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Alfred Nobel's Final Years in Sanremo

by Lorenette Gozzo

Alfred Nobel once said, "Home is where I work and I work everywhere." It was a running commentary on the kind of life he had led as a result of his growing business empire. Rootless, though, he was not. Nobel managed to "settle down" at fixed points, from where he could oversee his spreading concern, which spanned the European continent and reached over to the United States.

Between the years 1865 to 1873, Alfred Nobel had his home, laboratory and the center of his business near his factory in Krümmel, Hamburg. He moved into a magnificent house on Avenue Malakoff in Paris in 1873, where he seemed to have settled permanently for almost two decades. He would, however, spend the last five years of his life, in a lovely villa overlooking the Mediterranean, in San Remo, Italy.

Sanremo, a town located in the Liguria region in northwestern Italy, has been a year-round health resort since 1861. It is located in that part of the Italian Riviera known as the Riviera dei Fiori, named for the flowers that are grown here and exported to continental Europe.

entrance to Villa Nobel
The entrance to Villa Nobel.
Copyright © Nobel Media AB 1998
Photo: Hans Mehlin

The property that Alfred Nobel bought at the Riviera di Ponente in 1891 had a large villa. The exterior carried influences from the kind of architecture more widespread in the orient. The Moorish-style villa was built on a large park, surrounded by an orange grove with palm trees and flower beds. The place was formerly owned by a Polish poet, Josephy Ignacy Kraszewsky who named it Mio Nido, "My Nest." This new home was undoubtedly, for Alfred Nobel, a refuge from the political storm he left behind in France.

The move from Paris was certainly not a voluntary act. He had his social circles in the French capital that included Victor Hugo and he was in the midst of important experiments at his laboratory in Sevran, located 16 kilometers northeast of Paris.

It was the successful result of one of these experiments that would ironically banish him from his favorite Parisian home with its library, stables and orchid house. (He kept this house until the time of his death).

Paris Leave-taking

In 1887, Alfred Nobel introduced another of his revolutionary inventions which he called ballistite. It was a mixture of 40 percent nitrocellulose and 60 percent nitroglycerine. Cut into flakes, this made an excellent propellant for ammunition and continued to be in use for over 75 years. It was superior to black powder and was virtually smokeless.

Ballistite was a culmination of his efforts to create an explosive for mining which would be as effective as possible. This coincided with the race among the governments of Europe to get hold of a powerful and less smoky military product for artillery missiles, torpedoes, and other ammunition during the unstable political period of the 1880s. Once the patent for his blasting powder was made public, Alfred Nobel offered this product to the French government. Alas, the French didn't see any need for it since they were already in the process of producing a near-smokeless product based on an invention by a French chemist named Paul Vieille.

Alfred Nobel, the businessman, thereupon offered his product to the Italian government which lost no time in accepting it. A large factory in Avigliana, located near the city of Turin, was fitted for the production of ballistite and a contract for the delivery of 300 tons was signed in 1889. Soon after, the government of Italy wanted to acquire for itself the rights to manufacture ballistite. Nobel turned over his Italian patent for half a million lire.

These actions did not sit well with France. An ugly press campaign aimed at discrediting Nobel was started. Among other things, he was unjustly accused of espionage, threatened with imprisonment, and his license to conduct experiments in France withdrawn.

Erik Bergengren in his book "Alfred Nobel" writes: "The French authorities cannot be blamed for keeping a watchful eye on a foreign citizen - however famous - who was experimenting with war materiel within their country and selling it to a foreign power that belonged to the Triple Alliance. But the charges against the inventor of industrial espionage and theft of patents, etc. were of course, utterly groundless. All responsible people knew this, but the vilifications in the press and the persecution continued, fed by political motives."

portrait of Andriette Nobel
A reproduction of the portrait of Alfred Nobel's mother, one of the few personal belongings he took with him from Paris.

Life by the Mediterranean

As a result, Nobel decided to leave France. After visiting Robert, his brother in Sweden and his factories at Avigliana (in Italy), Ardeer (in Scotland) and Krümmel (in Germany) for conferences regarding various future arrangements, he went back to Paris and took with him all laboratory equipment which had not been confiscated and a few personal possessions, including his mother's portrait, a gouache by Anders Zorn and a part of his library, and moved into the newly-furnished house in Sanremo. The move to Sanremo would be beneficial to Alfred Nobel's person in more ways than one. He had been suffering from chronic colds and symptoms of scurvy for some time and the balmy, mild climate of the Mediterranean was a welcome relief after the cold and humidity of Paris. (The days are almost always sunny in Sanremo and the mean temperatures range from 10 degrees Celcius in winter to 23 in summer).

