Yesterday we went to the shopping centre in Broadway and our attention was drawn to an extraordinarily beautiful vintage Vespa which was a prop for a lovely stand selling bright Cocopani beach umbrellas. Chatting to the salesperson we discovered that the owner of Cocopani is Italian! It had to be so because the Cocopani beach umbrellas are not your standard beach umbrellas: each umbrella in fact has a sack (matching the umbrella design of course) which, filled with sand, stops the umbrella from being blown away. Very very clever! So much so, we bought one ourselves!!! So here is our humble promotion for Cocopani and also an excellent excuse to talk about la mitica Vespa!
The combination of inventiveness and aesthetic appeal is at the heart of all good design, and in particular it was, and still is, at the very heart of Italian design. La Vespa is probably the most striking example of this marriage between style and function. Here is an excerpt from a lovely book, Masterpieces of Italian Design, which describes the historical background which lead to the "golden age" of Italian design:
Reconstruction and the economic miracle
In Italy, as in other European countries, the Second World War wholly impeded the development of any non-military design while all resources and efforts were focused on wartime production. At the same time. numerous Italian factories were destroyed by Allied bombing campaigns. with the industrial heartlands of Milan and Turin being the target of repeated bombardment in 1943. April 1945 saw the end of Mussolini"s vision of recreating a Roman Empire - he was captured by Italian partisans and unceremoniously executed as the Allied forces closed in on Milan, which was the first of the Axis capitals to fall. After five long years of war, from 1940 t0 to 1945, Italy was a battered shadow of its former self, having lost almost half-a-million civilians and soldiers and having had much of its vital infrastructure ruined, For example, the 1943 bombing of Milan left 230,000 people homeless, all of who needed urgent rehousing at the war's end.
It was not just the war years that had taken their toll, but the preceding years of dire economic malaise brought about by Fascist misrule during the 1920s and 1930s. The leadership had disregarded the economic necessity of international trade and had instead followed a policy of self-sufficiency, which "led to the development of costly and unprofitable enterprises and to the suppression of undertakings which did not fit into a preconceived framework of power and priviledge", according to the eminent scholar of political theory Mario Einaudi.
Against this background of political, economic and administrative turmoil, in 1941 five leading Italian economists published a prophetic proposal for post-war economic reform. which centred on the need for an export-led recovery. In 1945, Italy emerged from the Second World War both physically and morally tattered. The situation on the ground was very bleak indeed. with over 3 million houses and their contents destroyed and essential commodities and raw materials in very short supply or simply non-existent. Poverty-stricken and war-torn, Italy was still a predominantly rural society that was very regional in its outlook, however, a number of enlightened manufacturers such a, Fiat, Olivetti and Pirelli, according to the historian Paul Ginsborg. "knew that their survival in a competitive market depended on an extensive programme of reconstruction and rationalization"" - similar to that already outlined in the economists' earlier recommendations.
Over the next five years Italy emerged miraculously like a phoenix from the flames of war and soared into a new-found prosperity, thanks to a number of key policy initiatives taken by the anti-Fascist coalition government formed in 1946 and headed by Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi. The most significant of these initiatives was opposition to state control over the affairs of private businesses, and a laissez-faire approach when it came to these companies trading overseas, yet at the same time the the post-war policy makers sought, through protectionist measures, to financially safeguard the home market's interests. The state also bolstered these initiatives with more direct help. via the provision of cheap credit as well as inexpensive energy and steel, In addition to this the government became more directly involved in the economic growth of the country through its state-run holding company, the Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (also known as the IRI). an entity that had been set up earlier in 1933, and was responsible for the regulation of Italy's publicly-owned industries, from airlines and telephone networks to car-manufacturers and machine tool companies, It was, however. the government's implementation of a low wages policy that was perhaps the most decisive factor in enabling Italian industry to manufacture competitively priced goods that could be exported for much-needed foreign income.
American aid in the form of the Marshall Plan, officially known as the European Recovery Program. was also critical to the success of Italy's reconstruction. with around US$I,2 billion being injected into the Italian economy between 1948 and 1951 in the form of grants and loans. During this period Italy also received another $2.2 billion in the form of food and fuel from America. The legendary Italian industrialist and chairman of Fiat Gianni Agnelli noted of the Marshall Plan: "In the immediate post-war years, the whole of Europe was in a recession. So first of all, it helped us step out of a recession: it gave a certain amount of speed to the economy, But that was the first step". This financial shot in the arm, courtesy of the Marshall Plan together with a growing Italian middle-class eager to buy consumer products after the deprivations of the war years proved to be the perect tonic for economic recovery. And it just so happened that Italy had a surfeit of highly trained architects, engineers, and designers who were perfectly adept at turning their hands to the creation of progressively-designed goods for the newly affluent home-owners of Italy and also crucially for the booming homemaking generation in America. Set against a background of often quite haphazard civic rebuilding programmes being frantically embarked upon in the late 1940s. industrial design was the one area in which Italian architects could home their creative powers.
During the immediate post-war period there was often an emphasis on styling rather than technological innovation, with designers imaginatively utilizing available materials and low-tech production methods to create stylish products that would ultimately revitalize Italian industry. Through this reliance on styling was born the Italian Line, which was inspired in part by American streamlining that had similarly been used during the 1930s depression to enhance products' consumer appeal. The Italian Line was used to help cloak function in an alluring skin, thereby often compensating for any technical deficiencies a product might have with visual charm. This then gave the design a competitive advantage over other similar products in the marketplace. Italian designers' predominant focus on "product aesthetics" enabled Italian manufacturers to create goods that the rest of the world really wanted to buy. It was a key driver of il miracolo economico (the economic miracle), the country's dramatic export-led recovery that transformed Italy from a struggling rural economy into a major industrialized power.
The golden age of Italian design
Luckily for Italian designers during this early post-war period, they could rely on the skilled expertise of family-run craft workshops, for example the Turin joinery shop of Apelli & Varesio, which executed many of Carlo Mollino's fIamboyant "Turinesque Baroque'" furniture pieces. During these years of reconstruction small-scale production offered by these small specialist fabricators helped to minimize risk to manufacturers and enabled them to produce more unusual and aesthetically progressive designs. The inherent flexibility of small-scale production was one of Italy's greatest assets, for it allowed manufacturers of ceramics, glassware. cutlery. lighting. furniture and the like, to quickly adapt product lines in response to the latest trends.
Throughout this, era. there was a continuing stylistic struggle between the Neo-Rationalist and the Anti-Rationalist camps, with Franco Albini championing the utilitarian cause of the former through his editorship of Casabella, and Gio Ponti as editor of Domus promoting the more bourgeois approach of the latter which sought to imbue design with a greater sense of artistry, influenced by tendencies within contemporary fine art. This continuing battle of the styles also had a political dimension, with Rationalism still being associated in many minds with the Fascist period, while also somewhat ironically now being advocated by the left-wing Popular Front. The theme of the VIII Milan Triennale in 1947 was the home, and the event specifically highlighted the need for pot-war housing solutions, such as multifunctional furnishings that enabled small apartments to be used as studios or offices during working hours as well as living spaces. Many of the exhibits on show displayed a distinctly Neo-Rationalist bias, stressing the need for low-cost solutions that were suitable for mass-production - essentially democratic designs for the masses. Later in 1947 the left-wing Popular Front was removed from the coalition government and the more centrist Christian Democrats gained sole political control.
