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Italia, la bellissima From their cars to their cuisine, Italians have an enviable knack of imbuing even everyday objects with beauty, says Stephen Bayley Illustrations Pierluigi Longo

Why are fast cars called ‘GT’? In honour of Italy. It stands for Gran Turismo, or the Grand Tour – the 18thcentury gap year that established the British horizon as that sunburnt otherwhere below the Alps. Here you found Italy – literally a garden of delights. ‘The Englishman,’ DH Lawrence once said, ‘is only happy travelling south.’ This is because we live in certain knowledge that the Italians have better food, better clothes and more sunshine than us. And we suspect they have more and better sex too. Merely thinking of Italy is a pleasure; to us, all the associations are positive. ‘Alfa Romeo’ does not sound like a car’s name – it sounds like an erotic proposal. An offer of cotechino is surely more romantic than ‘sausage’. The Italians enjoy figurative expressions, and their beautiful language is well adapted to them. Italy’s is the culture of la bella figura – a belief that appearances and graciousness are overwhelmingly significant. Significantly, perhaps, the Italian language does not have an expression for ‘fair play’, nor does it exactly have a word for ‘privacy’ the way we mean it. But there are abundant ways to describe physical charm. And art is on the street: physical allure is a fact of life and a tradeable commodity. ‘Italia,’ Byron said, ‘thou who has the fatal gift of beauty.’ Yes, indeed. An unrivalled inheritance of great art clearly sets a high level of expectation in national design, but it is significant that the Italians are not neurotic about heritage. This is because they are confident about adding to their astonishing patrimony. A Riva Aquarama speedboat may be a vulgarian’s expensive plaything, but such ravishing sculpture is only possible in a country where

magnificent statues are commonplace. Italy’s industrial revolution was not about coal and railways, but consumer products. And it did not occur until after 1945. Actually, as far as style was concerned, Italy circa 1900 was rather grim, but the years of la dolce vita made mass-produced beauty an everyday reality. ‘Design’ was officially seen as a part of the national revival. Small factories were able to manufacture in modern materials the

furniture that architects had designed while unemployed. These were years of supreme Italian economic confidence; indeed, when the founding members of what became the EU decided to sign a treaty in 1957, they signed it in Rome. It was now that Fiat made its unforgettable series of small cars: Dante Giacosa’s Fiat 500 was created to get workers on the move, but became instead an adorable

symbol of accessible style and democratised luxury. At the same time, Olivetti glamorised office life with typewriters as suavely elegant as a Donatello. Indeed, Olivetti’s most famous products were designed by Marcello Nizzoli, whose training was not on the factory floor but in an artist’s studio. Byron was entirely correct. But the best industrial symbol of the ricostruzione was the motor scooter. On 2 June, 1946, Italy became a republic. In the same year,

Lord Byron called the country: Italia, thou who has the fatal gift of beauty

women were for the first time allowed to vote. And, in 1947, the Piaggio company, famous for boats and military planes, launched its Vespa. So called because its wiggly agility and rasping two-stroke engine brought to mind a wasp, it was constructed on aerospace principles. It not only looked streamlined, but its structure was inspired by the stressed monocoque of an aircraft. But the Vespa’s most important characteristic was a different one. Its signature step-through frame was created by Corradino d’Ascanio, Italy’s helicopter pioneer, so that newly empowered women (and priests – or, indeed, anybody else whose custom was to wear voluminous garments) could mount the vehicle with no loss of modesty. In Italy, the Vespa was quickly accepted as a token of social and political mobility – it represented emancipated style on two wheels. At the other end of consumer expectations, Ferrari’s collaboration with the coachbuilder Pininfarina became the story of unmatchable industrial beauty. Ferrari’s chairman, Luca di Montezemolo, described his product as the ‘massimo edonismo’. Maximum hedonism is what we, the poor cold, grey, hungry Brits, have always longed for in Italy. I once asked Lapo Elkann, the Fiat heir who helped revive the cinquecento, how he defined Italian design. He said. ‘It’s creative and warm. It makes people smile. It’s sunny. It brings energy in, good or bad. Like Italy.’ È vero. Q Stephen Bayley is one of the world’s most outspoken commentators on art, design and popular culture. An Italophile, he recently published La Dolce Vita: The Golden Age of Style & Celebrity (£39.95)

Stephen Bayley on Italian style  
Stephen Bayley on Italian style  

Design guru Stephen Bayley writes about Italian skill at imbuing everyday objects with beauty in The Quarterly