Salt Miners 





By Domenico CORTESE  



(Translation of Alicia Bodily)




So many have visited the Salt Mine and several of them have written about it. Something in particular shares a common thread in all the writings: the comparison with Dante�s Hell.

Leonardo Alberti, a Dominican friar, around 1525, described the Salt Mine as follows: �A mile away from here are the salt mines, Truly it is a marvelous thing to enter in those long caverns made in the entrails of the very high hill, some of which continue for half a mile, and some more than one, where they excavate the salt�.

Melograni, in 1811, on the conditions of the workers: �I also watched uncomfortably as I saw that the daily transportation of the salt inside the mine, is carried out on the backs of adult men and of young men. The former carry on every trip about two hundred pounds of solid pieces held up with a rope; the latter, one hundred pounds of �sterro� (loose pieces) in sacks. It is pitiful to observe this, a procession of naked men carrying out the task of beasts of burden, being careful, as they march in single file, not to be a hindrance one to another by hitting his load against the narrow passages that each must tread, and every one of them, oppressed by the weight, and tired by the suffocating heat of the mine, finishes his day gasping and at their wits� end �. 

PICTURESQUE POLIORAMA (1839/40): �It was the dawn of a beautiful August day, as I was coming down from the hills of Altomonte, absorbed by sweet memories. By way of an easy and pleasing slope, I arrived in the company of certain friends to the Mine formerly called of Altomonte, now of Lungro; which thanks to the elaboration, the trade and the transportation of salt, rose from being a poor Albanian hamlet of Altomonte to the state of a respectable town, even to become the main town in the area�I discovered on the space near the entrance of the Salt Mine, called Mandriglio [�Corral�], a multitude of vehicles. I saw a continuous bustling about of many people, a swarming of workers, a coming and going, a perpetual movement; I heard a loud noise, and alternating Italian and Albanian voices. Upon entering with my friends in the lowest pits [referring to Dante�s Hell] under the trembling torchlights, a mixed feeling of curiosity, of pleasure and of terror ran through our souls before such unusual novelty.  The scenery before our eyes was a surprising spectacle; hills, valleys, flights of steps, ancient gallery floors, precipitous descents, all made of rock-salt� and while descending those longest stairs I began to recall the verses of Alighieri.

                                                                       � You will see clearly

      how the bread of another tastes of salt,

 and what a harsh road it is to go up

  and down on someone else�s stairs.�.

verses that were rendering themselves more meaningful in the interior of that hypogeum, in a sky without stars, in the sight of so many naked individuals out of breath striking with large picks, cutting down and cleaning rough and hard boulders, or curved under the weight of large loads that they were carrying, and opening their way ahead shouting: �vem jast � vem jast� We are going out, we are going out. They seemed to me like roaming specters in the kingdom of shadows. The beautiful sapphire of the Italian sky had disappeared, and the harmonious and sweetest language of the land and the sun could no longer be heard. Instead we could hear words and accents of another language, and the shaking of the mountain thundered in our ears, while the crunch of the rocky crags, from which enormous salt stones were being pulled out, and their thundering while falling down, mixed with the harsh and rough accord of the repeating blows of the laborers�.

Giuseppe Samengo reports thus: �... Plunging down as on the side of a mountain on a set of dreadfully built steps now falling apart, one descends to the gallery called Lower Pit; which is a true example of Dante�s Hell, such as this is partly an example of the physical and moral world...

Here an uninterrupted series of deserted, abandoned galleries, which are wrapped in unending darkness, and piled up one above the other as far as the eye can reach up; there a drossy chaos of salt of every shape, of every size thrown around on top of the most bizarre and majestic mess; further away a most spacious threshing-floor all decorated like a theater on a festive day; and arches and fencing and pyramids and columns and walls carved by chisel, on which, as in a solar prism are fragmented in thousands and different colors the pulsating rays of the lights hanging in every path and nook of the large Mine; and all of this immense and confused heap of walls, of ceilings, of spirals, of paths stowed, scattered and set up above like huge wings attached to the body of an enormous bird; and all of this irregular basin furrowed again and again in all ways and means into compartments, threads, triangles, scribbles; and through these paths here and there, and through these hampered areas, Employees, Managers and Foremans who meet one another and bump onto one another at all times opening and bringing together a mixed up multitude of men, of youngsters, of old and young workers who, like a stormy high sea broken against innumerable rocks now comes, now goes, now runs along, now stagnates, and always froths up and gurgles; and the rolling of the stones that fall along the edge of the precipices, the banging of the hammers of the workers, the swarming of the operators, the lamentations of the wounded, the rustlings of the footsteps, the rebounds of the pavement, the thundering of the underground, and all of these voices and all of these frequent sounds, noisy, animated, shudder and oscillate around you like an only scream, long, sustained, continuous��

