Origins and evolution of the advertising poster in Italy

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The poster is one of the oldest forms of advertising around, and its roots lie in the industrialisation  that changed the face of European cities in the second half of the 19th century. The growth in both population and prosperity spurred industrialists to begin the mass production  of goods. And with this came the need to capture the interest of the newly formed middle and lower-middle classes, to grow the customer base for these goods.

In metropolises like London and Paris, theatres, cabarets and night clubs were springing up with busy programmes of shows that were promoted on the streets. At the same time, printers were discovering chromolithography , a technique that allows colour designs to be printed on a sheet of paper using lithographic stones.

The origins

One of the fathers of the advertising poster was Jules Chéret. Entering the world of printing as a 13-year-old apprentice, over the course of his career Chéret would print thousands of posters for theatres, night clubs and concert halls, achieving stunning results using colour lithography. He was the first to place greater emphasis on images rather than text, turning the aesthetic norms of the era on their head. In his posters, Chéret liked to draw feminine figures: the so-called Chérettes were the first “advertising models” in history.

In Italy, after the first poster was published by Rossetti for Gounod’s 1863 opera “Faust”, the German painter and advertiser Adolf Hohenstein created a colour poster for Puccini’s opera “Edgar” in 1889. It marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with music publisher Giulio Ricordi, who appointed Hohenstein as creative director for Officine Grafiche Ricordi.

The poster created for Puccini’s “Edgar” by Adolf Hohenstein, 1889. Copyright: www.italianways.com

Italian poster design owes much to this publishing house, which employed various artists in its quest for a new visual and written language for its billboards, magazine ads, collector postcards and opera librettos. Officine Grafiche Ricordi also had a highly productive 20-year collaboration with the Mele brothers, who in 1889 opened one of Italy’s first department stores in Naples. Artists of the calibre of Marcello Dudovich, Leopoldo Metlicovitz, Leonetto Cappiello and Aleardo Terzi created a series of posters in a pictorial style which depicted people in refined clothes and sophisticated settings. The aim was to draw the attention of the middle classes to Magazzini Mele’s wide range of affordably priced clothing.

A poster designed by Marcello Dudovich for Magazzini Mele, 1910. Copyright: www.italianways.com

The most innovative of all the Italian poster artists was Leonetto Cappiello, an illustrator and caricaturist from Livorno who eschewed the aesthetic conventions of Chéret and Art Nouveau in favour of a style inspired by Expressionism and Fauvism. His posters often featured mythical creatures like elves and Amazons, emphasised by the use of bright colours on dark backgrounds. For the first time, the images in posters did not directly depict the products advertised, but represented them through highly recognisable symbols. Another characteristic of Cappiello’s style was the lowered point of view, which emphasises the expressive power of his images.

The poster designed for Cinzano by Leonetto Cappiello in 1910. Copyright: www.italianways.com

The influence of Futurism

Early 20th-century Italian advertising design was inspired by the new aesthetics of Futurism, which emphasised modernity through the use of bright colours and bold typefaces. One of the most adept at applying the principles of Futurist art to advertising was Italian Fortunato Depero. He created a series of stunning posters for some of the largest Italian firms of the era: Campari, S. Pellegrino, Cicli Bianchi and Strega Alberti Benevento.

Depero revolutionised advertising poster style. He used fonts as graphical elements in their own right together with the strong lines and geometric shapes typical of Cubism. Depero’s style continues to influence modern designers and artists working in various genres of advertising design. 

The poster designed by Fortunato Depero for Magnesia S. Pellegrino in 1928. Copyright: www.italianways.com

From the 1950s to the 1970s

Posters were used for political and propaganda ends during the Second World War, but the 1950s saw advertising posters return to commercial use as new products appeared on the market, from tinned meat to televisions.

And it was with the birth of RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana – the Italian state broadcaster) that a new advertising language was born: the ads on the Carosello show presented products in a  lively, light-hearted tone through brief comedy sketches performed by famous Italian actors. The brains behind some of the most celebrated adverts for the show, graphic designer Armando Testa, also created some of the most iconic posters of the time. His campaigns introduced unforgettable slogans and characters, from Pippo the hippo for Lines nappies to Caballero and Carmencita for Paulista coffee.

One of his most famous pieces was a poster featuring an elephant with a tire-shaped trunk designed for Pirelli with the tagline “Atlante. The giant that will go a long way”. Another was an advert for the Punt e Mes vermouth featuring a sphere and a half-sphere hanging in the air as a visual representation of the brand name, which means “point and a half” in Piedmontese.

Armando Testa’s sketch for a Pirelli poster, 1954. Copyright: www.magnanirocca.it

From the 1980s to the present

With the termination of Carosello in 1977 and the advent of colour television, billboards continued to support TV ads by broadening their reach.

The father of what came to be known as “shockvertising”, photographer and art director Oliviero Toscani, created some of the most memorable posters of the 80s and 90s. His non-conformist, provocative and irreverent style helped turn Benetton into a global clothing brand through campaigns that tackled various social issues. Toscani was the first Italian art director to treat consumers as people with a conscience and a sense of right and wrong, promoting not so much a product as the duty to think about society’s most pressing problems.

One of the campaigns created by Oliviero Toscani for Benetton, 1989. Copyright: www.eltiempo.com

But today, in the age of the Internet and social media, is the advertising billboard still relevant? Absolutely. The poster in particular and outdoor advertising in general ( billboards, posters in public places and adverts on public transport) still have a key role to play in advertising. What’s more, according to data published by analytics firm Zenith, their role is growing. According to Zenith’s forecasts, in 2018, total spend on advertising posters will grow by 3% compared to 2017, and by 35% compared to 2010. In fact, outdoor advertising is the fastest-growing form of advertising apart from web advertising.

In Italy, the picture is slightly different: according to a recent Nielsen survey, in 2018 investment in outdoor advertising fell by 10% year-on-year, while spending on transit advertising (in other words, ads that appear on trams, trains and metros or at stations and airports) grew by about 9% compared to 2017.

While the world of large-format advertising is, for budgetary reasons, largely the preserve of big firms, posters in smaller formats are an affordable option for most businesses and organisations. And they remain an extremely effective way of getting a message across to as many people as possible for a smaller outlay than other media, be it digital or paper.

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