This political shift heralded a new mood, which was reflected in Italian design and accorded with Ponti's call for quality rather than quantity. One designer who agreed with Ponti"s stance was his good friend Carlo Mollino who is famously remembered for his quip "Everything is permissible as Iong as it is fantastic." However, as the renowned Mollino historians Fulvio and Napoleone Ferrari have noted, a more exacting and extended translation of this well-known quote (which originally appeared in an interview with Mollino in the April 1950 issue of Domus) is: "Everything is allowed as long as the fantasy is preserved, that is a frail beauty. beyond any intellectualized programme." This is perhaps even more revealing; as the Ferraris explain, what Mollino meant was, "that to create an authentic artwork you don't need to follow any prescriptive credo or set aesthetic, but instead can use any means or media as long as your work is spurred on by imagination".
Many other designers began to follow the more pragmatic and less doctrinal approach offered Gio Ponti's "gentle manifesto". This less utilitarian approach to design also made sound commercial sense, as middle-class consumers - both at home and abroad - preferred its more sculptural contemporary look. The new focus on the "artistic" qualities of design thus enabled Italian design to become widely associated with a very particular visual identity which was both stylish and sophisticated. During the early 1950s a host of Italian products exemplified this contemporary fashionable look: Marcello Nizzoli's Lettera 22 typewriter (1950), Marco Zanuso's Lady chair for Arflex (1951), Corradino d'Ascanio's Vespa 150 motor scooter (1955), Ezio Pirali's VE505 table fan (1953), Osvaldo Borsani's P40 lounge chair (1954), and Angelo Lelli's suspended ceiling light (1954) - all of which heralded a distinctive new aesthetic direction in Italian design. As design historian Penny Sparke has noted of such product designs, "Their sensuous curves expressed a voluptuousness and opulence which did not discredit their essential utility. The body-shell aesthetic they advocated was not merely an attempt to make industrial artefacts sculptural: it reflected another important factor which had wider significance within the culture and economy of the period - Italy's dependence on the USA."
This reliance on American funding had prompted the removal of left-Ieaning parties from the coalition government. Increasingly Italian firms were benefitting from both American money and crucial US manufacturing expertise, such as the implementation of efficient assembly-line mass-production methods based on Fordist principals. The American film industry during the Fifties also did much to publicize post-war Italian design, which was to become synonymous with sophistication and style in the minds of the American moviegoer. Hollywood's obsession with Italy during the 1950s saw the release of Roman Holiday (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), and a host of other movies all filmed in Rome"s famous Cinecittà film studio. Italy's famous dolce vita lifestyle soon rippled far beyond the country's shores, with espresso coffee bars springing up in fashionable parts of London and New York as well as elsewhere in Europe and America, introducing a younger generation to their first taste of Italian cultura - the hissing espresso machine transforming coffee making into a captivating sensorial performance.
The launch of the Compasso d'Oro awards by the La Rinascente department store in 1954, at the instigation of Gio Ponti, was also another huge impetus to the development of Italian design. On the one hand it officially and publicly rewarded manufacturers and designers for their innovative designs and on the other it effectively promoted every year the very best Italian products through a related exhibition, which received widespread publicity in all the major design journals of the day. By the mid-1950s, just ten years after the cessation of war, Italy was a society transformed. Instead of looking back to a painful past, its government, manufacturers and designers - like those in the two other Axis powers, Germany and Japan - had chosen to look forward optimistically and embrace a future based on a free-market capitalist doctrine. Having: looked into the abyss, Italy had been galvanized into action and with Marshall Plan dollars, together with the skill of its workforce, had managed to build a confident society and a booming economy, with manufacturing leading the way. [pp. 15-16]
Masterpieces of Italian Design - Charlotte & Peter Fiell [Goodman Fiell; 2013]
Here is the entry in Masterpieces of Italian Design dedicated to the Vespa GS150:
Vespa GS150 motor scooter, 1955
Corradino D'Ascanio (1891 - 1981)
No design is more evocative of post-war spirit in Italy than the spritely and indomitable Vespa scooter, which became inextricably linked in the cinema-going public's mind with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn's amorous liaison in the comedy drama Roman Holiday (1953) - an all-time classic film that featured a memorable scooter-ride sequence. Indeed, the Vespa played such a starring role in the romantic cinematic adventure that it was even included in the film's publicity posters. The model that was featured in the film, which was introduced in 1951 and is now generally considered the "classic" Vespa, was the model 125.
Prior to this, Enrico Piaggio - whose family's aircraft-manufacturing company had perfected the art of mass-production during the war years with its assembly of aircraft and aircraft engines as well as trucks, trams, buses, funicular railways and aluminium locking systems - had sought to diversify his factory's peacetime product line with the manufacture of an easy-to-run and inexpensive scooter, inspired by similar models used by the US military during the Second World War. This was a smart business move as there was a real need for affordable modes of private transportation in Italy during the immediate post-war years. To this end, the factory built its first prototype in 1943, designed by the engineer Renzo Spolti and known as the MP5 Paperino. But this rather inelegant and cumbersome model was not to Enrico Piaggio's liking and he subsequently tasked the gifted Italian aeronautical engineer General Corradino D'Ascanio with creating a totally new vehicle that was simple to operate and maintain as well as being cheap to run. Unlike the layout of traditional motorcycles with a front-mounted engine, D'Ascanio instead placed the engine of his new creation - the MP6 prototype of 1945 - on the rear wheel, which was a highly innovative concept. This prototype was subsequently christened the Vespa thanks to Enrico Piaggio's remark that "it looks like a wasp" when it was first presented to him. This model was further refined into the Vespa 98, Piaggio's first production scooter, which was launched in 1946 and cost 55,000 lire. The design of this early model included the characteristec uni-frame step-through steel bodythat rises at the front to provide the rider with some protection from the elements but was also intended by its designer to offer a modicum of modesty for women wearing dresses. In addition to these features, the Vespa 98 also had a zippy two-stroke engine that produced a maximum top speed of 60 kph (37 mph).
Launched five years later, the Vespa 125 had an enhanced suspension system that boasted coil-springing on both wheels (unlike the Vespa 98, which only had this on its front wheel) and hydraulic shock absorbers. Its engine capacity was also uprated to 124cc, which enabled an extra 10km per hour top speed. A variation of the classic model known as the Vespa 125 U (with the U standing for "utility") was introduced in 1953 and two years later the more powerful Vespa GS150 was introduced - another legendary Vespa design that is widely acknowledged to be the most beautiful scooter ever produced. The Vespa 125 (and its later incarnation as the Vespa GS150, shown here, with its high-mounted headlight) not only embodied the carefree, optimistic and youthful spirit of the period but was also the first two-wheeled vehicle to possess a fashionable cachet that appealed to both men and women, making it a true Italian design legend that skillfully combined fun and practicality with cutting-edge style. (pp. 92 - 93)
Masterpieces of Italian Design - Charlotte & Peter Fiell [Goodman Fiell; 2013]
This is how la Vespa is described in the, as you would expect, magnificently and beautifully illustrated book published by Dorling Kindersley, Great Designs: The World's Best Design Explored & Explained (2013):
1946 • Vehicle design • High-tensile steel frame • Italy • Corradino D'Ascanio
After World War II, the Italian economy was in disarray. Piaggio's factory, like those of many other manufacturers that had produced aircraft during the war, had been destroyed by bombing. Looking for ways to rebuild his business, Enrico Piaggio realized that there was a market for personal transport. The poor state of Italian roads and the restricted budget of most consumers, however, made car-manufacturing an unattractive option, so Piaggio decided to develop a motor scooter to provide Italians with a cheap means of transport. Unimpressed with his company's first efforts, he hired an aeronautical engineer, Corradino D'Ascanio, who was already working on a scooter design. D'Ascanio, who disliked motorcycles, because of their oily engines and frame that the rider had to straddle, came up with a new design based on the American Cushman scooters that had been used by troops during the war.