De Marchis states: �To him who during the studies of early youth pleased to immerse himself in the readings of the Most High Ghibelline, and enjoyed himself with the beautiful images that embellish the landscape of the triple kingdom, those cavernous pits represent an interesting scene, which serves to prompt to his memory those immense compartments, that the Poet with uncontrollable fantasy imagines as a part of hell �Watch those hundreds of naked workers, intent on cutting the Salt in the various areas of the Galleries, under the feeble light of a few lamps, that multiply the shadows projected on the white rocks, and confess whether or not the shuddering imagination does not hurl you out into the great concentric circles, seats of pain, and of eternal desperation?

Padula states: �The gallery called Lower Pit reminds the individual of Dante�s Hell. Precipices suspended above his head, precipices opened under his feet, enormous masses of pack saddles that threaten harm. Here deserted, dark galleries, one above another, there a threshing floor like a theater hall with arches and pyramids, and carved walls, which reflect the light of the lamps hanging in every corner; and through those labyrinths, men and youngsters; and rocks that tumble down, and hammer blows; and thundering of the undergrounds�

What a pitiful scene! The salt is taken outside on the backs of men and youngsters. The former take on every trip two hundred pound blocks held up with ropes. The second bring along one hundred pounds of powder inside the sacks. Those people, who arrive at the open air out of breath, move one to compassion. In the mine in some places there is water; ventilation is lacking�

The mine has the misfortune of not having been developed horizontally, but it was excavated down through labyrinths. It is enough to say that there are some stairs on a near vertical incline�.

Tajani: �By sheer continuous  dedication to the harsh labor of mining came about the monetary resources not enjoyed by others and perhaps also envied. But what sweat have those earnings not caused? What hardships did the miners not have to endure? What toils did they not have to bear? The exploitation of the mine was made increasingly difficult as it became deeper, the desire for earnings forced people to overcome many inconveniences, but side by side with that which was useful, ahead of need was also an inadvertent and contemptuous evil which was the physical deterioration of a population, procured by those who should have looked over their well being, and over their prosperity. Neither has that condition changed much in our days, because out of the improvement works that were implemented several times, more or less effective in achieving the triple goal of increasing production, facilitating the bringing up of the product to the light of day, and mitigating the harshness of the work, it has always remained true that trying to substitute raw labor with machines was always blocked by the usual prejudices of the masses. Deluded by an insensible philosophy, and by the fear of seeing lowering employment, that font of prosperity has continued to be the cause of attraction and of physical degradation. To permit men to make a living by submitting themselves to transport material loaded on their backs like beasts of burden is unacceptable tolerance on the part of any government. If such a disgrace of humankind could have been at one time compensated by job security, now perpetuating that harsh work would have been an undignified action on the part of any government. A modification therefore was introduced in the method of excavation and transportation, although it was something really small, because the exploitation of mountain salt in Italy suffers great competition from sea salt, and the salt industry will have to function one day within a system of free production. But until then a monopoly must exist. Be it in the hands of the government, be it in private hands, consideration for the working class always must exist: It is a matter of civil progress, thorny for governments and for economists�.

Bellavite: ��. But also to improve the conditions of the porters, who naked and gasping, climbing on the inclined surfaces and going through large caverns, had to carry on their backs the excavated material, reminding the observer of the damned of Dante� �.

The geologist Torquato Taramelli: � Most of them, untiring and patient as ants, go up and down those fifteen hundred steps in a double current, naked, breathless, panting; and they carry on their backs at least forty kilograms of salt. Others, with great skill, profiting from a certain great slope of the rock, throw down great parallelograms that fall with a great noise on the floor of the ample excavated rooms, break apart in smaller pieces, and provide labor for the category of the sifters. The less pure material, which however always contains at least four fifths of salt, is thrown on piles and taken from a rivulet near the mouth of the mine. At the end of a well I saw a winch, but it wasn�t working. Transporting salt on backs is more economical, and those people earn no more than one lira per day�.

