They seem to have been a jolly lot, the Florio family. Here they are lounging around their palatial mansion on Favignana, looking cheerful and rich. Here one Florio is caught ruffling the hair of another. And here they are diving off their steam yacht into the sea in swimming hose. At one time or another, they were wine makers, shipping line owners, newspaper proprietors, art benefactors, motor racing enthusiasts, tuna canners and, of course, wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice. Their name survives on the brand of marsala, the Targa Florio (if anyone does remember it any more) and in the tonnare, the various palaces of industry dedicated to tuna canning, they set up in Sicily and here on Favignana.
The scale of what is now the carefully restored Stabiimento Florio is prodigious, a succession of canning rooms, cooking areas, boat houses and storage facilities. But even more impressive, to my way of thinking, is the handsome style of the place. This may have been an industrial unit of its day, but, like Brunel’s Paddington Station, it was designed with an eye to aesthetics as well as efficiency. Built of local creamy-white local tufa blocks, it combines classical proportion with contemporary convenience, laid out on impeccable management principles to accommodate the natural flow of the process – the boat house is here, so that the boats can be launched directly into the sea from sloping ramps; the tuna are landed here; cut up here, cooked here; placed in cans here; topped up with olive oil here; sealed here; stored here; distributed here. It has a functional elegance.
At one time, this functional elegance and attractive, high-ceilinged rooms with their linking neo-Gothic arches and paved floors would have reeked with tuna, the stench of slime and blood and fishiness.
It’s all neat, clean and tidy, now, a model of tasteful restoration. One room is dedicated to the Battle of Favignana, when the Romans defeated the Carthaginians in 241 BC -‘Not because they were better sailors or were braver,’s said the guide, ‘but because they had a better strategy.’ Several areas are filled with old tuna tins, all neatly laid out, and there are plenty of old photographs illustrating various stages of the process. The old tuna fishing boats stand ready on their launch slopes, ready to slide into the aquamarine water below,
And in one of the rooms there’s a film about la mattanza, the annual rounding up and slaughter of migrating tuna that used to happen each year off Favignana, and which used to produce at least some of the raw material for the Florio production line. It was shot, I think, in the 1930s, a hymn to the fishermen, their community and their fish. It has a moving, conscious heroism. It captures the way in which the whole of Favignana is involved in la mattanza, and how dependant the island is on this harvest. The nets are mended together, prepared together, loaded together. The boats are launched and rowed, eight oars per side, into position. The sun goes down. The sun comes up. The fishermen wait. And then the tuna arrive and the slaughter begins.
There’s no mattanza any more off Favignana (although, bloody and cruel as it was, it was still a more sustainable way of harvesting the tuna than today’s methods, using the armoury of modern technology; more tuna got away than were killed), although there is one off San Pietro, Sardinia. I realised how tuna made this community in the same way that coal and steel made those communities in Britain, and they are all gone.