Although the small wheels, step-through frame, and rear engine were influenced by the Cushman, the elegant, streamlined shape of D'Ascanio's design reflected the rounded, aerodynamic contours of aeroplanes. The elimination of the oily drive chain found on motorcycles, and the wraparound bodywork that covered the engine and kept out the wind, proved very appealing to smart young Italians. Women, in particular, appreciated the step-through design, as it made the vehicle easy to ride when wearing a skirt. The scooter's narrow-waisted appearance and the high-pitched buzz of its engine reminded Piaggio of a wasp (vespa in Italian), so by the time it was launched at the 1946 Milan fair, the name had stuck. By bringing cheap, stylish transport to millions of people across Europe and beyond, the Vespa became a design classic. (pp. 98 - 99)
Great Designs: The World's Best Design Explored & Explained [DK; 2013]
The great Umberto Eco died on Friday, the 19th of February, at the age of 84. The news took us all by surprise and, personally, I was stunned to learn of his age. Silly as it may sound, I thought (as I do, in some cases did, regarding my parents, uncles and aunts) that he was in his early 60's and would continue to be in his early sixties, regaling us with his lovely smile, humour, insights, and writings for many many many years to come. Alas, that will no longer be the case. We published a blog post on Umberto Eco in 2014, but today we'd like remember this great Italian mind with a series of articles, podcasts and a video, starting with the Guardian's obituary, a blog post published by Kay Wallace in La Repubblica's English language Blog, Aldo Grasso's piece on Eco published in La Repubblica, and finally Desmond O'Grady's article on Eco published in the Australian Financial Review:
Umberto Eco obituary
Italian writer and philosopher known for his medieval whodunnit The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco, who has died aged 84, was a polymath of towering cleverness. His novels, which occasionally had the look and feel of encyclopedias, combined cultural influences ranging from TS Eliot to the Charlie Brown comic-strips. Linguistically technical, they were at once impishly humorous and robustly intellectual. For relaxation, Eco played Renaissance airs on the recorder, and read dictionaries (he was a master of several foreign languages).
Eco’s first, watershed novel, The Name of the Rose, was published in 1980. An artful reworking of Conan Doyle, with Sherlock Holmes transplanted to 14th-century Italy, the book’s baggage of arcane erudition was designed to flatter the average reader’s intelligence. In some ways, as Eco was the first to admit, his medieval whodunnit was upmarket Arthur Hailey with ingenious modernist fripperies. Subsequently translated into 30 languages, it sold more than 10m copies worldwide, and was made into a film starring Sean Connery as the monk-detective, William of Baskerville.
Not since One Hundred Years of Solitude had there been such a consensual success in the book market. Joggers in Central Park listened to The Name of the Rose on their Walkmans. Eco’s gifted English translator, William Weaver, built an extension on to his Tuscan home with the proceeds (which he called the Eco chamber).
Yet the success of The Name of the Rose weighed heavily on Eco. When the French director Jean-Jacques Annaud released his film of the novel in 1986, Eco refused to speak to the newspapers about it. Each night when he returned to his flat in Milan he said he could “barely open the door” for the accumulation of interview requests. In private, Eco judged Annaud’s film a travesty of his novel, and found the monks (apart from the one played by Connery) “too grotesque-looking”. Yet Eco approved of Annaud’s Piranesi-like sets, which he concurred were “marvellous”.
In late 1986, when I visited Eco at Bologna University, where he taught as professor of semiotics, an abstruse branch of literary theory, he appeared unsettled, and confessed that he felt “trapped” by his fame. Shuffling grumpily round his office, he lifted up and slammed down books. He was wearing a tweed deerstalker and a large digital wristwatch-cum-calculator.
Italian Vogue had just claimed that Eco was writing a novel based on the life of Mozart. “Not true! I feel blackmailed by journalists, by myself, by my publisher. I don’t feel free any more. When I wrote The Name of the Rose it was half for fun – a free act. Now I ask myself: ‘Am I writing a new book because I want to, or because it’s expected of me?’” Eco was a polite, if oddly formal interviewee (“May I be permitted to offer you another whisky?”); he preferred to call his English, spoken with a discernible American accent, “fluent pidgin”.
Bologna University had been a hotbed of Italian red activism, and the philosophy faculty, where Eco had his office, was often spray-gunned with political slogans and crude attempts at action painting. Eco was not impressed by the artwork. “The graffiti isn’t as witty as it was in the 60s,” he complained. Nevertheless, Bologna provided Eco with invaluable first-hand experience of political extremism and conspiracy.
His second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), was a thriller set amid shadowy cabals and conventicles such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Rosicrucian Society. Eco saw modern-day political parallels with these and other sects; indeed, the P2 masonic lodge and the far-left fringe of the Red Brigades indulged a similar secrecy and fanaticism. Eco was fond of the Italian term dietrologia, which translates, not very happily, into “behindology” and presumes that secret cliques, camarillas and consortia are everywhere manipulating political scandals. In all his work, fiction and non-fiction, Eco displayed a classically Italian enthusiasm for conspiracy and arcana.
Though Foucault’s Pendulum offered a splendidly macabre denouement (with a principal character left hanging from a pendulum devised to demonstrate the rotation of the earth), the novel was reckoned to be rather too long, with opaque stretches. Reviewing it for the Observer, Salman Rushdie confessed: “Reader, I hated it.”
Many wondered where Eco would go next. His third novel, The Island of the Day Before (1994), was written to strict literary formulae and contained more scholastic hair-splitting and arcane erudition. Overall, it read like an exercise in style, with the accent on formal composition, rather than feeling and expression.
Son of Giovanna (nee Bisio) and Giulio Eco, he was born in Alessandria, a small city in the north-western Italian region of Piedmont. His father came from a family of 13 children and was an accountant in a local metalworks factory. Eco spent his formative years in the Piedmont capital of Turin, where he graduated from the university in 1954 in medieval philosophy and literature. His first published book, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas (1956), was written during the author’s military service. It was an elegant examination of the principal aesthetic ideas of medieval Latin civilisation.
Already, the young Eco saw the world as a web of signs and symbols waiting to be deciphered. His passion for medieval culture strengthened over the years, and later he gleefully decoded what he called “the avalanche of pseudo-medieval pulp” books and strip-cartoons such as Camelot 3,000 and The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian. No text or film was ever too lowly or trivial that it could not be analysed semiotically.
On leaving university, Eco worked in Milan for several years as a journalist, editing cultural programmes for Italy’s state-owned RAI television network. In 1959 he became senior non-fiction editor for the Milan-based publisher Bompiani, a position he held until 1975.
In Milan, Eco mingled with avant-garde writers, musicians and painters, and developed a love for late James Joyce, as well as the atonal asperities of Karlheinz Stockhausen and the hermetic symbolist verse of Stéphane Mallarmé. The fierce inaccessibility of these modernist works seemed to excite Eco. And in the autumn of 1963, with some like-minded experimentalists, he helped to set up Group 63, a cultural association which rejected “conservatism” in the arts and aimed to produce ultra-modern novels and poems of its own. Group 63’s literary efforts now look slightly prolix and pedantic; but Eco, to his credit, understood early on that a fiction without a story was not worth its weight in paper. His novels would not have gone on to become bestsellers otherwise.
