Signs of Italy

1955 "Torrefazione Caffè" sign by Vetreria Marisaldi Modena.
1955 "Torrefazione Caffè" sign by Vetreria Marisaldi Modena.

Italy heritage of talented artisans, painters, sculptors is rich. Not talking here about Botticelli or Michelangelo though… I am talking about the unknown artists whose craft decorated our shops, streets, and even manhole covers with letters.

It has been a pleasure travelling to Modena with friends Matteo and Eugenio yesterday to attend James Clough speech on the reissue of Lazy Dog “Signs Of Italy”. An amazing collection of signs from all over the country, from Torino to Catania, from 1800 to modern times.

In my humble opinion the title of the italian edition is even more meaningful than the one featured in the English one: “L’italia Insegna” stands for a reversed but readable version of “Signs of Italy” but also for “Italy Teaches”. And that’s very clever, pointing both to Clough being a typography teacher, and Italy being a cultural reference. Not surprising Italians suffer from a peculiar short memory illness that brings to the need of always having someone recalling that to us. In fact, most of these wonders are not being preserved in any way. Even worst, some are now living in the pictures only, having them been destroyed to be replaced by some soulless industrial monsters.

1940s Milk shop in Milan
1940s Milk shop in Milan.

Not that this is an Italian issue only, as Luca Barcellona pointed out, In the USA most shops choose self adhesive stencils instead of more interesting and captivating technic, this giving some sign painters the guts to sell their craft for cheaper prices than laser cut vinyl.

Lettering like these in an English Cemetery are forbidden!

Clough guided us through some early 1900 liberty signs, noticing how they usually doesn’t resemble any printing type. Fantasy was king those days and this kind of signs are hard to find somewhere else around the world. It is not the beauty that strikes the most, but the freedom and the fantasy of the craftsmen.

1925 monumental cemetery inscription in Verona
1925 monumental cemetery inscription in Verona.

It is known that some type design in the 1920s inscriptions clearly defines a political era, Clough pointed out how not only the shapes of letters were designed to carry on a specific message, this was achieved through common building methods too: most of them were not engraved into stone but three‑dimensionally  over impressed, to stress out the “always forward” philosophy, and urge toward future and conquest.

1940 Justice Palace in Milan
1940 Justice Palace in Milan. You can see an early draft by Marcello Piacentini with a different typical narrow “S”. Later on dropped for a more legible one. Even then designer had to accepts to negotiate with clients.

We jump forward a few years and after World War 2 architects strives to erase the memory of the Regime. Not being allowed luckily to remove the buildings some of them were able to replace the inscriptions, though, with embarrassing results. There is no lettering teaching for wannabe Italian architects at school, and that leads to architects with no taste (and culture) at all for letters, like in Naples, where Aldo Novarese’s “Stop” is used for the Palace of Justice… How could it be used for that place? A typeface designed to be playful and informal. Did its name play a role? Stop. Look no further, that’s the one. Nonsense.

Aldo Novarese's Stop for the Palace of Justice in Naples
Aldo Novarese’s “Stop” for the Palace of Justice in Naples.

Justice is not a game

1985 Council Community Centre in Milan
1985 Council Community Centre in Milan.

Why using a lettering good for a sack of potatoes?

But, back to eye candies, the speech went on speaking of monograms, and how landlords, proud of their properties, asked metalworkers to put their letters in the facade of the house, giving birth to sometimes intricate, sometimes clean and clever symbols. Another disappearing craft is the art of bending neon tubes to shape letters, quite difficult to achieve, still expensive, but quite amazing when you look at the results. Bye the way, if you stumble in a good one send it to James, he is always glad to receive some new material for his study.

Signs of Italy presents much more examples than the ones that was possible to admire during the event and chapters includes cinema signs, metal signs, mosaics, ceramics, street plates… But, moreover, at the time of Instagram and Pinterest this is not just a collection of nice pictures, this is a research, and a deep one. It is a real pleasure to both read and look.

3D metal neon and plastic letters for Cinema Embassy in Modena
3D metal neon and plastic letters for Cinema Embassy in Modena.

Let me conclude with a though. Nowadays a lot has changed, far are the times when signs were engraved and sculpted in stone, some signs really went along with the architecture of the building itself. Shops and buildings were there to stay and along went the signs. Now, after 30 years of digital production, things are not meant to last more than a season and we rarely see things like the ones collected in this book, still even today designers come out with original and “why haven’t I done this before” ideas, and some young enthusiast are embracing this. Luckily not everything is lost.

Bologna, Un Altro Studio dinamic sundial sign. The logotype is the ever‑changing shadow projection of metal letters fixed to the wall.
Bologna, Un Altro Studio dynamic sundial sign. The logotype is the ever‑changing shadow projection of metal letters fixed to the wall.


L'italia Insegna (Signs of Italy). With a dedication signed by James Clough

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