In the 1960s, it seemed the whole world wanted to be Italian. Italy was simply the place to be, a land of historic cities and sun-drenched lemon groves, high culture and fashion, glamourous starlets in every café and luxury yachts and cars high on the list. Even more so, it was the Italian people themselves who were envied not only for their innate sense of style, but also for their unmistakable verve and carefree attitude to enjoying the good things in life: a vibrant approach that was emulated the world over.
This distinctive and sophisticated style had been in the Italians’ blood for hundreds of years, shaped by their remarkable history. One of new ways of thinking the Renaissance had ushered in was an approach to living, leisure and luxury that became known as sprezzatura, a kind of studied nonchalance. Coined by courtier Baldassar Castiglione in 1528, sprezzatura could be seen in the small details of personal style and taste, how well one enjoys conversation and company- but all done so casually as to appear effortless, a perfect balance between constraint and sophistication.
Professor Richard Blythe, formerly Dean of Architecture and Design at RMIT University Melbourne, believes that such thinking is a cornerstone of Italian identity.
“To people who live surrounded by some of the greatest ever art, history and cultural expression, in a country that thinks of the Renaissance as happening last week, social awareness is just part of their mental architecture,’ he says.
“Centuries later, it’s a mindset that still shapes consumer choices and leisure activities. It keeps up a tradition of craftsmanship seen nowhere else in the world and provides a gracious example to others of how to indulge in it.”
This was certainly the case in the heady economic boom following World War II, when Hollywood itself came calling- and stayed. In the 1950s and 60s, American filmmakers flocked to Rome, touted as the most stylish city on earth, to work at the Cinecitta Studios, ushering in the period that made Federico Fellini, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni household names, and blazoned the freewheeling La Dolce Vita– coined after Fellini’s eponymous film- on the imagination of the world.
One of the hallmarks of this gilded age was the ubiquitous Vespa. Although designed with pragmatic goals in mind, its enduring impact has been one of style. Created by aeronautical engineer Corradino d’Ascanio for aeronautics company Piaggio, the redesign of the ungainly M6 prototype enclosed the engine, allowing the scooter to have a step-through design and tall splashguard to protect the rider. On seeing it, Enrico Paiggo exclaimed ‘Sembra una vespa!’ (‘It looks like a wasp!’) and in 1946, the Vespa went into production.
The Vespa’s appeal was instant, and near universal. It was smaller, cleaner and more comfortable than a motorcycle; it was affordable to run but with enough zip for busy streets, making it popular with the urban chic set. And its styling was as voluptuous and glamorous as a film star, with just as many seen riding them. In 1952, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck riding through the Eternal City filming Roman Holiday legendarily inspired over 100, 000 sales. Vespa had become an emblem of vivacious Italian glamour and style, an association which has only grown stronger with time. Today, Vespa is regarded as little short of a style statement with wheels.
Naturally, an even older and more lavish Italian luxury made its mark among the silver screens and superstars. Founded in Rome in 1881, Bulgari jewellery served a clientele composed of the creme of European aristocracy and American magnates, but it was in the 1960s that Bulgari shot to international fame, its lavish pieces adorning sirens such as Sophia Loren, Gina Lollabrigida and Elizabeth Taylor. One of its most famous was the diamond and deep green emerald necklace bought for Taylor by Richard Burton as a wedding gift in 1964; a true treasure, when the necklace was sold by Christies in 2011, it fetched over $6 million USD. The elegant matched earrings brought a further $3.2 million.In 1962, Bulgari led an exhibition of jewellers in Paris to mark the founding of the Italian Institute of Culture. Where Paris has previously reigned supreme, Bulgari was determined to inject new life into jewellery design, most obviously with its signature style of bold statement jewels that let creativity and colour take centre stage.
As well as eschewing the fussy establishment penchant for white gems, Bulgari’s coloured stones represented a different kind of exclusivity, taste and skill. Bulgari’s Brand and Heritage Curator Lucia Boscaini, emphasises that their inimitable aesthetics and constant experimentation is not only deeply entrenched in Italian artisan traditions, but also unique in approach.