In 1966, Eco was appointed professor of semiotics at Milan Polytechnic, and two years later, in 1968, he brought out The Absent Structure, which accompanied his earlier text, The Open Book (1962), as a classic of the genre. His cultural writings began to appear in a variety of national publications; the Italian public came to know Eco through his witty weekly column, La Bustina di Minerva, for L’Espresso magazine.
Collections of the column were later published in English as Faith in Fakes, Travels in Hyperreality (1986) and How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays (1994). In these books, Eco’s interests veered from pre-Raphaelite forgeries to counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbags, from the World Cup to the US porn star and vice-presidential candidate Marilyn Chambers. This is what Eco did best: applying literary judgment to ephemera.
In 1971, Eco became the first professor of semiotics at Bologna, Europe’s oldest university. Bologna is the undisputed gastro-erotic heart of Italy, and Eco relished the city’s rich cuisine as well as its lewd medieval street names (via Fregatette, “Rub-Tits Street”, was one of his favourites). Portly, with a great black beard and husky voice (the result of 60 cigarettes a day, in later years reduced to the occasional cigar), he was a lifelong trencherman.
His lectures at the university, avidly attended by semioticians, analysed the James Bond novels, the Mad comic magazines and, with equal fizz-bang, photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Throughout his Bologna professorship, Eco denied that he was “intellectually slumming it” by speaking of Donatello’s David in the same breath as, say, plastic garden furniture.
When the entire world is a web of signs, he said, everything cries out for exegesis. Marginal manifestations of culture should not be ignored, he explained: in the 19th century, Telemann was considered a far greater composer than Bach; by the same token, in 200 years, Picasso may be thought inferior to Coca Cola commercials. (And who knows, Eco added jokingly, one day we may consider The Name of the Rose inferior to the potboilers of Harold Robbins.)
In his mandarin analysis of the outwardly mundane, Eco was influenced by the French essayist and counterculture guru Roland Barthes. However, while Barthes wrote about washing powder, Greta Garbo’s face, or the new model Citroen in a subtle, teasingly paradoxical style, Eco’s essays showed a certain crude braggadocio and swagger; in Italy, he was not always considered a writer of very distinguished literary prose. (I myself observed that his mind worked like a kitchen blender: “In go a dash of Thomas Aquinas, a pinch of Borges, some diced semiotics and – presto! – out pours an ‘interesting’ essay’.”) Eco was at his best when composing bookish parodies and spoof sequels to famous novels. (In one of these, the narrator of Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu dies in Dublin after reading Joyce’s Ulysses and drinking too much Guinness.)
Italian university professors are expected to enter public debate, and Eco did not disappoint. “Journalism,” he announced with characteristic self-confidence, “is my political duty.” Furthermore: “I believe it is my job as a scholar and citizen to show people how we are surrounded by messages.” In this, Eco was not so different from other campus media commentators, such as Susan Sontag and Marshall McLuhan. Like them, he could sometimes appear pseudo-cerebral. In one essay, Eco discussed the figure-hugging comfort of his own denim Levi’s. “Well, with my new jeans life was entirely exterior: I thought about the relationship between me and my pants, and the relationship between my pants and the society I live in … I had achieved epidermic self-awareness.”
Eco’s fourth novel, Baudolino, which appeared in Italy in 2000, was set in Byzantine Constantinople. An enjoyable quest-story, it was freighted with the author’s by now familiar typographical eccentricities, footnotes, numerological games and inventories. The book was a great success in Italy, though some critics enviously objected that Eco had sold out to fame. In the days before he became the emperor of international bestsellerdom, he wrote a sneering critique of the 007 novels in which Ian Fleming emerged as a high-end Mickey Spillane, cynically devising entertainments for a reading public both “popular and serious”. Yet Baudolino, not unlike The Name of the Rose, appealed to a remarkably similar readership. Whatever his merits as a novelist, Eco was an exceptionally shrewd self-promoter: it is not often that an academic keeps company in the book charts with Jackie Collins and Dick Francis.
When his next novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, drawing on his youth in wartime Italy, was published in 2004, he declared it would be his last: “Five is enough”. The novel’s title was taken from a fascist-era comic book, La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana, which Eco had enjoyed as a pro-Mussolini child growing up in north-west Piedmont. He continued to read and enjoy strip cartoons (not least the superb Italian Diabolik series) on his retirement from Bologna University as professor emeritus in 2008. His literary output continued to be prolific and included two further novels, The Prague Cemetery (2010), in which characters voiced disturbing antisemitic diatribes, and Numero Zero (2015), a razor-sharp thriller set in Milan in 1992, in which Eco explored the darker side of 20th-century Italy and the so-called “strategy of tension”, where Italian secret-service chiefs allegedly connived with cabinet ministers to implicate the left in acts of terrorism and bring back fascism. The novel, its pacy and sparsely written pages happily free of Eco’s occasional verbosity, topped the bestseller charts in Italy.
Eco is survived by his wife, Renate (nee Ramge), whom he married in 1962 and with whom he had a son, Stefano, and daughter, Carlotta.
• Umberto Eco, writer, born 5 January 1932; died 19 February 2016
• This article was amended on 21 February 2016. The Absent Structure, published in 1968, was not Eco’s first study of semiotics; this has been corrected, and the piece has been expanded.
“Goodbye to Umberto Eco, the man who knew everything” (La Repubblica)
“Goodbye to Umberto Eco, the writer who modernised culture” (Il Messaggero)
“Goodbye to Umberto Eco, literature in mourning” (La Stampa)
“Goodbye to Umberto Eco, the writer who changed Italian culture" (Corriere della Sera)
The death of philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco at the age of 84 late on Friday was reported all over the world, but in his native Italy it was front-page news. Why is perhaps best explained by the headline of the New York Times:
“Umberto Eco, 84, Best-Selling Academic Who Navigated Two Worlds, Dies"
A professor of semiotics at Bologna University, he was also a bestselling novelist, best known internationally for his novel The Name of the Rose. He did not see the slightest contradiction between the two roles. “I think of myself as a serious professor who, during the weekend, writes novels,” he said.
In Italy he was also a very public figure, frequently appearing on TV talk shows or writing opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines on everything from the importance of reading (“At the age of 70, those who don’t read will have led only one life: their own! Those who read will have lived 5000 lives) to politics. He was not a fan of Silvio Berlusconi. In 2011 he compared the Italian prime minister of the time to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in his reluctance to resign under any circumstances.
At 83 he was still capable of stirring up controversy with his statement on social media: “Social media give a platform to legions of imbeciles who previously only spoke at the bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community... It’s the invasion of the imbeciles.”
And towards the end of the year, he and a group of other writers, including Hanif Kureishi, announced they were setting up their own publishing company, La Nave di Teseo, in response to Mondadori’s proposed acquisition of the Rizzoli-Corriere della Sera, Group – Italy’s largest publishing group (owned and run by the Berlusconi family) taking over its second largest.
If you wanted a quick introduction to Umberto Eco, you could do worse than listen to him on Desert Island Discs. This historic BBC radio programme plays eight pieces of music well known personalities have chosen to take with them to a desert island, interspersed with an interview. All of Eco is there. His musical choices mix the lowbrow and the highbrow, Dooley Wilson singing As Time Goes By and Jacob van Eyck, "a Flemish-Dutch flutist”. He explains his approach to semiology: “You have the intellectual duty to analyse a poem by Homer in the same way as the words to a very popular song.” His humour is there. When asked to summarise his work, he says, “If I could say it in a few words, I would have sent a telegram instead of writing all those books.”