            As can be gathered from reading the descriptions of these visitors to the Salt Mine, the working conditions were inhumane, even considering that, as Sole writes, �the rule that prevailed, at the request of the workers, was to alternate workers in the hardest tasks, and to show


regard for the older workers, who after having toiled for many years, were utilized in the distribution sector. Furthermore, in the mine there was not a single mechanical instrument to render the work of the laborers less taxing and the �descent� was incredible, if one thinks that the miners had to walk down hundreds and hundreds of steps to arrive at the active sites and then go up several times a day with sacks full of salt. The cutters, armed with picks, wedges and punches, cut the salt from the walls at an infernal pace, given that their pay was established according to the quantity of salt that they were able to cut out. The workers picked up the salt and the �pack saddle� and proceeded to take it to the three deposits: Ammendoletta, the New Gallery and Providence. The workers were able to transport the salt, which later was weighed. The masters, instead, were in practice builders and carpenters and proceeded to raise the sustaining walls and the steps and they managed to build anything that was necessary for the mine. The loaders were practical in placing the sacks of salt on the backs of the carriers, the lamp lighters provided the illumination of the mine and the gatherers raked the finer pieces of salt that remained at the sites�.


The inhuman working conditions prompted the workers to protest in order to preserve their health and their interests. A spirit of cooperation and liberality developed among the workers. In fact they founded the Association of the �Salt Workers� with the purpose of assisting the workers who because of health or for other reasons needed help. Saint Leonard was a Member of the Association, their protector, whose presence was acknowledged every morning, along with the daily pay. The first to be called for the collection of the stipend was Saint Leonard himself.

Padula, who was the most acute observer about the conditions and the character of the populations of the province, writes about the salt workers of Lungro: �At the mine they work 8 hours; but because for every kind and for every worker the time that he is to work is determined, the majority are done after 2 or 4 hours of work, and they go home. The miners tell each other how their wives cheat on them, their own swindles and defects, without quarreling about them. They tell their superiors their thoughts with great passion. They are extremely resentful, biting and mordacious. They love excesses, they aren�t careful with their money, and after they are paid every two weeks, they don�t hesitate to pay their debts and to celebrate at the bars. They are all liberals�.

In 1842 was instituted a �Savings Bank� for the workers, set up to assist in case of illness or disability. The association lasted till 1884.

Padula states:� Since 1842, with the great Francesco Fava called as the director, the salt miners set up a savings bank in order to get assistance in case of illness or disability, which collected every end of the month 300 ducats�.

In Lungro, in opposition to the rest of the area, the presence of industrial activity that employed a consistent number of workers gave birth to a spirit of �union�.  Indeed in Calabria in the mid 1800�s the feudal system was still in place. Francesco De Santis, who sought refuge in Calabria in 1849 to run away to the persecution of the royal police, in a lecture given in 1873 about the Calabrian culture which took place at the University of Napoli, described the environment this way: �In Calabria the environment still smacks of feudalism. I was there because I was running away to avoid an order of arrest and when I arrived I told myself: -Feudalism here is still in force�

It is important to consider the contribution given by the salt miners in the fighting for the unification of Italy. While in the rest of the country the political secret societies of the Carbonari was the expression of the bourgeoisie and of the higher social classes first, and of the middle and small bourgeoisie during the years of Young Italy, in Lungro, side by side in the political struggle, we find intellectuals and workers. In the movements of 1848 �nearly two hundred men, with their hats or their chests adorned by the tricolor cockade, during the first days of June, commanded by Domenico Damis,  took the road for Campotenese to defend the proclaimed constitutional freedom in Calabria,(Let�s talk about Lungro � 1963). Among these, there was a high number of  �proletarians�.  Indeed among the arrested and condemned, beside the pharmacist or the commander, we find the salt miner, the shoemaker, the tailor and the farm owner.

Of the five hundred men of Lungro gathered under the flag of Garibaldi in 1860 to combat against the Bourbons and for the Unity of Italy, most of them were salt miners.

� The liberation, for which they fought strenuously, as has been noted,� -writes G. Sole- � did not free the salt miners or improved their inhuman working conditions; instead, for some, the situation grew worse under the direction of the new directors who came from Piedmont.

In this period (1845-1860) there were discussions about the true usefulness of working in the Mine as part of the economy of the town.

