Primo Levi at SIVA

Siva was founded February 10, 1945 by Federico Accati, a businessman from Biella, along with his senior partner, Osvaldo Gianotti. Siva is an acronym for Società Industriale Vernici e Affini – “company for paint and allied products.” At first the factory was located on the outskirts of Turin at Corso Regina Margherita 274. When Levi was hired in 1948, Siva was a small factory with about a dozen employees, including the workers, chemists and office workers, and its procedures for production were more like handicraft. 

According to an anecdote that Levi recounts in The Monkey's Wrench, one of the workers, Sante Fracas, would have to boil linseed oil, one of the ingredients for making paints, in the fields behind the factory at night. In order to check the temperature, he would dip slices of onions into the oil. If the slices were sizzling, the temperature was right.

At first the factory's production was targeted at building paint. Instead, at the beginning of the 1950s, Primo Levi and the other chemists at the Siva laboratory were working on the production of PVF (polyvinyl formal) a basic ingredient for the production of insulating paints for electric wires. PVF was long to remain Siva's most important product. This was one of the products that allowed the company to expand greatly during the 1950s.

In 1953 the factory moved to its permanent home at Via Leinì 84 in Settimo Torinese. Its location near an exit to the superhighway to Milan and near open fields where it could expand were what laid the foundation for the future progress of the company. In 1953, also, Primo Levi became the company's technical manager.

This was the time when Accati purchased a second company, Scet, which produced copper electric wires. The company then purchased Sicme in 1955, a manufacturer of machines for painting electric wires, and later purchased Somecrov, a company specializing in the production of copper wire, thus completing a process of vertical industrial integration.

The number of employees grew until over 100 in the 1960s. The company developed intense commercial relations with companies like Bayer and Siemens that led Primo Levi to visit Germany several times, sometimes along with Accati.

In1966 Primo Levi was promoted from technical manager to general manager. During these years the company began to develop commercial relationships with Russian companies, thus increasing its own level of business. Levi visited the Ussr three times. By 1973, nevertheless, Primo Levi had decided to leave Siva. He retired in 1974 but kept on working part time as a consultant in order to ease the company's transition period. On September 1 1977 Levi terminated his consultation with the company and left it for good.

Siva went through some hard times in the mid-1970s because of the oil crisis and other reasons. Then there was a turnover at the head of the company, when Federico Accati retired and his daughter Paola was nominated CEO. Federico Accati died on May 9 1989 at the age of 76.

In 1999 Siva built a factory in partnership with a Chinese company in Tong Ling, China, 500 kilometers northwest of Shanghai. In 1998 the company was taken over by a German company, Altana. In 1999 Altana transferred the manufacturing to another factory that it owned in Ascoli Piceno, thus closing the factory at Settimo for good.

The two buildings that housed the laboratories and offices and a part of the properties are still standing.

(In collaboration with Paola Accati and Renato Portesi)

Laboratory books

The “big black books,” as they were called, are the two Siva laboratory logs that are now at the International Primo Levi Studies Center. These are records of great interest because, by studying them, we can put together again many aspects of the daily work done by the Settimo Torinese company that Primo Levi worked for from the 1940s to the 1970s.

The spans of time that the two books cover are partially analogous. The first book, the smaller one, about 250 non-numbered pages long, runs from 1954 to 1978. The second book, the larger one, 384 numbered pages long, begins in 1955 and has very frequent and regular entries until 1961, when the entries become less and less frequent, so much so that there are only 10 pages dedicated to 1962-1971.

The notes, the formulas, and the tests were often written down on the logs in an irregular and unsystematic way by various chemists. The second book, however, contains a prevailing number of entries made in the handwriting of Primo Levi. The content of this book seems to include the greatest number of original formulas, event though it is hard to establish that there is a clear difference in the topics of the two books. Before drawing conclusions, a more systematic examination of the books should be conducted. What we are featuring here is a collection of several pages that were written by Primo Levi. The lab books in their entirety are available at the Levi Center archives.

(In collaboration with Paola Accati and Renato Portesi)

The interviews

Here there are several recollections of people who were working at the Siva factory in Settimo when Primo Levi was a manager. For each person interviewed there is a short outline and several excerpts from the interview. Recordings of the complete interviews are available at the archives of the center.

Elio Azzalin

Worker at Siva from 1976 to 1999, he grew up in a house a short walk away from the gates of Siva and worked there in maintenance. Date of the interview: Settimo Torinese, February 10, 2009

"I began working at Siva when I was 16, but I was not employed by Siva but by a craftsman, an outside contractor named Valter Strozzi I was just a boy, an electrician's helper. [...] After I was there for several years as a skilled worker, they hired me, I think in '76, and I became a full-fledged employee of Siva, where I stayed until it closed down for good in '99. I worked on the maintenance of the mechanical and electrical equipment. But even before I was hired, as a boy, being that my father worked there and that we've always lived nearby, I would already hang around Siva, at least around the gatekeepers’ booth. On Sundays I would go there to the gatekeepers, who at least had a television while we did not. In a way, they adopted me a bit... When I received my first communion, they came too. This is why I already knew it, Siva. And it just happened that I even ended up working there.

Once there was a new paint-thinning machine that came in and it collapsed in on itself, and so we went to the mechanical workshop to find out why. We examined the water drains because it could have been the drain that was not working. So, Primo Levi was there too to examine all those things, to see if there was anything that was connected wrong. He was there too. He was looking. He went, 'Take the flashlight so that we can look and see if there is something blocking the tube.' He was interested – he too – in quotes – 'like one of us.' He didn’t make his position weigh on us. And we, we didn’t think that we had this great character among us, which, instead, is what came out later.

