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18 July 2018updated 02 Sep 2021 5:24pm

Campari’s gorgeous but politically flawed adverts show how bitterness and beauty can coexist

Leonetto Cappiello’s 1920s designs show the ambivalence of the times – perhaps of alcoholic gratification in any era. 

By Nina Caplan

It is a truth infrequently acknowledged that ugliness and insight can coexist in the same bigoted head: nobody is wrong all the time. In his 1909 Manifesto of Futurism, Marinetti trumpeted his love of war and contempt for women; later, he supported fascism. Still, his love of speed feels prescient in a world hooked on nanosecond novelty, and his belief that art could change the world appealed to artists who have done just that.

There’s an inkling of those changes in “The Art of Campari”, an exhibition at London’s Estorick Collection. Like Marinetti, Davide Campari understood the power of public attention and enticed artists who could attract it; unfortunately they were the same artists. In between designing magazine covers for Il Duce, the painter Fortunato Depero created wonderful posters for Campari, as daring as the carmine aperitivo itself. Designer Leonetto Cappiello is considered a godfather of advertising: his bold shapes and colours were ideal for the new, mechanised forms of transport that gave artists so little time to arrest the passenger’s eye.

Cappiello’s 1920s designs show the ambivalence of the times – perhaps of alcoholic gratification in any era. Look at his sly blue-haired clown, capering inside a vertigo-inducing spiral of orange peel, seeming to proffer more toxic pleasures than the bottle of Campari he holds aloft.

Depero declared advertising the art of the future and who can say he was wrong?

Inspired by cubism, he inked a set of wonderful monochrome robotic figures who seem to obey Marinetti’s urges to “metalise” the face and “pistonise” the body, except that instead of being marvels of efficiency, they are batty creatures who put Campari glasses on their heads or ogle different drinks with each eye. Which may say something about the flawed technological ideal, and something else about the resolution-rusting power of Campari.

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The drink was invented near Milan, by a bar-owner whose name, Gaspare Campari, sounds so like an advertising slogan that he may have been compelled to distil herbs and fruit simply in order to make use of it. The year was 1860, Italy was being unified at gunpoint outside the door, and a blood-coloured bitters with an alcoholic kick was just the thing to take the edge off. Gaspare’s son fortified the drink’s cachet via art, resulting  in a brand manager’s nightmare: a jumble of ideas with little in common but visual brilliance.

Davide Campari may not have been a paid-up futurist but he embraced technology, welcomed speed. He mechanised early, moved his factory near a train station, and invented the world’s first pre-packaged cocktail: Campari and soda in a marvellous little bottle designed by Depero. It’s still in use, a deceptively simple red triangle that signals continuity as we speed ever-faster past the blur.

Soda isn’t sweet, and the best Campari cocktails accentuate its distinctive sour tang: Negronis, Americanos, Campari G&Ts and Boulevardiers. Bitterness and beauty also coexist, after all, and resolutions to that contradiction should be neither simplistic nor saccharine. The joyous persuasion in these artworks gives me great pleasure, as does their subject, but I also heed the vibrant, prescient warning to interrogate our pleasures and ensure, before we indulge to the point of oblivion or disaster, that we have calculated their cost. 

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This article appears in the 18 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact