Parma, 4 March 1880 – Salsomaggiore Terme, 9 July 1947
Riccardo Barilla was born in 1880, the third of six siblings, son of Pietro and Giovanna Adorni. He attended the primary school until the fourth grade and subsequently he began to help his father who owned a modest shop with a small adjacent bake house for the handmade production and for the sale of bread and pasta in the city centre, in Via Vittorio Emanuele. For many years, the limited extent of the production forced the family to move with extreme caution.
A first attempt at expanding the business with the acquisition of a second workshop, in 1892, had to be abandoned fairly quickly. Moreover, in that period Pietro Barilla was only able to continue trading thanks to the credit given to him by his suppliers. Despite all these initial difficulties, and relying on the fact that most of the family helped with running the bake-house and the shop, the situation gradually improved. The millers began to offer their flour with extended payment terms, thus allowing the Barilla family to make some small investments. The processing of pasta, initially carried out by hand by Pietro and Riccardo Barilla, was made quicker and more efficient with the adoption of a wooden press that allowed for a daily production of about thirty kilos. After some time this machine, which when all is said and done was still of an artisan nature, was replaced with a more modern cast iron press with a kneading machine, a tool to firm up the pasta. In this way the levels of production suddenly increased: at first to a hundred kilos a day and then, with the redoubling of these machines and with the help of five or six workers, to 2.5 tons of pasta. In the early years of the 20th century Riccardo’s brother Gualtiero returned to assist the family.
Up until then he had been studying at a seminary, ready to set off to China as a missionary. As a result, the two brothers practiced a sort of family division of labor: whilst Riccardo supervised production at close hand, Gualtiero was in charge of selling the products, also making some initial forays into the province of Parma and subsequently outside that area as well. The transition to a more properly industrial dimension took place around 1910, when the Barilla brothers rented a building (which would subsequently became their own property) situated on Via Emilia and equipped with vast warehouses.
The factory was equipped with the most up-to-date machinery available and the production, once started, immediately increased from 3 to10 tons a day. The fact that the entire thing had been purchased by incurring a debt shows that the Company had by now gained such reliability, also at the financial level, that openings of credit in its favor could reach figures of some importance. However, it was with the outbreak of the First World War that the G. & R. Fratelli Barilla firm had its first important successes at national level. In 1917, the production of pasta rose to 30 tons a day, whilst around two hundred workers were employed in the factory (which operated with four-hundred horsepower electric engines). This allowed the Company to obtain a declaration of auxiliary, thanks to the support of the Minister of Education Agostino Berenini (1858-1939), with all the advantages that in theory this provision entailed: more certain supplies of flour, greater control over the workforce employed, constant relations with the state organs that directed the war effort and were involved in the policy for supplies.
In fact Barilla also suffered more than a little from the restrictions and slowness with which the competent ministry carried out the allotments of wheat. Furthermore, the centrally established price controls, both for the pasta intended for the troops, and for the pasta put on sale for the civilian population, substantially reduced the profits of many companies in the sector (and in certain cases balance-sheet losses were also recorded). However, this was not the case with Barilla, which emerged from the war with a workforce numbering about three hundred. On the death of his brother Gualtiero in 1919, Riccardo was left to run the Company alone. His three sisters, despite having a right to a share of the inheritance, were never actively involved in the management of the business.
On the contrary, his wife, Virginia, always worked alongside her husband. The Company was obviously no longer a mere workshop with a bake-house. However, the mindset of the baker who worked there with his family members persisted tenaciously in Riccardo, driving him to deal at close hand with all the phases of processing and marketing the product, as though he were still at his father’s workshop in Via Vittorio Emanuele. At the same time, he developed a particular social awareness of the problems in the city, giving preference to employing needy families, granting aid and support to the activity of Father Lino Maupas (1866-1924), a Franciscan of Dalmatian origin who was involved in charitable work with prisoners, the young inmates at the reformatory and the poor classes. Riccardo also made financial contributions to the Marian celebrations commissioned by the bishop Mons. Guido Maria Conforti (1865-1931) in 1926, to the erection of the parish church of Corpus Domini not far from the factory, and to the erection, in 1939, with a donation of 50,000 liras, of the Caseificio Scuola [Cheese-factory School], which was built next to the Parma Centrale del Latte [Dairy]. It was in the Fascist period that Barilla made a genuine leap of quality, taking its place among the foremost companies in an expanding sector. There is no doubt about the personal merits of Riccardo and of his close collaborators. He was constantly aware of the need to maintain the operating systems at the highest possible technological level. Hence, his constant trips to Germany to look at and buy modern machinery for his factory. The production of pasta was differentiated through the manufacture of products intended for a clearly established clientele (those types of pasta which, according to Riccardo, could be defined as ‘luxury’ items), with the launch of a line of products with therapeutic characteristics, the gluten pasta range, particularly recommended for children. Finally, a good commercial organization made it possible for the company to start covering much of the national territory and to be present in all the Italian colonies. The only weak point in a structure that was otherwise avant-garde in Italy was the Company’s lack of independence from the millers, given that Riccardo never succeeded in installing a mill, which would have placed him in an advantageous position over his competitors. The development and strengthening of the Company’s production activities (on the eve of the Second World War the daily production of pasta stood at 80 tons, whilst the workforce numbered around eight hundred and fifty) would not have been possible however without the intervention of extra-economic factors. Having enrolled in the National Fascist Party and, according to a contemporary source, on excellent terms with the secretary of the latter, Achille Starace (1889-1945) (State central Archive, Special Secretariat of Il Duce), at the beginning of the 1930s Riccardo Barilla tried to take advantage of this for his own business activity. From 1932 with constant donations of his products (in particular of substantial quantities of gluten pasta) to the crèches of the National Institute for Mothers and Children and with donations of money (in 1933 he made available to the National Fascist Party 10,000 liras as a contribution to the construction of Palazzo del Littorio in Rome), he was able to win the friendship of Mussolini, to whom he made constant visits from 1933 whenever he was staying in Rome. These contacts must have been fruitful: on 24 May 1934 Riccardo was given the title of Grand’Ufficiale del Regno and, towards the mid-1930s, the Barilla Company was able to undertake the supply of numerous state and state-controlled bodies, military administrations, colleges and hospitals. In 1935, however, Riccardo was refused the license to supply the military garrison in Parma with bread, as he had requested. The reason given was that in so doing he would have helped to increase unemployment in the province (this refusal continued in the following years). This is proof of the probable existence of difficulties in Riccardo’s relations with the local political authorities.
