, as shown by the session of the City Council of 24 July 1912, which represented the first formal act towards the goal of electric lighting. Therefore the entire fee charged to the Municipality swelled to £ 4,000, considered by the administrators to be not too burdensome, compared to the great benefits for the country.




















After three years of ups and downs, on 21 December 1915, with the First World War in progress, the Società Anonima Elettricità Umbra brought electricity to Umbertide. The price of electricity for private individuals was that charged in the city of Perugia by the Concessionaire itself: 60 cents per kWh, when the average hourly earnings of a worker was 25 cents. In the end, 104 light points were called to illuminate the nights of our grandparents and great-grandparents.

If, at first, the new form of energy was greeted with amazement and excitement, the shortcomings of the revolutionary service soon cooled the enthusiasm, which turned everywhere into lively protests from the public and the irony of the press. Even the people of Umbria unleashed strong complaints, so that on 9 August 1916 the mayor was forced to take a pen and paper to beat his fists on the manager's table, with almost poetic tones: "It has been noted, and the public expresses complaints, that some time the switching on of the public lighting is carried out in the evening when darkness is advanced and it is switched off before the light of dawn is manifested. Although the expression of the contract regarding the switch-on and switch-off times is a bit vague, please, however, SV Ill. to arrange that this expression is not interpreted in a strictly unilateral way by the employees of the Company but with a criterion of fair breadth. Trusting, thank you and respect. ".

The Company, after a week, replied hastily that the hours were the same for all the other municipalities, including that of Perugia, and that no one had complained. However, he left a crack open, proposing a meeting with the Director. And the Mayor had to take the bait, to no avail.

















Electricity in every home

In 1931 the Società Anonima Elettricità Umbra was absorbed by UNES, which took over the service in Umbertide, with the cabin operator Armando Settembre, helped by Romeo Guasticchi and Mariano Manuali.

With the growing possibilities offered by electricity, the City developed the capabilities to build and operate new plants. In this task the engineer Egino Villarini played a fundamental role. In fact, for having been part, as secretary, of the National Liberation Committee, he was well known and appreciated in the Municipality; therefore it was natural that in the first years of the postwar period his collaboration was requested and obtained. The opportunity arose when the then manager of the maintenance sector, Mario Tacconi, asked him to examine some estimates for the modernization of the public lighting systems in Via Roma and Via Garibaldi. It was immediately evident how exaggerated the prices were; therefore it would have been much more advantageous to carry out the work economically, with the means and staff of the institution, avoiding tenders.











Since then a collaboration relationship was born that would last until the end of the century and beyond. The engineer, having made the calculations, took care of the procurement of materials, obtaining favorable prices thanks to the contacts he already had with suppliers. But to make the connections, a collaborator was needed to take care of the manual work. The choice fell on Giuseppe Tarragoni, a former tailor, then employed in the Municipality of Umbertide as a roadster. From that moment the couple became inseparable. Arranged via Roma and via Garibaldi, via Cibo, via Soli, piazza Marconi, part of the historic center and more were also modernized. Giuseppe learned quickly and well, coming to be hired as an electrician.

Electricity accelerated the transition from the old to the new: the symbol of the transition can be well represented by the electric pumps that the engineer Villarini mounted on the treks of a landowner, together with the wooden cabins for the electrical panels, so as to be able to make the shuttles from one point of the Tiber to the other to irrigate the fields.

The collaboration of engineer Villarini with the Municipality, which lasted more than thirty years, ended with the lifting of the waters in Monte Acuto. Reached the maximum peak, the time has come for a well-deserved rest.

CAINO, the ferryman from oil lamps to electric lights

Giuseppe Bettoni, known as Caino , was a knife grinder. To round off he had accepted the task of the Municipality to turn the street lamps on and off. In order to carry out his function, early in the morning Cain wandered through the streets and, either because of that mocking spirit that animated him, or because he did not feel completely alone, he loved to call his acquaintances who lived in the streets where he passed. So he shouted: "Gigia! Stay in bed that nengue!" or "People, alzative 'ché there' l sole" , even if it was not true. In short, he was a precursor of the meteorological service, but with surprise.
