And his choice of one book to take with him to the island is the New York phone directory. “It contains all the names of the world. There you can imagine an infinite series of stories with infinite characters.” A choice that is unexpected, original, playful but also rational. Typically Umberto Eco.
Il 19 febbraio 2016 è morto, all’età di 84 anni, lo scrittore Umberto Eco.
Per anni, un famoso editore mi ha chiesto di scrivere una Fenomenologia di Umberto Eco firmata da Mike Bongiorno. Doveva essere una sorta di piccola vendetta, un risarcimento che il conduttore voleva prendersi per essere stato descritto come la fodera invisibile della mediocrità, lo zimbello della cultura.
Mike ne soffriva, ma anche Umberto non voleva che i suoi studi sulla tv venissero identificati con la sola «Fenomenologia», il suo saggio più citato. Eco è stato il primo in Italia a dare una svolta internazionale agli studi sulle comunicazioni di massa. Giovanissimo era entrato in Rai nella pattuglia dei «corsari» (così erano chiamati i giovani che avevano seguito un corso di formazione voluto da Filiberto Guala) e avendo visto la tv dall’interno, riuscì a fare teoria basandosi su esperienze concrete, a cominciare da un memorabile saggio sulla diretta, Il caso e l’intreccio.
L’esperienza televisiva e l’estetica, in Opera aperta, Bompiani, 1962. Per lui, la tv aveva unificato linguisticamente la penisola, là dove non vi era riuscita la scuola. Lo aveva fatto nel bene e nel male. Aveva uniformato non con il linguaggio di Dante ma con quello di Mike, nel migliore dei casi con quello delle cronache sportive, del Festival di Sanremo, dei telegiornali. Si era trattato di un fenomeno di proporzioni enormi che aveva accelerato i ritmi della nostra vita sociale in maniera impressionante. Da Opera aperta, appunto, a Diario minimo, 1963, adApocalittici e integrati, 1964, a La struttura assente, 1968, alle raccolte di saggi come Il costume di casa, 1973, Dalla periferia dell’impero, 1977, Sugli specchi e altri saggi, 1985, il discorso sulla tv ha trovato in Eco uno studioso di grande sensibilità, sempre in grado di fornire una vesta teorica alle minuzie e alle insidie dello schermo, e sempre attento alla coscienza critica dello spettatore. La sua idea di fondo era che per studiare la cultura di massa bisognasse arretrare lo sguardo, rifarsi ai filosofi e ai retori del passato, non farsi schiavizzare dalla contingenza. Non sono stato un suo studente, ma a Umberto devo molto.
Fondamentale per me è stato il «Prix Italia» del 1972, dedicato alla critica televisiva e la cui relazione introduttiva era stata affidata proprio a lui.Riprendendo uno schema di Franco Fortini, Eco proponeva tre tipologie di «finalità culturali»: la critica normativa, la critica fiancheggiatrice o militante, la critica orientativa. Nel tentare di definire alcuni criteri di teoria analitica e di metodologia critica (sia pure presi a prestito dal campo letterario), cercava di mettere ordine nelle idee che si avevano sulla tv, sulla remota possibilità che potesse essere oggetto di indagine «seria». Per la prima volta, si parlava di canone, di poetica, di «valore artistico dell’opera». Si tentavano i primi cauti discorsi sui generi, sull’estetica televisiva. Rientra in questo clima l’espressione «estetica dei parenti poveri» coniata per dare conto dell’atteggiamento di estraneità intellettuale della cultura alta nei confronti dei prodotti dell’industria culturale (si discuteva molto allora di separazione tra élite, masscult e midcult e, nonostante l’attacco a Mike, Eco aveva promosso con decisione gli studi sulla cultura pop, dalla musica ai fumetti, dal kitsch ai consumi di massa).
In quegli anni ci fu anche una grande infatuazione per la semiologia, una fucina inesauribile di teorie sullo scibile umano cui era sufficiente cercare i «segni» per ratificarle. Eco ci credeva molto, altri meno. Se la proverbiale diade «apocalittici e integrati» è diventata una di quei fortunati slogan che segnano le mode culturali (come «medium caldo, medium freddo», i «non luoghi» o la «società liquida»), la sua distinzione fra paleotv e neo tv ha caratterizzato tutti gli studi degli anni ’80 sul mezzo (la si trova in Sette anni di desiderio, 1983). Col tramonto del monopolio Rai, che aveva caratterizzato il panorama televisivo fino agli anni ’70, Eco segnalava importanti trasformazioni linguistiche. Un primo aspetto di novità era la crescente autoreferenzialità della tv, che parlava sempre meno del «mondo esterno» e sempre più di se stessa e del proprio rapporto con lo spettatore, per costruire prove della propria verità esistenziale.
Nelle «Bustine di Minerva», pubblicate settimanalmente da «L’Espresso» ha scritto di talk show, di serialità, di audience. Appariva poco in video: «Un tempo il teleschermo era il luogo in cui per definizione vedevo volti eccezionali, ora è per definizione il luogo in cui vedo i volti più comuni possibili. Una volta la tv mi dava ciò che non avrei potuto vedere altrove, oggi mi dà ciò che posso vedere ovunque. Apparire in tv vuole dire dunque condannarsi all’anonimato. Non vorrà che un uomo con le mie smodate ambizioni acconsenta a correre questo rischio». Ma a lui, a Tullio De Mauro e Piero Nelli si deve la realizzazione di una straordinaria inchiesta, «Parlare leggere scrivere», 1973, cinque puntate sulla storia della lingua italiana dall’unità nazionale ai primi anni ’70.
Umberto Eco's life full of surprises and witty insults
by Desmond O'Grady
Umberto Eco, who died late last week, became known worldwide for his whodunit set in a medieval monastery – The Name of the Rose – but even before that, in Italy, he was a guru who occasionally became an intellectual guerilla fighter and an academic who wanted to modernise hidebound Italy.
He was passionately involved with books – almost all of his own books came out of his reading. His Milanese apartment facing Sforza Castle allegedly contained 30,000 books, including many rare volumes.
Born into a middle-class family in north-western Piedmont in 1932, Eco grew up thinking Mussolini was a god. He was a devout youth, a leader in the Catholic Action movement and his Turin university PhD thesis in philosophy was on the aesthetics of St Thomas Aquinas. Later his faith disappeared "like an electric current being turned off".
For four years he worked for the state broadcaster RAI, which brought him into contact with Mike Bongiorno, a popular TV figure who ran a quiz show. Out of this experience came Eco's most famous short essay – The Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno, published in 1961; it was an example of his mixing high and pop culture, which was almost unheard of in Italy at the time. The essay appeared in a book called Diario Minimo, which in English had the more arresting title taken from another of his essays: How to Travel with a Salmon.
After obligatory military service, Eco worked as a non-fiction editor for the publisher Bompiani whose staff feared its founder Valerio Bompiani. Meeting Eco arriving at 11am, Bompiani said that work started at 9. Eco, who often worked until the early hours of the morning, said he needed his sleep."If you said you'd been wandering in the woods listening to the birds, I might have understood," Bompiani growled, "but we all need sleep, and turn up at 9."
A few days later, Bompiani was in the corridor when Eco arrived at midday. "What's going on?" the proprietor asked tersely. "I've been in the woods listening to the birds," Eco said. Eco stayed on; Bompiani said he was the only one who made him laugh. A combination of cheek and humour took the erudite Eco a long way.
