The art of Campari

This is something I wrote a few years ago for the Daily Telegraph when Campari put on an exhibition of its posters in London.

You’d never get some the images in the forthcoming exhibition of classic Campari posters past the Advertising Standards Agency. There are figures who might appeal to children, adults who appear to be under 25 and, most shocking of all, images linking the consumption of Campari to seduction. Thankfully there were no such strictures in 20th century Italy when Campari commissioned a series of posters that blurred the line between art and advertising.

Campari has its origins in the heart of industrial Italy, Milan. In 1861, a cafe owner Gaspare Campari created a blend of 68 botanicals, neutral alcohol, water and sugar. That striking red colour came from cochineal beetles. A manufactured product, not governed by the whims of nature like wine nor weighed down by tradition, it was the perfect drink for a young country, Italy had only been unified in 1861, and for mass advertising. It was Gaspare’s son Davide who set about selling his drink first across Italy and then the world. 

The early advertising campaigns linked drinking Campari with glamour and sophistication. A 1913 poster by Marcello Dudovich shows a group of Edwardian ladies in elaborate pastel dresses and hats. It’s a classic image of Belle Epoque bourgeois contentment though one of the men standing with them is wearing a military uniform with sword which gives the poster a melancholy edge when one thinks what would happen the following year.  

Whereas the pre-war posters are fairly conventional, after the war, Campari advertising became decidedly avant garde. Futurism, the Italian artistic movement based on speed and modernity, embraced advertising wholeheartedly. The painter Giacomo Balla wrote: “any store in a modern town, with its elegant windows all displaying useful and pleasing objects, is much more aesthetically enjoyable than […] the grimy little pictures nailed on the grey wall of the passéist painter’s studio.” In the modern world people were not going to have time to stop in museums and look at pictures but will look at art on the street.  

This union of commerce and cutting edge art found its most playful exponent in Fortunato Depero (above). He wrote “the art of the future will be largely advertising” and in 1926 he began his long relationship with Campari. His style is instantly recognisable: monotone abstract images, tribal motifs, slogans and stylised figures collide  in a way that looks like early Russian revolutionary art but with a sense of humour. Most striking of all is his 1931 design for a pavilion, which was never built, where the entire structure is built out of the word Campari. Depero sealed his place in Italian culture with his design for the triangular premixed Campari and soda, the Italian equivalent of the Coca-Cola bottle. 

Campari’s advertising embraced others artistic styles: there was surrealism in the posters of Leonardo Cappiello, sinister-looking clowns jumping through hoops of orange, the dreamlike silhouettes of Ugo Mochi or my own personal favourites, cubist still lifes by Marcello Nizzoli where the Campari bottle takes centre stage (below). This was truly a melding of fine art and commerce.

All this took place under Mussolini’s fascist regime. Initially his vision chimed with the Futurists but following the 1929 Lateran treaty with the pope, Mussolini wanted art to show a Catholic, agrarian and family-orientated Italy. A similar reaction against the avant garde happened under Stalin but whereas Soviet propaganda art of the same period became kitsch, Campari cheerfully ignored Il Duce’s edicts and the adverts continued as before. Advertisers had more artistic freedom in fascist Italy than in modern day Britain.

After the war the adverts change, it’s out with modernism and in with pop art reflecting the optimism of Italy’s post-war boom. It’s advertising for the Fiat 500 generation. For me this part of the exhibition is less satisfying perhaps because the pop art style is already so soaked in advertising. Still there are some great images: a gamine Audrey Hepburn-esque figure (below – much too sexy for the ASA), a quirky image of Depero’s bottle with running legs (these first two by by Franz Marangolo), and a typographical poster that plays with the recognisability of the Campari brand. This last image by Bruno Munari is made of different fonts like a ransom note cut out of a newspaper. Again there’s dramatic irony here has it prefigures the political violence and kidnapping of the 1970s anni di piombo (years of lead) that would mark the end of Italy’s sunny postwar age. 

The golden age of poster advertising too came to the end at a similar time with the rise of television. Posters were now part of a larger multi media campaigns though Campari still aimed for the top: Federico Fellini directed a 1984 television advert. This exhibition celebrates a special moment in advertising history, a time when commercial art could be confident, joyful and beautiful. And effective too, aren’t you now craving the distinctive bittersweet taste of Campari? I know I am.

About Henry

I’m a drinks writer. My day job is features editor at the Master of Malt blog. I also contribute to BBC Good Food, the Spectator and others. You can read some of my work here. I’ve done a bit of radio, given some talks and written a couple of books (Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and the forthcoming Cocktail Dictionary).
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