Rodot�, already in 1763, wrote: �The caves of salt, great work of Nature, are of much usefulness for the citizens, who from its sales earn a considerable amount, and introduce in the town a lot of products from outside. For all of this they consider that this Town is the capital of the [Italo] Albanian nation

Picturesque Poliorama (1839/40):The said Salt Mine has a lot of advantages. It employs a lot of manpower that without this resource would have been rendered useless, and perhaps detrimental: It has diminished, and it will continue to take away from the rough bark mountain habits of the neighboring populations, it has thrown noble seeds of honest speculations,��

Padula :� There are 670 workers there, and they are, and they earn, being different in  class, according to age - 120 salt cutters: grana 23 for every time they weigh in: 290 workers, according to age, per day, grana 22 -17, 12 -9, 50 chippers: grana 22 per day; carriers: 30, 25, 20 per day, according to age; masters: idem; 90 lamp lighters, porters, chip gatherers: 22, 17, 12 according...; 39 assistant managers: grana 40, 30, 20 (a shameful thing)�The directorship of the mine is made up of: A director with a monthly salary of ducats 543; a supervisor with 36; an accountant with 14; an archivist with 14; an engineer with 36; a clerk with 18; a second clerk with 16; a third clerk with 12; head security with 13 and grana 40; 5 weighers, and each has 15 and grana 40; the foreman, who distributes the work, 20, 40. Besides this there are those who guard the salt mine: 21 national guards, 8 customs guards, a brigadier and an under brigadier, who as a group get 4,300 ducats per month".

Giuseppe Samengo: �It has been said that Lungro is indebted to this establishment for its wealth and for its leadership over all the Albanian villages, and I don�t deny it. But I also say that agriculture, that at other times forced this land to bring forth its treasures, now languishes, precisely because the townsman,  seduced by the eventual and momentary advantages of mining throws away on the fields the implements of his trade, and picking up a huge pick axe abandons that land that never merited the name of step mother to go into the horrors of these innermost recesses. Commerce, to tell the truth, at least regarding the topographical location of the town, is in a most flourishing state, as attested by the presence of its numerous merchants: who, without having any money, set up early on the public streets a kind of shelter or hovel, where they give away fibs, good food, and exquisite sippings to those who come by, and pick up a little bit of earnings: then with coins turning into more coins they get to fill a store with merchandise and you see them day by day getting in better and better shape.�

Samengo, although admitting the benefits that the town receives from the Salt Mine, regrets the diminished availability of manpower dedicated to agriculture.

An interesting response to Samengo�s concerns, which we transcribe wholly, was given by De Marchis: �The French Government, which overturning all of our institutions with heavy hand, in order to substitute them with new ones, looks like the person who patches up a new building with the falling ruins of an old one, was preparing another administrative plan around the salt mine. It put up a separate directing organization represented by a Director, a Supervisor, two Clerks, several Weighers, an Engineer, the Guard at the door, and a Customs guard established under the command of a lieutenant in charge not only of the surveillance of the Mine; but also of suppressing  Contraband �It was established by a financing organism, that the merchandise should be transported to the warehouses of the monopoly that were opened in several localities in the province, and there under the care and responsibility of the Receivers elected by the King ,it was taken out to the Towns, to privileged vendors with expenses being charged to the royal coffers. 

This new system organized under other views of public economy was put into effect, and it contributed not a little to improve the conditions of the town; because Lungro enjoyed since that time the benefit of 3rd class direction; of a royal warehouse in the monopoly, and by being appointed as a Head of the area, it has been obligated to receive in its midst a large number of employees from outside, who were instrumental in civilizing our ancient customs.

And I feel that I have the obligation to submit to a brief examination the opinion of those who, instead of thanking the eternal providence for having given us the gift of the mine, without which Lungro, instead of having a prosperous progression would have remained in the primitive condition of obscure Hamlet, continue to sustain that the mine brought about evil, instead of good to the Town, because it took the inhabitants away from Agriculture, profitable source of every true and real comfort.

The salt mine due to reimbursements from the government approximately doubles the yearly income.  Twenty two thousand, which sum is given away completely to the town, like a beneficial dew directed to the relief of the population, and the employees themselves spend their money for personal needs, as well as for home rents, and other luxury items. Add to all that the arrival of the vehicle drivers, and couriers, who without interruption must get here, in order to transport the salt to the several warehouses, and deposits, circumstance that gives a gallant impulse to the commercial industry of the locals, to provide the town of all that is necessary, and providing that the cash doesn�t leave their hands, realize the effect of equality of comfort for all of them.

On the other hand, Lungro owned in times past a narrow territory which was not enough to offer all means necessary to live without assistance, and with the division of the public domain, it was able to extend the patrimony of the Town; even so the lands acquired are located mainly in the center of the mountains which are inaccessible in winter because of the snows that cover the surface, and which don�t lend themselves to all the improvements that are required by sensible agricultural practices. In spite of this, while the introduction of less hardy trees has not been successful, and only pines, turkey oaks, and beeches grow well, it is not impossible to take advantage of a limited harvest of grain, rye, and potatoes, the same as of summer pastures that bring about the advantages of additional lands for herding.

On the other side, in the easternmost locations grow well grapes, olives and mulberries, and the harvest of their products brings to the owner fairly good resources, to help him live in comfortable conditions. Agriculture therefore is not neglected, as it is wrongly expressed, and if it isn�t for the town a primary means of public utility, the defect lies in the narrowness of the territory, in the rigid climate, and in the not very fertile quality of the land.

Now if the salt mine had not existed, or if it had exhausted its treasures, and if the citizens had been constrained to occupy themselves with cultivating their lands, the Town, far from going through the progressive outburst in which it finds itself, would cry undoubtedly in misery, and good proofs of this fact are to us the surrounding towns, which have either stationary or else declining populations, in spite of the extensive, and fertile territory they own, and with citizens that are almost entirely dedicated to agriculture.  In them the abundant harvests fall into the hands of few owners, and the general population is always needy, and doesn�t live as comfortably as it should, because no other secondary resource is present to mitigate the squalid darkness.

It isn�t therefore the wealth restricted in possession of a few, but its useful spreading in general, that animates, and reinforces the increased income of the inhabitants, and I foresee from now on, that if the salt mine continues to render to the Royal Treasury the actual product, and if the government persists in the exploitation of the mineral, and follows through with the work carried out in the Cunicolo, about which I have spoken, Lungro in the course of fifty years will have a population increase that will bring about the surprise and admiration of the whole Province.

In 1880 the salt miners began, for the first time, to fight to ask for a salary increase, and an increase in the porter section. �The fight had a positive outcome: The government agreed to increase their salary and to hire a notable number of additional workers� writes G. Sole.

In 1901 they formed the �Salt Mine Operators Society of Mutual Assistance�. The society managed also a store and it was among the most important in the province.

In 1903 they went to the local square to defend a fellow worker who had been  dismissed. Thanks to their fight they succeeded in the reinstatement of the worker and in causing the management of the salt mine to step down. �And it is, rare indeed for the time, and not only in Calabria, - writes Daneo in 1981 � a successful strike, carried out above all with �modern� methods and fighting procedures�. Among the accused was also doctor Nicola Irianni, mayor of the town and provincial counselor, that attended to his work near the Mine, guilty of not assisting the sick with care, of agreeing to allow sick leave only to those whom he protected, and of blackmailing the workers that needed his care. The request came to dismiss the doctor. It wasn�t an easy matter because the doctor, by all possible means, tried to divide the workers� front. In 1904 he founded, in opposition to the society of the salt miners, the �Skanderbeg Society of Mutual Assistance� to which subscribed also some salt miners who first had given him a vote of no confidence.  


Medal coined by the Society


This situation went on for a while and it was not resolved because of political protectionism.

In the meantime the working conditions inside the salt mine remained prohibitive in spite of the fact that some improvements, such as ventilation of the mine, better lighting in the work areas, installation of a rail with carts to transport the salt, and where possible, the use of explosives to extract it. The pick was still used and the rest of the operation was carried out manually.

Through the course of the centuries, as can be seen, there were few improvements made. Therefore, the method of labor was the same in the 1800�s as well as when the salt mine was closed.

The salt miners saw the fruit of their sacrifices particularly after the fall of fascism through their children. Few of those children did not continue their studies. Lungro, in fact, boasted, in the 70�s - 80�s, of a much greater number of graduates than those of other towns in the area.

The salt miners, we can say in conclusion, have had a most important role not only for the economic and social growth of Lungro, but also for its cultural growth.


Photo early 1900�s










Cenni sulla miniera di salgemma di Lungro � Roma 1894


Osservazioni sul progetto di legge relativo alla cessione delle saline di Barletta  e Lungro � Torino 1862

Domenico DE MARCHIS:

Breve cenno monografico-storico del Comune di Lungro- Napoli 1858

Ottone FODER�:

Infortunio nella Miniera di Lungro � 1879


Relazione sulla Miniera di Lungro -1866


Descrizione delle Saline della Calabria � Napoli 1822

Vincenzo PADULA:

Calabria prima e dopo l�unit� � Bari 1977 

Pietro Pompilio Rodot�

Del rito greco in Italia � Roma 1763

Giuseppe SAMENGO:

La real Salina di Lungro � � Il Calabrese� -Cosenza 30.06.1845

Giovanni SOLE:

Breve storia della Reale Salina di Lungro - Ed. Brenner Cosenza � 1981


Sul deposito di salgemma  di Lungro nella Calabria Citeriore � 1879

Francesco TAJANI:

Historie albanesi - Salerno 1866





LUNGRO - October  2001