At the publishing house, he met his first and only wife Renate Ramge, a German who worked there as a graphic designer. Bompiani published Eco's thesis, his first book, and then a series of his studies of semiotics – the theory that all culture consists of signs that can be decoded, whether the subject is Dante or Disney films, Mozart or Mickey Mouse, architecture, food, fashion, porn ... You name it, they were all worthy of the same kind of analysis.
He taught semiotics at universities in Turin, Florence and Milan before a 40-year spell at Bologna, Europe's oldest university, where he also set up a performing arts department and, finally, one on communications.
Not only pedantic professors objected to his cultural fusions. When he submitted an article to a literary review edited by Italo Calvino, one of his literary heroes, Calvino said he cheapened his arguments by references to the televised San Remo pop song contest. Eco was provocative in a continuous stream of witty and acute press articles.
The author and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini complained that Eco spouted his learning like a robot. In 1975, they clashed heavily over proposed abortion legislation. The homosexual Pasolini opposed its introduction and Eco, who approved it, charged Pasolini with foreshadowing a society in which a few heterosexual slaves would be allowed to procreate while a homosexual aristocracy would indulge themselves: "Neither Huxley nor Orwell, not even Hitler or Fanfani ever thought of this."
Eco excelled in spoofs of literary figures such as Vladimir Nabokov, but for much of his life he was simply the playful polymath - not a creator like Pasolini - though, like his beloved father, an accountant in an iron works who had read him stories nightly, he always read stories, or invented them, for his two children.
Then he sprang his surprise: The Name of the Rose, his first novel, published when he was 48. It sold 10 million copies in 30 languages and was made into a film starring Sean Connery. Eco had crossed another frontier.
He had studied 19th-century popular fiction and believed a lively narrative, including melodrama, enabled an author to carry his readers with him while he explored challenging arguments and issues. He published another five novels on interesting themes but often with less than interesting characters.
The last, Numero Zero, spotlighted the defects of sensationalist journalism, reflecting his obsession with the problem of distinguishing the true from the fake. He also noted the fake can foster a new reality that may even be beneficial.
Solidly built and bearded, always an enthusiastic foodie, a heavy smoker and a whiskey drinker, Eco became dumpy in his last years, and less ebullient. Although a harbinger of modernity, he seemed less than happy with markedly individualist societies that corrode communal solidarity. He claimed Europe's unity was cultural but, as this was still shallow, the unity was at risk.
Cannily, he rationed his TV appearances, was cautious about giving interviews ("most interviewers are convinced they're cleverer than you") and, although Leftist, was not captured by any political party. For years he championed computers but latterly deplored social media giving a "worldwide audience to imbeciles".
He loathed media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi and his commercial television, at one stage saying that if Berlusconi triumphed in politics, he would leave Italy. But Berlusconi, now a former, if disgraced, prime minister, is still on the scene whereas Eco has left forever. Before leaving, although aware of the cancer that would kill him at 84, he made a last gesture.
Recently, Italy's biggest publisher Mondadori, owned by Berlusconi, took over the Rizzoli publishing group, which includes Bompiani. (An anti-trust assessment released this week said this would give the new company a regrettably dominant position in Italian publishing. No decision has yet been made but a Mondadori manager said that they would be prepared to cede Bompiani to get approval for the deal.)
Before his death - and that assessment - a concerned Eco, who called the takeover "the Mondazzoli monster", invested money and time in setting up a new publisher, and many Bompiani authors followed him. The new publisher La Nave di Teseo (which translates as ship of Theseus) brought out its first book, Pape Satan Aleppe – Chronicles of a Liquid Society, a collection of Eco's articles for the past two decades, on Friday, February 26.
And here are a series of absolutely fascinating podcasts of, mostly, interviews with Umberto Eco. The first, which Kay Wallace refers to in her blog post above, is from the BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs and went to air on the 17th of November, 1995; in the second podcast, which featured on the BBC Radio 3 programme Free Thinking on the 1st of December, 2015, Umberto Eco talks to Matthew Sweet about, amongst other things, his, alas, last novel: Numero Zero; the third podcast is a recording of a Guardian Live Event held at the British Library in November 2015, in which Umberto Eco talks to John Mullan about, again, his then latest novel, Numero Zero, and much more; in the fourth and final podcast below, which featured on the ABC Radio National programme Books and Arts Daily in November 2014, Michael Cathcart and guests talk about Umberto Eco's 1980 novel The Name of the Rose.
Umberto Eco was a household name in Italy, so much so that he became the very archetype of the Italian professor: witty, hypo-erudite, portly, and chain-smoking. Also, he was one of Fiorello's favourite character imitations. Here is Fiorello as Eco:
Our next term of Italian language courses in the very heart of Sydney's CBD will be starting on the first week of April. There are plenty of days to choose from and ample flexibility if you cannot attend your regular Italian class. So, to paraphrase the Prime Minister, there's never been a better time to learn Italian - at Italia 500 of course! Not to mention that it's a lot of fun and, studies prove, quite good for you! Learn more about Italia 500's Italian courses in Sydney.
It's summertime and of course it's gelato time! Both the Gourmet Traveller and Time Out Sydney, have set out to discover Sydney's best gelaterie (you can read the articles scrolling down or by clicking on the covers to be directed to the articles as published on the magazines' sites).
The scoop on gelato
Is Sydney beating Italy at its own game when it comes to gelato? Maggie Scardfield puts the city's best new frozen confections to the test.
You might not remember your first gelato, but you never forget your favourite. Perhaps it was that first hit of mango and chocolate as a kid at the beach with salty hair and sandy feet, or the brioche buns filled with velvety hazelnut gelato sold by an old man from his cart in the backstreets of Palermo.
Ask people to name their gelato favourites in Sydney and they're likely to mention Bar Italia in Leichhardt, Cremeria de Luca in Five Dock, Pompei's in Bondi and, without fail, Gelato Messina. These are gelaterie of repute. The Palumbo family opened Messina on Victoria Street in Darlinghurst in 2002, and the brand has grown at a rate they could never have imagined: 11 shops around the country and one in Las Vegas, and the hype, collaborations and, yes, those queues continue to grow. Leichhardt's Bar Italia has had a slower, steadier history. The Norton Street restaurant opened in 1952 and made its name with no-frills Italian cooking and a gelato parlour, as important to the restaurant's character as the fading posters on the walls. But there's plenty to say about the new wave of gelatiers in the city, too, each churning magic with milk and air.
In Redfern, Mark Megahey and business partner Sean O'Brien opened Ciccone & Sons last June. Although the former furniture store-turned-gelato parlour has been open less than a year, Megahey had plenty of time to refine his recipes in the 20 years he worked at Bar Italia under the guidance of the restaurant's then-gelatier Oris Scandura. "We turned it into a true gelato factory," he says.
You're more likely to find flavours such as pear and riesling or crème brûlée with Laphroaig single malt than you are straight pistachio at Ciccone & Sons. The shop's name is a playful reference to Madonna, and phasing out anything generic (whether that's ingredients or too much of any one thing) is the name of the game. The produce is new-school, too: Sungold Jersey milk from Victoria's Warrnambool, say, with Pepe Saya buttermilk and mascarpone, and coffee from Di Pacci Coffee Co in Marrickville. "We aim for minimal waste in our process, so we often help our local grocer by using fruit at the end of its best shelf life," says O'Brien. And when the cold-pressed juices from Rainy Lane in Newtown are nearing their expiry date, Ciccone snaps them up and turns them into the likes of chilli, cucumber and pineapple sorbetto. Rainy Lane is already using offcuts from Black Star Pastry's watermelons, too, so it's a collaborative operation.