Sanremo
A postcard view of Sanremo by the waterfront done by La Fotometalgrafica, Bologna, Italy.
Courtesy of Åke Erlandsson, Swedish Academy
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for additional photos

After settling down in Sanremo, Nobel had a laboratory built close to his villa. Ragnar Sohlman, who was first engaged as a secretary to Nobel, and who would later be assigned as a chemist in the Sanremo laboratory, described the laboratory in his memoirs "The Legacy of Alfred Nobel", thus: "The laboratory itself, a long, one-storeyed building which stood in a large park and garden adjoining Nobel's villa consisted of three rooms: a big machine room with a gas engine and electric generators for different types of voltage, electric current for lighting and numerous electrochemical experiments; an equally large room for purely chemical tests and other experiments; and a smaller one containing a library, weighting machines and various instruments as well as rifles for shooting practice." Another chemist, an Englishman named George Beckett, was employed in this private laboratory. Alphonse Tournaud, a young Frenchman from the laboratory in Sevran, worked as laboratory assistant and mechanic.

Experiments in Sanremo

It was in Sanremo that the groundwork for several of Alfred Nobel's later inventions was initiated. Although he did not complete these works during his lifetime, they would be perfected by others in later years.

The production of substitutes for rubber, gutta percha, and leather from raw materials closely related to the manufacture of explosives, had fascinated Nobel since the early years. He now set out to pursue this search in his Sanremo laboratory. He also developed varnishes that can be considered as precursors of the varnishes being manufactured today.

laboratory
The larger laboratory room where chemical experiments were done.
Copyright © Nobel Media AB 1998
Photo: Hans Mehlin

In 1896, Nobel took out a patent for a pressure nozzle of glass containing the extremely fine holes that were necessary for squeezing out the nitrocellulose or cellulose solution which solidified into silk fibers. When the factories in Krümmel, Germany were reorganized after World War II to manufacture "peace-time" products, one of these products was rayon or artificial silk. Another was Vistra, also a fiber based on low nitrated cellulose which had its early beginnings in San Remo.

Literary Excursions

Meanwhile, experiments of a literary kind also occupied his creative moments during the last three years of his life. One of these was a play entitled 'The Patent Bacillus', a parody of the cordite lawsuit he faced in England which was another unsavory offshoot of the ballistite invention. He also worked at the completion of 'Nemesis', a Shelly-inspired attempt at a tragedy. The latter was published a few weeks after his death.

The house in Sanremo which he had renamed "Villa Nobel" (he was teased by his friend Gustav Aufschläger that it takes two to make a nest, so he discarded the sobriquet "Mio Nido"), had now become the center of his private and business life. Although his business affairs would finally come full circle when he opened his factory in Bofors, Sweden in later years, he traveled back to Sanremo, like a pigeon to its roosting place.

cannons
One of two cannons shipped from Bofors and used for test-firings by Alfred Nobel.
Copyright © Nobel Media AB 1998
Photo: Hans Mehlin

He had brought with him his stable of fine horses from France, but he found time to take pleasant walks along the scenic waterfront. While Nobel was socially an unobtrusive resident in the neighborhood, his tests were not.

He had a slender jetty built into the sea for his powder and firearms tests which were carried on at high pressure until his death. The once-idyllic resort would be disturbed every now and then, by test firings from the jetty. The neighbors started to complain.

One of them, an Italian named Rossi, offered to sell an even larger villa adjacent to Villa Nobel. Rossi pestered Nobel with his offer, making much capital of the risks and dangers that Nobel's laboratory posed to the life and limb of people living nearby. The sales pitch worked, and Nobel ended up with two large houses on his hands.

What to do with the latest acquisition? During the months of May and June, Nobel found time to bathe in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. He now had an idea how to put the house in good use. "It will be an excellent place to undress in when we take our daily dip in the sea below; that will save us from being crowded out by Italians in the public bathing huts," he confided to Ragnar Sohlman.

It was obviously said in pure jest, since he seemed to have had other purposes in mind. Plans for the renovation of the villa were made along with orders for a magnificent suite of furniture. There was speculation that he was probably thinking of offering the villa to King Oscar of Sweden as a residence during the latter's spring visits to the Riviera.

It was not to be. On December 10, 1896 Alfred Nobel succumbed to a lingering heart ailment, suffered a stroke, and died in the villa that was once called "My Nest."

Villa Nobel Today

back view of Villa Nobel
The back view of Villa Nobel today.
Copyright © Nobel Media AB 1998
Photo: Hans Mehlin

After his death, Villa Nobel was sold in accordance with Alfred Nobel's last will. In the late 1960s, the property was bought by the authorities of Sanremo and was later used for cultural and scientific activities. Organized by the Sanremo authorities in cooperation with the Nobel Foundation, these gatherings were participated in by Italian and Swedish Nobel Laureates. Villa Nobel has been honored by visits of the heads of state of Sweden and Italy and by members of the Royal Family of Sweden.

Villa Nobel and the adjacent laboratory are now being converted into a museum open to the public.

Sanremo continues to maintain its ties with Nobel, long after his death. Every 10th of December, large quantities of flowers sent by the authorities in Sanremo (the province of Imperia, the city of Sanremo and the Board for Tourist Promotion of the Riviera dei fiori), adorn the annual Nobel Prize Award Ceremony and Banquet in Stockholm.

 

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