[Transcribed and edited by the International Primo Levi Studies Center]

Listen to the audio excerpt [Italian]

Vilme Cappelli

Worker at Siva for 34 years from 1960 to retirement in 1994. Date of the interview: Settimo Torinese, March 4, 2009 

"I began to work in 1960 and worked until 1994 - 34 years. After I came to Turin from the province of Ferrara in ’56 and before I was hired by Siva, I was a delivery person for a playing-card company. Then I was a baker for some time and then through Mrs. Tambini I managed to get into Siva and I stayed there until I retired. When I myself first went into the factory, it was really a disaster. There were no masks. There wasn’t anything. The smells were really foul. We changed our clothes in the factory, we took showers and we couldn’t take our Siva stuff outside because it was polluting. There were about a hundred of us. There weren’t all the machines that there are now. Everything was done by hand. If we had to prepare the cans, there was somebody who filled them, somebody who boxed them, somebody who stuck on the labels…. It was only after that we began to get bigger, to do things automatically, but at the time there were really only a few of us.

I am a fifth-grade elementary-school graduate. This was the time when they put in a new piece of equipment that we called 'the castle,' and they taught me how it ran. That castle – I made it run forwards and backwards with my eyes closed. In fact, I was the one who taught all of them. When they hired somebody for the castle, they would call me to teach him. One day Primo Levi showed up there with the design of the installation in his hand and says, 'Cappelli, come to the office with me.' He wanted to know how the castle worked. So I told him, 'Doctor, if you want to know how it works, come up to the last floor with me, and little by little as you come down, I’ll explain to you how it works.' He answered me, 'Cappelli, I don’t know how it runs as you do when you are working, I only know the design.' But I know how to get the castle going but didn’t understand the design."

[Transcribed and edited by the International Primo Levi Studies Center]

Listen to the audio excerpt [Italian]

Francesco Cordero

Chemist, hired in 1957, he worked in the Siva laboratory until 1972. Date of the interview: Quattordio, April 3, 2009

"Since I knew that Levi was interested in me a bit, I went to his house on Corso Re Umberto to have, let’s say, a job interview. In the end he told me, 'Look, I’ll give you a good write-up. In fact, you are very, very experienced with paints, so we’ll get along.'

If he had had the pride that a regular person had, he would have been someone who could have won the Nobel Prize for his studies of new products. And this did not interest him. He had talent, but he needed to have a bit of pride too. He put no store in being somebody in front of the others. [...] More than teaching me, we would do things together. At Siva there wasn’t a chief. We were all friends there.

As the years went by, there were many new pieces of equipment that came in. But there wasn’t any machine to analyze the products. We did everything empirically – I want to say – not with ultramodern equipment. We measured the acidity, the fusion point – that is, at what temperature it melted – the thermal resistance, the chemical resistance, the mechanical resistance. They were products… they were not normal paints. They were paints for electrical insulation. They were more difficult than other paints. They were on a superior plane."

[Transcribed and edited by the International Primo Levi Studies Center]

Listen to the audio excerpt [Italian]

Virgilio Pecchio

Office worker hired as telephone operator in 1960, he became a purchase officer and left the company in 1980. Date of the interview: Brandizzo (TO), March 10, 2009 

"So, I entered Siva when I was 16. Mrs. Franca Tambini took me on as a switchboard operator – to let you know – and I stayed at Siva until 1980. As the years went by, I had my little career. I became the chief of the purchase office and so I was in contact with Primo Levi, who, being the director of the factory, was a bit interested in everything. Sometimes I would go on trips with him – to Esso or Montedison to set up big contracts. I told him, 'Look, doctor, I’ll be quiet as a mouse. I’ll listen to you.' And I remember the answer, which was something incredible. 'No, look, you are much better than me. You talk.'

He was a chemist, basically a laboratory person. What I am about to say is not a criticism, but he was not very suited for the command of personnel – that is, he did not conform to its parameters. In fact, one the reasons why he went away was that a union was organized. There was a person, a skilled worker, who became the head of the workers – and really this is right – to stand for the interests of the workers and, at this point, Levi was cut off. He couldn’t manage to conceive it. Basically he wasn’t prepared for these things. He knew his work very well, but, according to me, he was not interested in things he did not feel secure with."

[Transcribed and edited by the International Primo Levi Studies Center]

Listen to the audio excerpt [Italian]

Michael Tinker

Chemist, production manager, then factory manager 1973-79. Date of the interview: Torino, December 19, 2008 

"I met my first wife in England in a spectrometry course. We got married and lived in England for two years. Then her father, Mr. Accati, who was the owner of Siva and two or three plants there in Turin, asked me to come here and work since I was a chemist and this was a chemical plant. I resisted for two years because this seemed to be too much of a change for me together with getting married. But then the company that I was working for in London wanted to transfer me to Doncaster, which is a place that was a bit industrial. And I decided - instead of going to the north of England - to go to the south of Europe. I began to work here in the summer of 1973. When I came, I didn’t even speak Italian. For a bit of time I was there learning the language and getting to know the factory. Eventually, I was in charge of production and then plant manager.

Once we were at dinner with two English company representatives and were eating polenta. The Englishman asked, 'It is very good. What is it made from?' And Levi who wanted to say corn – maize – in English, answered 'mice.' And this Englishman went white. He thought he was eating some mixture based on mice".

[Transcribed and edited by the International Primo Levi Studies Center]

Listen to the audio excerpt [Italian]

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