Lionza, Palazzo Tondü. Foto/Photo: TES

Tondü Palace and the chimney sweeps of Tessin

Palazzo Tondü (Tondü Palace) is the history of a family of chimney sweeps from Tessin. The history of the many Zuckerbäcker from Graubünden and their worldwide fame is well known. However, most of these emigrants had a poor existence. Only a tiny minority became wealthy through their hotels, restaurants, cafes, patisseries or, e.g. breweries in (capital) cities of Europe, North America and South America. A few returned to their village of origin in Graubünden and built city palaces.

The same story applies to Swiss mercenaries (Söldner), mainly from the Innerschweiz, Bern, Freiburg, Zurich and Solothurn. Especially the organisers, some prominent families in villages or towns, amassed great wealth, fame, (military) prestige and sometimes military rank up to the highest papal, imperial, royal, princely and colonial circles of Europe.

This industry was tightly organised. Organisers made contracts with rulers in other European countries. Most mercenaries, mainly from peasant and poor families, did not see their ‘Heimat’ again or returned as poor as ever. The word homesick (Heimweh in German) originates in this mercenary army of about a million and a half men from 1500 until its legal prohibition in 1848.

Chimney sweeps

The history of the Zuckerbäcker and mercenaries is a well-known part of Swiss history. It differs from the history of the spazzacamini, plural of spazzacamino, or chimney sweeps (Kaminfeger) from Tessin.

The emigration of chimney sweeps from Lombardy and Piedmont (Italy) is well known. However, the fact that many Italian-speaking chimney sweeps came from Tessin has yet to be brought to attention.

In Switzerland, this history was practically unknown until recently. After 1945, this industry was over, but (grand) parents and their descendants were ashamed of ‘selling’ their (young) sons, and the subject was taboo for a long time.

It is thanks to some Swiss museums (including Museo di Val Verzasca in Sonogno  and Museo Regionale Centrovalli-Pedemonte in Intragna) that this history has been documented from 2000 onwards.

Lisa Tetzner (1894-1963) published the novel Die schwarzen Brüder. Abenteuer eines Tessiner Bergbauernjungen (Aarau, 1940)

Elisabeth Wenger (1946) wrote the history book ‘Als Lebender Besen im Kamin. Einer vergessenen Vergangenheit auf der Spur, (Books on Demand, BoD 2010). 

The large families with sometimes ten or more children could not feed themselves. Even the fathers often worked as chimney sweeps in winter and as agricultural or factory workers in summer. With the money earned, the family in the village could be fed again for a while.

Boys aged six to eight were small and could easily descend narrow chimneys to clean them. Parents often had no choice but to have their (very) young sons work for Padroni, who sent the children to Lombardy, Piedmont, the Netherlands, Austria, France, England or even America and Russia to sweep chimneys under their supervision. The beginnings of this industry date back to the 15th century.

Chimney sweep with his padrone around 1870. Photo: Museum Museo di Val Verzasca in Sonogno 

Most chimney sweeps came from the valleys of Centovalli, Verzasca, Vigezzo and Maggia near Locarno. In 1538, the well-known chronicler Aegidius Tschudi of Glarus speaks of the valley Vigezzo (partly Tessin, partly Lombardy): “im Tal Vejetz sind alle Kaminfeger, die nach Neapel, Sizilien, Frankreich und Tütschland reisen“( Aegidius Tschudi, Die uralt wahrhaftig Rhetia, Basel 1538).

Another chronicler reports: “…das Kaemifaegertal, das man nennet Vallis Vegetia. Daraus kommend gemeinlich alle Kaeminfaeger, die durchziehend aller lender des gantzen Europae…” (Johannes Stumpf, Gemeiner loblicher Eydgenossenschaft Stetten, Landen und Völckeren Chronik wirdiger thaaten beschreibung (Zurich 1548).

Johannes Stumpf, Gemeiner loblicher Eydgenossenschaft Stetten, Landen und Völckeren Chronik wirdiger thaaten beschreibung (Zürich 1548). Collection: Zentralbibliothek Zürich

On a mid-16th-century map, Centovalli is even called Kämifegertal (Giulio Rossi-Eligio Pometta, Storia del Cantone Ticino (Locarno 1980). Tessin was a subject territory (Untertanengebiet) of the Confederation (Eidgenossenschaft) from 1512 to 1798 and was governed by bailiffs from the cantons.

The padroni were the organisers in this industry, say employment agencies for chimney sweeps. Like the mercenary branch, the branch was owned by a few families in villages. Parents concluded seasonal contracts for their sons in Lombardy or Piedmont from November to April. For countries further away, these were five-year contracts. During the summer, they worked on farms, (textile) factories, households or other destinations.

The parents received money, half paid in advance and the other half at the end of the contract. Moreover, there were fewer mouths to feed at home.

One writer said of his childhood poverty, “we ate chestnuts in the morning, chestnuts in the afternoon and chestnuts in the evening”. It was child labour and slavery with seven-day working weeks, unhealthy and dangerous work with often ruthless padroni and commissioners. Many (very) young children did not survive. Only a few were able to improve their standard of living, and even fewer became wealthy.


Palazzo Tondü in Lionza

And yet, there are also stories of social ascent and wealth. An example is the palace in Lionza of the Tondutti family in the Centovalli. Father Giuseppe Tondutti and two sons, Andrea, aged 13, and Antonio, aged 7, travelled to Parma in October 1630 to sweep chimneys. Fate brought them to the villa of wealthy banker Marini. However, Giuseppe choked on the chimney because a servant had lit the kitchen oven, unaware that the chimney sweep was active.

The childless banker and his wife decided to adopt Andrea and Antonio. It was the beginning of a fast career move up to the highest noble circles, and already in 1650, the brothers built their palace in Lionza. Their descendants did not live there permanently, and in 1784, knight Ferdinando Tondü donated the palace to the municipality of Lionza. In 1984, the foundation (Fondazione) Casa Tondü was established to renovate the complex.

The Tondutti were not the only ones. City palaces were also built in other villages. The origins of these spazzacamini can be recognised by the many chimneys on their buildings. They or their descendants had started as chimney sweeps and became padroni. However, this background remained less prestigious as the success of Zuckerbäcker or mercenaries in foreign military service.

(Source: Bron: Elisabeth Wenger, Als Lebender Besen im Kamin. Einer vergessenen Vergangenheit auf der Spur, Books on Demand, BoD 2010; Guido Fiscalini, I Tondù di Lionza (Museo Regionale Centrovalli-Pedemonte in Intragna, 1998).

Lionza, the chapel of the Tondü family

The St. Antonio da Padova Church, 17th century, probably financed by the Tondü family