where to buy in italy
 
 
collected magazine articles on Italian travel, food and culture


 
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Dazzling illustrations of Italy played a major role in developing the country’s tourist industry. Fleur Kinson looks at the golden age of the travel poster.


The strange, angular roses bloom excitedly across the pretty balcony, where the impossibly slender woman rests her chin on her hand to admire the magnificent headland stretching into a turquoise infinity. It’s no surprise she can’t tear herself away from that view. It’s far more gorgeous than the real thing. Only as two-dimensional as the scene she beholds, this sea-gazing woman nonetheless transmits one message as powerfully as a radio beacon: “Wouldn’t you just love to be here where I am right now?”
      Thousands of people responded to that question with a resounding ‘yes’. From the 1890s to the 1950s, hundreds of vivid, intoxicating travel posters like this one played a key role in luring visitors to Italy and in establishing the country’s now rock-solid reputation as a place of endless sunshine, awesome history, breathtaking landscapes and sea-n-ski fun. Yes, travel posters did all that. Before television and glossy magazines, colourful posters were the prime force that filled the minds of the masses with notions of Italian travel, singing out siren-like from urban walls across Europe. Where the aristocratic Grand Tourists had gone before, a new wave of middle-income tourists would now follow. As ever more rail lines opened up the continent – with inexpensive hotels and restaurants springing up in their wake – so increasing numbers of people went in search of the places, the sunshine and the colour they’d seen in the posters.
      Three-colour lithographic posters were Europe’s first mass advertising tool. Used to promote all sorts of events, places and products, they were gorgeous right from the start – self-consciously works of art that enhanced the public street. Many big names knocked out an advertising poster or two in their heyday. Matisse enticed visitors to Nice, Dalì endorsed Normandy. Until the 1950s when new printing techniques made it as cheap and easy to print photographs as illustrations, the best way to promote something was to call in an artist to draw up a ravishing image.             In Italy, poster-design soon showed a distinct identity – typified by especial boldness and drama, often composed around a central diagonal line. Wonderful Italian designers promoted opera productions, alcoholic drinks, department stores, and of course, travel destinations. For half a century, the Italian State Tourist Board (ENIT), Italian State Railways (FS) and Touring Club Italiano cleverly commissioned hundreds of irresistible images of Italy, and bedazzled the rest of Europe with them. Variously printed in French, English, German and Italian, few of these original posters now survive, alas (and those that do can fetch £1,000-£10,000 apiece from collectors).
      Today these vintage images allow us to travel in time as well as space, with style and subject matter clearly revealing the mindset of different decades. The sinuous elegance of Art Nouveau, for example, was abandoned by artists hardened by the horrors of WWI in favour of more aggressively modern and streamlined designs. Thrusting Futurism might have been a tad too harsh for commercial posters, but the gentler, geometric Art Deco style it spawned was a big hit in the 1920s – and eminently appropriate for glorifying the sleek ships, planes and trains that would whisk you off on your hols.
      By the 30s, chilling intimations of Fascism have seeped into Italy’s posters – dark images of bodily strength and the imperial glory of ancient Rome. Mario Puppo’s 1938 poster for Cortina makes an especially shocking reference to contemporary ideas. A robust skier points into the distance with a flat hand, which his oblique angle plainly transforms into a Nazi salute. Post-WWII, Italian travel posters are conspicuously dominated by scenes of simple fun in the sun. Beaches, girls in bikinis, tranquil landscapes. Colourful and light-hearted, the relief is palpable. Images of antiquity cease altogether, as the past becomes a place of recent horror and all hopes turn resolutely towards a happier future.
      And that future would indeed be rosy. Perhaps not for travel poster illustration, which ceased to be a significant enterprise from the 1960s. But for Italian tourism, the coming decades would be positively radiant. Today, Italy is the world’s fourth most visited country, and tourism plays a substantial role in its economy. Having enjoyed a triumphant 60-year career fuelling the early fires of visitor interest, travel posters quietly retired to a small but lovely chapter of art history.



                                                                                       ©Fleur Kinson  2009























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Where to Buy in Italy