The shop is modest and welcoming. A vintage cash register sits alongside cakes and biscotti made by O'Brien; the menu is scrawled on a wall-mounted roll of brown paper; and hand-stitched bunting decorates the walls. "We built the space so we would feel comfortable here and our customers would feel welcome," says Megahey. "Most of the shop fittings have been part of our home at some stage."
Ciccone & Sons supplies exclusive flavours to neighbouring bars including The Bearded Tit (a dark rum and orange flavour, for instance, to complement their Not Quite So Old Fashioned cocktail), and customers are getting involved in devising new flavours. "We had a customer who got a smoker and so he>
offered to smoke almonds for us," says Megahey. The result is at once peat, smoke and fire on ice. Pass the bacon.
Megahey's one-time gelato-making partner at Bar Italia, Franco Riservato, has also opened his own shop - Gelato Franco in Marrickville. With business partner Shane Pollard and the help of his mother, Donata, Riservato focuses on a denser, more Sicilian-style gelato - "the kind my family likes to make and eat", he says. While Gelato Franco has a similar low-key vibe to Ciccone & Sons, it offers a more traditional line-up of flavours.
The colour of the all-natural pistachio is surprisingly pale - but the taste is vivid. Kept raw for sweetness, the smashed purple and green nuts form waves of crunch and chewiness between feather-light folds of milky gelato. It's a similar story for the taffy-like roasted-hazelnut flavour that reveals a fresh crust of ground nuts with each bite. Gelato Franco's tiramisù flavour is a revelation: the base is made using Sicilian Marsala and a chocolate sponge that Riservato sources from Mezzapica Cakes in Leichhardt. Nothing tastes artificial - you could be eating a piece of cake at Nonna's.
Consistency, Riservato says, is about the "one store, one gelato-maker" rule. Customers can watch the gelato being made through a window to the kitchen, each flavour churned and piled into vertical Cattabriga batch-freezers. "At Bar Italia the kitchen was down the road so you couldn't see the magic," he says. "Making gelato is such a beautiful art, so I love that we can share it with people in the new store."
Another Marrickville player of note, Pagoto Gelato & Waffle House, was opened by Arthur Skouras and Chris Felemegas in February last year on the corner of Marrickville and Victoria roads. Subtlety is not the intention here. Outside, the walls are covered with a brightly painted mural, while inside, MTV blares from a flat-screen television above the display counters. Pagoto serves a Willy Wonka-esque mix of flavours piled high with toppings and sauces (Hubba Bubba; red velvet and white chocolate; burnt-caramel slice) and an extensive menu of shakes and waffles.
Among the sugar hits, many flavours draw on the owners' Greek heritage: watermelon and feta, the resin-like mastiha, and galaktoboureko among them. "At any given time we have 32 flavours," says Skouras. "We try to rotate weekly. Some specials include white chocolate ricotta and cannoli, and ouzo." The ouzo flavour is strong enough to preclude eating and driving, but the baklava is Pagoto at its best: crisp flakes of filo, nibs of crushed nuts, and a heavenly deeply honeyed base.
With a similar more-is-more approach, the cases at La Mamma del Gelato Anita are filled with towers of extravagantly topped and sauced gelato. Born in Israel and now a very successful chain, the company was founded by Anita "Mama" Avital - and the two Sydney stores (in Chippendale and, more recently, Bondi Beach) are the first to open in Australia. The brand quickly cemented its following thanks to a separate frozen yoghurt station with unlimited toppings that include everything from caramelised pecans and chocolate pearls to jelly beans. Even late on Sunday afternoons, the brasserie-styled shop at Chippendale is packed with shoppers enjoying Mecca coffee and the rich and gooey Cookieman (a vanilla base spliced with Nutella, meringue and Italian biscotti - a must-try).
The world's best is at home in Sydney, too. When John and Wendy Crowl opened Cow and the Moon café and gelataria on Enmore Road in 2011, they hadn't planned on taking out a world title - but that they did in 2014 when they won the Gelato World Tour championship in Rimini. The winning flavour, Mandorla Affogato, combines caramelised almonds and single-origin coffee in a salted-caramel sauce on a Madagascan vanilla-bean base. It lives up to its reputation, the gelato is as light as silk, and the hints of caramel perfectly chewy and bittersweet. Even 18 months after the award the queues for the affogato - as well as other flavours such as Single-Origin Latte, Passionfruit Crème and the saucy Cherrymania - still snake out the door and down Enmore Road.
There's action beyond the inner south and west, too, in the form of Coppetta on Old South Head Road in Vaucluse. Husband and wife team Michael and Deborah Cthurmer run two cafés on the strip, Bazaar Deli and Grumpy Baker, and sandwiched in between them is their hole-in-the-wall gelato shop, opened last August. The gelato style here comes off a little icy, but the flavours, most of Middle Eastern inspiration and all made on site, are well-considered nonetheless.
A sprightly watermelon and mint sorbet, speckled with green, is wonderfully refreshing, "It complements our free-spirited beachy lifestyle," says Deborah. The richer (albeit more crumbly) gingerbread packs a solid ginger hit, while other flavours include Turkish delight, toasted marshmallow, lavender honey crème brûlée, and a heady pistachio and rosewater.
RivaReno is a far bigger operation. Founded in Milan in 2005, the gelato chain arrived in Australia in February 2013 when Sydney entrepreneur Kieran Tosolini opened his Darlinghurst shop after trying the gelato in Italy. "Usually you don't associate chains with such high quality," he says. "I thought to myself, if they can replicate such amazing quality in different locations, then maybe I can bring that same taste and texture to Sydney."
Tosolini trained in Milan for a few months before opening the first RivaReno on Crown Street. Opening so close to gelato veteran Messina was a ballsy move, but Tosolini is confident enough to feature a sign in his window saying "we make it in front of everyone" (a cheeky nod, presumably, to his competition that makes it out the back).
RivaReno makes small batches (as little as 1.5 kilos at a time) and restocks as needed. Unlike many gelatarie in Sydney, there are no display cabinets at RivaReno. All 24 flavours are kept in pozzetti, the covered stainless-steel containers designed to keep gelato fresh. "The pozzetti allow us to keep the gelato at a much warmer temperature of minus nine degrees," he says, in comparison to most other gelato which is served around minus 14 to minus 17. "It makes for far more creaminess than ice."
The Cremino flavour is a perfect example. A white chocolate and hazelnut ganache dances with rich layers of gianduja sauce - it's milky and dense, but doesn't coat the mouth. The dark-green Pistachio Bronte is intensely flavoured and lush. Then there's the sheep's milk ricotta with caramelised figs - it's sweet but never cloying and, even better, you can have it served Palermo-style in a brioche bun from Fratelli Paradiso.>
RivaReno imports a number of ingredients to ensure the quality remains the same as in Italy, including milk from the Stura Valley's high-altitude pastures, hazelnuts from Piedmont, Bronte pistachios, and Sicilian citrus.
Despite what Tosolini considered a slow start, people are warming to RivaReno's charms and he believes they're excited to try something new. Most recently, Tosolini has created flavours for Billy Kwong in Potts Point - a Davidson plum sorbet and a macadamia-nut and a chocolate-chip gelato - and RivaReno will open its second site within the Barangaroo precinct on 1 April.
"Sydney has the perfect climate for most of the year to enjoy gelato," says Franco Riservato of Gelato Franco. With its clement weather and carefree spirit, Sydney is ripe for a gelato revolution, and this latest wave of players, traditionalists and innovators alike, is making the most of it. Get out there and get your taste.
Maggie Scardifield - Australian Gourmet Traveller, February 2016
There are a thousand places to get it – from the gummy, overly saccharine crap, to smooth, silky excellence. Rest assured, though, that these ten are all in the latter category.
Chill Bar: Avalon
‘Chill Bar’ is a bad name (we’ve missed you, the 90s) but the gelato, thankfully, is anything but. It’s made onsite, and our picks are the white chocolate and raspberry, which contains freeze-dried fruit that adds texture and sour respite from the sweet cream, and the strawberry sorbet, which is smooth and light and totally refreshing.
74 Old Barrenjoey Rd, Avalon Beach 2107.
Ciccone and sons: Redfern
Finally: gelato that isn't too sweet! Ciccone and Sons are doing gelato the way it should be made in a hot climate like ours. In India they serve chilled buttermilk as a refreshing drink, and here at Ciccone they know the score. Their buttermilk and passionfruit flavour is possibly the most refreshing iced treat you could imagine – sweet'n'sour and slightly salty. Its creamy too, but not overly so, and tastes like summer in a cup. 195 Regent St, Redfern 2016.
Cow and the Moon: Enmore
The Mandorla Affogato won this gelateria World’s Best Gelato at 2014’s Gelato World Tour in Rimini, Italy. It’s hard to argue with them. From the cream base infused with Madagascar vanilla and smoky Kenyan coffee, to the smashed-up shards of crunchy almond praline and the smooth salted caramel sauce, it’s worth your wait in that queue. 181 Enmore Rd, Enmore 2042.
Cremeria De Luca: Five Dock
On Saturday nights the queues go around the block. If they’re not here for the thick, pudding-like hot chocolate (which you’ve really gotta try), they’re certainly here for the gelato burger: a coupla scoops of house-made gelato (we like the zabaglione flavour, which is rich, eggy and icy-refreshing), a dollop of whipped cream and a slick of Nutella on a buttery brioche bun. 84 Ramsay Rd, Five Dock 2046.
Gelato Franco: Marrickville
Props have to go to the zabaglione gelato, which is our favourite hands down. The ice cream is toned ever so gently with Marsala (Sicilian sherry), with a fine layer of Marsala-soaked sponge strewn over the top. If you like the rich, sweet, almondy taste of Marsala you’re gonna love this. 281 Marrickville Rd, Marrickville 2204.
Gelateria Gondola: Chatswood
The one we fall for most is the Cremino - a classic Sicilian combination of strawberry sorbet with cream, in the form of a Jersey milk gelato (no vanilla needed: this milk gelato is all about the pure, barnyard flavours of the milk itself). It’s topped with chocolate and vivid green pistachios. 2/77 Archer St, Chatswood 2067.
Gelato Messina: numerous locations
From the playful, of-the-zeitgeist flavours (remember ‘The Heisenberg’, replete with a topping of blue crystallised violets?) to all the classics (we can't walk past a scoop of their salted coconut and mango), these guys are still killing it. We salute you, oh godfathers of innovative Sydney gelato. The Star, Darlinghurst, Surry Hills, Rosebury, Bondi, Parramatta, Miranda.
Mrs Jones the Baker: Freshwater
At the back of the store there is a range of fresh gelatos, made on the premises. The flavours change with the seasons but our pick is the cookies and cream, made from vanilla gelato tossed with their own crushed triple-choc cookies.The cookies are crunchy, the ice cream creamy and smooth. 16A Lawrence St, Freshwater 2096.
Grabbing a cone at Pompei’s before wandering down to the beach feels like a Sydney tradition that should never be lost. The pistachio is that classic combination of acidic green and sweet, robust flavour, and the chocolate sorbet (made with Tuscan Amedei chocolate no less) is clean, refreshing and full-bodied. And now that they’re doing house made choc tops, we’re all kinds of excited. 126-130 Roscoe St, Bondi Beach 2026.
RivaReno Gelato: Darlinghurst
RivaReno does gelato the Sicilian way, even making sure to store the gelato in ‘pozzetti’ (covered, stainless steel containers). The lids mean you don't get that sense of the spectacular as you walk in, but they keep the gelato at exactly the right temperature, keeping it silky, luscious and smooth in a way that many other gelatos in Sydney are not. In fact we’re calling it: RivaReno is serving the best gelato in town right now. 280 Crown St, Darlinghurst 2010.
In the first video below, Simone Bonini, a well known Italian gelataio, explains what is il gelato artigianale. In the second and third videos, Vinicio Luzietti, owner of the Cremeria Aurelia in Rome, shows us how he prepares his gelati artigianali: in this case, il sorbetto al limone, in the second video, and il gelato al tè rooibos e cannella, in the third video.
Before the invention of mechanical refrigeration, the actual production process essential to making gelato required ice and, strangely enough, salt! Here is why and how gelato used to be made by using a hand cranked gelato maker:
We know salt gets mixed with the ice in hand-cranked ice cream machines. We see that it gets results, and yes, ice cream is made. But we’ve never quite been able to wrap our heads around it. Why the salt? What is it doing? Is it really necessary? Let’s see if we can get this straight.
Ok, the first concept to wrap our heads around is that the melting and freezing point of any liquid is just about the same. Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, but it will also melt any smidgen of a degree above that. Make sense?
The next thing to understand is that ice cream freezes (and melts!) at a lower temperature than water. The sugar and fats in the mix interfere with the formation of ice crystals, and it takes a colder temperature to get the ice cream to really freeze. Therefore, we can’t use straight ice to chill the ice cream base, because the ice will melt before the base gets cold enough.
Salt provides the solution. Similar to sugar, salt affects how water freezes and effectively lowers the freezing/melting point of water. Creating a saltwater slush and packing this around our ice cream base allows us to cool the base enough so that it starts to thicken and freeze before the ice melts completely.
This whole process feels very counter-intuitive to us! We’re looking at a slushy, half-melting saltwater mix and thinking that it can’t possibly be colder than hard ice cubes. But amazingly, it is. And what’s more, it works to make ice cream and has done so for centuries!
Domani è la festa di San Valentino and one of our students, la bellissima e simpaticissima Norah, is holding open the page dedicated to Italy of a lovely pop-up book published in 2009: Everyone Says I Love You: A pop-up trip around the world, illustrated by Beegee Tolpa. Italian has two ways of saying I love you: "Ti amo", and "Ti voglio bene". For Saint Valentine's day, "Ti amo" is definitely the one to use. What is, however, the difference between the two? Here is how Italy Magazine explains the difference:
"The first interesting point is that Italians distinguish clearly between romantic passionate love and love for friends and families. Amore is a word exclusively dedicated to your lover and Ti amo leaves no space for doubts or questions about one’s feelings. In a country where love and passion usually go hand in hand, the possessive Amore mio (my love) is very common.
Ti voglio bene (which we could translate with “I am fond of you”) is the appropriate expression to use with children, parents, friends and pets. But it is not unusual for lovers to say both as a way to express passion and care for each other."
Auguri a tutti gli innamorati!
At Italia 500 we've been offering Italian courses, in Sydney, since 1995 and one of the most beautiful aspects of learning Italian is that it opens the door to a culture of unrivalled richness and diversity. In this blog we'll be sharing some of our favourite books, movies, places in Italy to visit, music, links to podcasts, information about local and international Italian themed events, and the odd "personal" view, in the hope that it will encourage you to delve further into a culture which continues to inspire us and millions of people all over the world.