These are testified to by a press release from the press office of the Parma federation of the National Fascist Party (published by the Corriere Emiliano on 28 June 1938), which heaped discredit on him, by supplying details of the occurrence of the restitution to Riccardo’s daughter and son-in-law of their wedding rings, offered to the homeland on the occasion of their marriage, because they were stamped with the hallmark of inferior gold, as well as various appraisals intended to put him in a bad light in Rome, found in an informative report by the local Fascist political group (Special Secretariat of the Duce). In the latter Riccardo was painted as a boss of the old school, authoritarian, unpopular with his fellow citizens and unwilling to accept the party’s interventions in the running of his factory. He was also accused of maintaining levels of pay that were lower than the average for the sector, of having among his employees an excessive quota of women and girls, responsible furthermore for jobs that were not suited to their physical capacities, of having been one of the last in the Parma district to agree to the forty-hour working week (and of insisting, even afterwards, that the hours were in fact protracted by a quarter of an hour without overtime pay), of being on bad terms with the Fascist trade union and of not wanting to engage members of the forces in his factory. On the one hand, these accusations did not have any negative practical effects on Riccardo’s business.
He cut down his visits to Palazzo Venezia, but continued to receive offices and honours, becoming a member of the body of directors of the Trade Union of pasta-makers, rice-manufacturers and threshers and in 1938 receiving the honour of Cavaliere del Lavoro. On the other hand, they do not prove, at the historical level, to have much foundation. His links with the regime (in 1941 he made a further subscription of 50,000 liras in favor of the NFP) were in all likelihood motivated by the need to obtain political support to expand the Company’s activity (this would also explain the bad state of his relations with the local Fascist organizations). The day after the Liberation, Riccardo Barilla’s name was never included in the expulsion lists: this seems to be a further proof that in the war years his relations with the civic population, with the workers in his factory and with the anti-Fascist political forces had developed along lines of increasing agreement. In the immediate postwar period, Riccardo Barilla allowed his sons Pietro and Gianni to assist him and gradually replace him at the helm of the company. He died in his house on the hills of Salsomaggiore on 9 July 1947 at the age of 67.
Sources and Bibliography
Rome, Archivio Centrale dello Stato, Ministero delle Armi e Munizioni, b. 59; Segreteria particolare del Duce, fasc. 509625.
Rome, Federazione nazionale dei Cavalieri del lavoro, Archivio storico, fasc. Barilla.
Guida commerciale di Parma e provincia, XII, 1925, p. 153; XVI, 1938, pp. 237 and following.
BARILLA Riccardo, La storia della mia vita dal giorno che sono nato, mss. n.d. and Alla mia cara consorte ed ai miei cari figli, mss. of 14 Dec 1942, in ASB.
CORTELLINI L., Parma. Industria e commercio. Parma, 1953, pp. 71 and following.
MOLOSSI Baldassarre, Dizionario dei parmigiani grandi e piccini (dal 1900 a oggi). Parma, 1957, pp. 17-18.
MONDELLI G., “Profili delle aziende di Parma”, in Parma economica, June 1980, pp. 42 and following.
SEGRETO L., in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, XXXIV, 1988, pp. 255-257.
IVARDI GANAPINI Albino – GONIZZI Giancarlo (edited by), Barilla: Cento anni di pubblicità e comunicazione. Milan, Pizzi, 1994.
ZANNONI Luigi, Il Centro Lattiero Caseario. Mezzo secolo di storia. 1949-1999. Reggio Emilia, Futurgraf, 2000, p. 35
Entry taken from: LASAGNI Roberto, Dizionario dei Parmigiani. Parma, PPS, 1999. By kind permission of the Editor.