“Larger coloured stones are harder to source, and require sophistication to design with them and great deal of skill to balance over an entire piece. Each is handcrafted, and can take a year or more to complete.” Boscaini explains.
“It’s this sophistication that takes luxury spending of this kind beyond simple display into something much more complex,” says Dr Paul Harrison, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour at Deakin University.
“When you ask Italians about luxury goods, they talk about it in terms of buying a piece of heritage. They see it as investing in something that has a story woven with Italy itself, that comes from a long tradition of fine craftsmanship, and has had care, skill and love put into every detail, be that butter-soft Ferragamo shoes or the equally fine crafted upholstery in a Maserati GranTurismo. It’s not simply buying from a company, it’s owning part of the story.”
Harrison says that aside from their considerable sensory fascination, the subconscious allure of luxury goods is what they represent. “They not only reinforce those ideas about history and heritage, but it represents a very basic human instinct: a desire to belong, to be seen as successful and desirable, and to communicate that to others.“Of course, this contributes to sense of self in more complex and intangible ways- the concept of wealth becomes more abstract, becomes about what it can do and the enjoyment it can give, what it projects about oneself- and how it feeds into self-regard, and elevates the individual in the eyes of others.” Harris elaborates that sense of deliberate control over one’s spending habits underpins Italian luxury consumption.
“It shows a nuanced command of the signals it sends,” he says, “ and Italians are very comfortable with that degree of self-awareness- after all, they’ve been doing it for centuries. And being less influenced by Protestant mores around wealth, they are fully able to project their social credentials and personal sophistication.”
Richard Blythe agrees the same approach informs their habit of integrating leisure, socialisation, and old-fashioned seeing and being seen with the work day.
“Italians have a very particular sense of what life and culture means: not merely getting through the week, but participating in a civil and elegant society, even in such a small way as chatting over coffee,” a habit at the heart of that most beloved of Italian institutions, and arguably Italy’s greatest cultural contribution to Australia, the café.
There were Paris-style ‘coffee palaces’ in Melbourne as early as the 1870s, as the Temperance Movement protested the anti-social nature of alcohol. The first espresso machine was invented by Angelo Moriondo of Turin in 1884; Luigi Bezzera then patented improvements in 1901. The first espresso machine in Australia came to roost in Melbourne’s Café Florentino in the 1930s, as an influx of Italian migrants searched for a taste of home.
Achille Gaggia came to the rescue, perfecting the first modern steamless espresso machine in 1938. Unlike earlier models, Gaggia’s machine forced water to flow at pressure over the coffee grounds, resulting in a thick, rich crema that is the hallmark of espresso. The first Gaggia machine was patented in 1947, and in May 1954 the first import licence was granted to Peter Bancroft and his father, who opened il Cappuccino in St Kilda. Police were quickly called in to manage the unruly crowds.
While most would assume that Australia’s enthusiasm for the bean was due to European migrants, it was actually American soldiers stationed in Australia during the War that did much to popularise cafes in the mainstream. And while Melbourne’s inner city suburbs had became the heart of a Euro-style café culture, its rival was, surprisingly, North Queensland, meeting the demand from Italian cane growers.
Today most cafés offer substantial food and even wine as well as coffee and sweets, reflecting a trend towards less formal dining. Granted, this new breed of café has diverges from its Italian forebears: few Australians knock back a quick espresso al banco, standing at the bar, but in common with southern Italians, will order and imbibe at the table, il tavolo, to soak up the décor and warm climate, greet acquaintances or simply watch the passing parade.
But while Australians have a reputation for coffee snobbery, Blyth insists that beneath the differences the Italian experience remains unchanged.
“It’s the same appreciation of architecture and art on the walls,” he says, “the same pleasure of slipping on the new shoes, of indulging a little after a hard day, the same social experience that unconsciously reassures us we belong,” he says.
“And although the world might be constantly digitally connected, that sense of personal connection is more important than ever.”
Published Il Tridente November 2018