From Bombs to Bombshells

A Brief History of Ferrania, Part 1: 1882-1963

The story of Ferrania began in 1882 when the Società Italiana Prodotti Esplodenti (Italian Society of Explosive Products) factory was was built on the banks of the Bormida River in the village of Cairo Montenotte in the Liguria region of Italy. The plant gained prominence during World War I when Tsar Nicholas II used SIPE to produce nitrocellulose-based explosive powders.

French advertisement for the Pathé Brothers

After the “Red October” Soviet revolution SIPE was left with huge stockpiles of nitrocellulose and no customers so the factory's focus turned toward the production of celluloid (nitrocellulose plus camphor) - the material that forms the base of photographic film. SIPE renamed themselves FILM (Fabbrica Italiana Lamine Milano) and teamed up with the legendary French Pathé Brothers, who were Europe’s largest producer of photosensitive materials.

In 1920, testing began on the first cinema films - but FILM was unable to produce an economically viable product for several years. The Pathé Brothers saw little hope of making a profit and eventually surrendered their share of the company to Credito Italiano, an Italian bank who had also bailed out the struggling Milan-based glass plate manufacturer, Cappelli.

Upon the departure of the Brothers in 1923, engineer Franco Marmont was named President and CEO of the newly restructured FILM Ferrania and began to turn the company around - first by lowering prices (initially at a loss), and then reducing production costs. Sales flourished.

Advertisement from the Cappelli era

In 1924, Ernst Leitz released the first Leica cameras, effectively ending the age of glass plates and turning celluloid-based film into a mass-produced, global commodity in a very short period of time. FILM Ferrania rode this wave, expanding to produce x-ray, 16mm cinema, and many roll film formats like 120 and 35mm. Momentum continued to build.

In 1932, FILM acquired the Cappelli company, and for a brief period products were marketed and sold as FILM Cappelli-Ferrania. In 1936, camera production began in Cappelli's Milan factory and for many years thereafter, they were known as both a film and camera producer.

By 1938, ownership had changed a couple more times, the company was renamed Ferrania, and the Cappelli connection dissolved - but the factory grew to occupy over 90,000 square meters with a staff of more than 500.

Ferrania Between the Wars

These images are from the Ferrania of the 1930s and show a flourishing company, including photos showing the campus in it's newly built state, as well as glimpses into the robust cultural activity groups formed by the staff. Click any image to launch a full screen slideshow.

After World War II the golden age of Ferrania truly began.

With novice-level cameras on the market and the mainstreaming of photography, Ferrania’s production of 35mm and 120 films blossomed along with the already famous cinema products.

Through much of the 30s and 40s, Ferrania film was a nearly obligatory “choice” for most directors due to the fascist government and their autarchic policies. The movies made during that time period were unrealistically positive, with opulent productions and fanciful characters.

As time progressed, a new breed of Italian filmmakers shrugged off the old ways of Italian filmmaking, opting for a gritty, urban style called Neorealism. These directors remained loyal customers of Ferrania not because they had to, but because they loved the film. Neorealism eventually faded as a style, but still had an enormous global impact.  

The original hand-written formula for P30 film

All the great Italian directors of the mid-twentieth century, remained true to Ferrania for it’s quality and flexibility. The big names of Italian cinema - Pier Paolo Pasolini, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini - are all permanently linked to Ferrania.

The best-known Ferrania film stock from that era is the legendary P30 black and white film. This film was the subject of a massive advertising campaign in the United States in the wake of Sophia Loren’s 1960 Academy Award for the film Two Women, directed by Vittorio De Sica.

Ferrania in Cinema

A few select stills from Ferrania's Golden Age of Cinema.
Click any image to launch a full screen slideshow.

Ferrania’s popularity multiplied in 1963 with two more Oscars for  by Federico Fellini and starring Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale, and shot on P30.

Demand was so enormous that Ferrania produced 35mm and 120 versions of P30 so that non-professional photographers could “feel a bit Fellini,” with their still photo cameras. It was a huge commercial success.

An early Dutch Ferraniacolor advertisement

The first color emulsion, Ferraniacolor, dates back to 1952, and was pretty much hated by directors of photography for the lack of sensitivity in its early versions. Ferraniacolor would require several more years to perfect and finally get to the level of the primary competitors, Agfa and Kodak.

By the the mid-60s in Italy, Sofia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Claudia Cardinale were known globally as Italian sex symbols. Rossellini, De Sica and Fellini had cemented their legendary status. Ferrania was synonymous with photography and cinema. Almost every Italian had a Ferrania camera and film at home, and the trademark was as famous and established as Olivetti and Fiat. 

It is precisely at this peak of success that Ferrania attracted the attention of the 3M Corporation in America.


A Brief History of Ferrania continues here »


Totò in Totò a colori (Toto in Color) by Steno, 1952, the first film shot with the Ferraniacolor system

Sources for this article: Storia Della Fotografia; Archivio Cremonesi, Savona; Archivio Cozzarizza, Cairo M. (SV); Archivio Di renzo, Albisola S. (SV); Archivio dell’Ordine Mauriziano, Torino; Archivio Padri Scolopi, Genova-Cornigliano; Archivio Pagnini-De Mari, Cairo M. (SV); Archivio Palandri, Ferrania (SV); Archivio Rossi, Carcare (SV); Archivio Società Funiviaria Alto Tirreno, Savona; Archivio di Stato, Torino; Archivio di Stato, Milano; Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Roma; Fototeca Fondazione 3M Italia; Studio Fotografico Piccardo e Rosso, Savona



David Bias

New Yorker. Crazy for old cameras and analog film. But I love sci-fi. Go figure.