History of oil exploration in Italy
Oil has been extracted in Italy since the earliest times. Extraction activities intensified in the beginning of the twentieth century to provide fuel for motor vehicles, but it was mainly done by large foreign companies, which heavily influenced the politics and economy of the country. The first step to providing Italy with its own energy company was the creation of Agip in 1926, but the turning point came in 1953 with the founding of Eni. Technological innovation, training and an international vision were the pillars from the beginning in our way of working, making us a global company they both Italy and the producing countries could count on. This is the story of Italian oil exploration, from its beginnings to the birth of Eni.

The stone oil

In Italy oil has been known and used since ancient times. Bitumen and crude oil were extracted from natural outcrops and mines and used in many different ways: from the sealing of boats to medicinal preparations. The very term petroleum comes from the medieval Latin “Petrae oleum” meaning “stone oil”.

Fuel for modernity

In the mid-nineteenth century American drilling technologies emerged and with the unification of Italy there were increasing attempts to extract hydrocarbons from the subsurface of the Peninsula. The methods were still rudimentary, the companies essentially artisanal and working conditions and environmental consequences harsh: wells were dug manually and to not succumb to the poisonous vapours workers alternated on ten-minute shifts. There were no purification processes and residues were released directly into the soil and watercourses. Throughout the nineteenth century the search was particularly for gas for public lighting, but from the beginning of the twentieth century the search began also for oil, from which to obtain fuel for motor vehicles.

The dominance of foreign companies

The First World War and the 1920s marked the beginning of the oil era around the world, with the big European and American companies consolidating their operations in North America, the Middle East, the Caucasus and even in Italy. Italy was the first European producer of oil, but the industry was still dominated by foreigners. Italian industry in general was backward and even more so the oil and energy sector, with small companies operating around the country that began to expand abroad, but without being able to withstand the competition of the big corporations. In these years the major foreign companies also heavily influenced the politics and economy of the country.

The first steps toward a national energy policy

The first attempt to provide Italy with its own oil company came in 1926 with the foundation of Agip - Azienda Generale Italiana Petroli. Although funding was chronically inadequate, Agip was able to conduct its first exploration and extraction operations in Italy and abroad, as well as in the colonies in Africa and the Middle East. A big change came with the decision to use the most advanced American technologies for exploration, which in fact enabled Agip to discover a large natural gas field in the Po Valley. However, this was on the brink of the Second World War and Italy was under the influence of Germany, so the government decided to keep the discovery secret waiting for the means and independence to extract the gas without foreign interference.

Eni, the breakthrough: energy for the Italian miracle

After the Second World War Italy was on its knees and the Allies demanded the liquidation of Agip. The government gave the task to Enrico Mattei, based on studies on the Po Valley gas he decided to intensify exploration activities, using the latest technology and sending engineers to study in the United States. These crucial years established the company’s focus on innovation, vocational training and safety at work, moving it definitively on from the pioneering period of the oil industry. The calculations of Agip technicians proves accurate and following the first successful extraction Mattei convinced the government to establish the first large national energy company. This was how, in 1953, Eni - Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi, came into being and in the same year also began to distribute natural gas and fuel to households and companies. Italy finally had the energy in needed to drive its economic miracle, thanks to which it would become the modern country we know today. Having consolidated its success on the national level, in the following years Eni expanded its vision globally by adopting an approach based on cooperation with producing countries, who became involved in mutual development on an equal basis.


Read also

Enrico Mattei. The man of the future

The main steps in the life of Enrico Mattei who, born into a family of modest means, would go on to become the Chairman of Eni.

Enrico Mattei. Words and testimony

ebooks with photographs, film clips and authentic documents produced by Eni, his speeches and “Remembering Enrico Mattei”

Enrico Mattei’s ideas. The most precious legacy

Enrico Mattei’s ideas resound even today in our society - they are a precious legacy that continue to be a model for various sectors.

Eni: the history of a great company

A portrait of an historically great company: cooperation, internationalism and sustainability have characterised our activities from the beginning.
Back to top