Because Italy is more than a geographic expression..

Alessi S.P.A. US

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Another Face of Italian Genius

By Alessandro Nicolo

Accenti Magazine, Summer 2006.

A few years ago, I was sharing an espresso with a local restaurateur. The subject of our discussion was his ten thousand-dollar coffee machine from Italy. Curiously, the direction of the conversation brought us to a side of Italy rarely talked about - its industrial face.

Words like industry are not normally associated with how we perceive Italy. Indeed, to offer a bold statement, by some estimates 60 per cent of the Western world's treasures are to be found within Italy's borders. Another estimate claims that Italy exports 45 per cent of the world's luxury items. These are astounding figures. Then again, to anybody who has been to Italy, these figures are not surprising.

This 'geographic expression', as it was once called, is essentially one giant museum of fine living. By now, many of us are familiar with much of what Italy is famous for - from the fine arts of film, fashion, architecture and music to its highly regarded and world renowned culinary heritage with espresso, wine, cheese and gelato. Their sports culture, littered with international successes, should not be underestimated either.

However, their industrial accomplishments do not get as much attention: The artful ability to create works of art from cold, uninspiring elements of the post-industrial age - metal and steel. Italy is not only a purveyor of 'la dolce vita' or the finer, sweeter things in life, but is equally an innovator in the harder, sharper elements of it.

Italy brought its industrial and manufacturing base to new heights during the 20th century. By applying creative and elegant design to industrial machinery - like the coffee machine that sparked this article for example - mainly in the cities of Torino and Milano, Italy quickly distinguished itself in the post-war years as a dominant global trendsetter in industrial and manufacturing design.

Today, Italy ranks 7th in the world in industrial and manufacturing output. It is a nation that conceives performance in both man and machine. The Futurist Art movement is a marvelous example of this.

For those bemoaning today's global, mechanized cookie-cutter approach to manufacturing, look no farther than Italy; it is home to hundreds, if not thousands of companies, family dynasties and small shops devoted to the craftsmanship of the forgotten art of small details.

Metal? Steel? These are not things we usually associate with Italy. When we think about Italy it immediately conjures up romantic and picturesque images of Capri or world class ski resorts. Steel, and its efficient application of it, normally brings to mind other economic powers like Germany, Britain, France, Japan and the United States. Italy? Really?

Really. It is a side of Italy I personally never paid close attention to and was slow to realize. Buoyed by innovative and avant-garde engineers that perfected Italian industrial design, some of the most famous names in Italy are manufacturing legends. They include Piaggio (makers of the iconic Vespa scooters) in airplane building, Beretta in fine pistol manufacturing, Ducati and Aprilia (owned by Piaggio) in motorcycling and Campagnolo, Bianchi and Columbus Steel in bicycle manufacturing.

Of course, high performance sports cars are synonymous with Italy's fascination with speed. Needless to say, Italy has earned a racy reputation with the likes of Alfa Romero, Maserati and Ferrari to name a few manufacturers.

Design does not begin and end with form in Italy. In car manufacturing, for example, it includes all the tiny pieces of metal that create the whole machine-cranks and blocks, hydraulic lifters, cam shafts, bearing caps, breaks and gear boxes and countless other pieces. These are definitely not your run-of-the-mill machine-shop components that make a car go- they are works of high quality art that complement the design geniuses of Pininfarina, Zagato and Michelotti.

Nor does it end with moveable objects with an engine. One would think that manufacturing bicycles does not demand technical innovation, but do not tell that to cycling-mad Italy. Primary materials in aerodynamic bicycle manufacturing include carbon fibre, titanium, exotic steel and aluminum alloys.

Lastly, in the land where the Etruscans, Romans and Renaissance Humanists were born, Italy was among the first European nations to offer their engineering know-how in space exploration through the Italian Space Agency. Together with NASA, the Italian Space Agency takes part in various development projects. The ultimate recognition of Italy's presence in the post-industrial age.

After enjoying a fine Italian lunch, when asked what sets Italians apart from most cultures, the French-Canadian restaurateur I was sharing an afternoon with told me in this casual but intriguing conversation, that Italians do not just make espresso. They make the machine to perfect it. They also make the knives and metalwork to cut their culinary creations and they produce the machines to perfect the shoe. They are, in today's global economy, fully integrated artists.

An appropriate analogy would be in film. A director's artistic vision imprints his or her distinctive style on the story. The great Italian director, Federico Fellini, left his fingerprint on every film he made that broke with classical styles during that period. In a way, Italy's great industrial designers have left a legacy reminiscent of Fellini. In this light, perhaps those figures mentioned and their achievements on the onset are not that surprising.


  1. I think this post is a very good introduction to your new blog. It makes people understand how interesting and peculiar can be the industrial face of Italy, something not well known to the international public. Keep up with the good blogging, dear Canadian man.

    All the best


  2. Thank you, MOR. This site is a work in progress indeed. It's an evolving process trying to work through the fascinating world of Italian business and manufacturing.