With the arrival of electricity, the role of dispenser of light by means of a lever, allowed him to gain undying notoriety in the village. In fact, when the light went out, at the same time everyone's thoughts went to him, the only one able to do the miracle: fiat lux! A few minutes of darkness were enough for the common plea to be intoned inside every house: "Cain, the light will burn!" . And if the time was prolonged, the comments spread from window to window: “What is Cain doing tonight! He is sleeping?" , "It is up to you to see, that if he plays with Martina (his wife)!" .

The frequent miracle of the defeated darkness, thanks to his intervention on the main switch placed on the external wall of the Town Hall in Via Grilli, had made him deserve a popular refrain that imagined him wandering among the stars of the firmament competing with his street lamps to lighten the night: “I see the moon / I see the stars / I see Cain / making pancakes” .


Raffaele Bracalenti, known only as ' l Cucco , was built between the forge and the anvil in the dark cave of the municipal workshop in Via Soli. Particularly devoted to autarchy, perhaps due to unconscious plagiarism suffered during the dictatorship, he had even built, refusing to buy it in the shop, an umbrella with a metal hat shaped like a hammer and fixed at the top to a water pipe from three quarters of an inch. And woe to anyone who thought it uncomfortable!

But what does a blacksmith have to do with electricity? The truth is that Cucco had a particular passion for light bulbs, especially for burned out ones, which he considered a precious brass mine, at zero kilometers. To exploit it, he had set up a rigorous procedure, based on a brass pact with the maintenance worker: do not throw away the broken bulbs, but return them to the workshop, an essential condition for having as many new ones in exchange. It is not known what happened to the glass; but inevitably each butt of the old lamps ended up in a basket which, having reached the optimal batch for casting, was emptied into the crucible above the forge. The molten mass was poured into a plaster mold in order to cool in the form of a tube, from which Raffaele, after a day's work, produced a tap for the water of the public fountains. Two birds with one stone: cremator of light bulbs and manufacturer of taps!













The collection of bills could not fail to be entrusted to Gino Sonaglia, known as Zumbola , who had all the ideal requirements. In fact, with his resume as a collector of rabbit and lamb skins, he knew all the heads of families in the suburbs and in the countryside; with the people of the capital, being a friend of everyone, he knew their stories and residences; moreover, there was no dance party missing, a precious opportunity to get to know the youth. In 1953, UNES jumped at his candidacy as the ideal public relation. To the knowledge of the clientele and the ability to take it by the side of the hair, he added the natural gift of a smiling gaze, reinforced by an intriguing mustache: avant-garde of a jovial and expansive character that captured friendship. Zumbola was the best way to lightly face the thankless task of asking for money for something you don't eat, like light, even from those who didn't have a penny. Gino returned the trust with the utmost commitment. The collection procedure began in the family, where his wife Elvira and their children Luciana and Zumbolino jr fanned the bills on the kitchen table, to group them in order of street, hamlet, country words. With the bag on his shoulder, Gino tackled the tour, every month for companies, every two for families. To take the debtors with caution, preparing them for bloodletting, he did not ring the bell or the knocker of the door, but announced himself from a distance with his powerful voice, interspersed with whistles that broke the eardrums, singing their name with cheerful metrics.




From the "Calendar of Umbertide 2015"

Ed. Municipality of Umbertide - 2015

Concept and editorial project: Adriano Bottaccioli

Texts: Adriano Bottaccioli , Mario Tosti ,

Amedeo Massetti , Fabio Mariotti.

The texts on this page are excerpts from the book:

"From the candle to the light bulb" by Amedeo Massetti and Mario Tosti,

Local Publishing Group - Digital Editor srl - Umbertide (Pg),

also containing ideas taken from the book "Umbertide in the nineteenth century"

by Renato Codovini and Roberto Sciurpa - Gesp Editrice, Città di Castello, 2001.

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