Italian Design's Best Kept Secret: How the Old Helps the New

On a recent Sunday evening I was given an unusual insight in what makes Italian design so successful. It happened at the fair for young Italian designers, the A.I.Fair (it stands for Artisanal Intelligence) held on 29 January in Emperor Hadrian's Temple in the suggestive Piazza di Pietra in old Rome.

A eureka moment!

But I didn't know that when I got there with my husband around 7 pm. It was a beautiful night, with a young moon in the clear sky and I felt relaxed and romantic. And mildly curious. Here's the Temple:

Majestic! And here's the entrance, hidden among the ancient columns:

Once in, we were met by a noisy and colorful crowd, with a big video screen at one end of the vast hall:

Lots of stands manned by young people, all showing the most eclectic and inventive array of design and fashion products, ranging from weird hats:

to a variety of rings:



Hummm, a bit heavy, those heels...and when I climbed up to the mezzanine that girds the big hall, I discovered amazing dresses like this one:

Later I was told that these were the original dresses used in Piero Tosi's film "Barbarella" that got 5 Oscar nominations. These dresses are usually not shown to the  public, so that was a rare occasion. Then I came across this one: 

Wondering whether this particular one was meant for a one-breast Amazon, I walked over to the balustrade and took a shot of the hall seen from above:

Here you can really appreciate how the "old helps the young": this country has amazing architectural remnants of its long and glorious history that can be used to showcase the work of innovative, young designers. No doubt they're good and inventive, but this kind of environment really helps to set their work off! Old Hadrian called on to support the inventiveness of young Romans...The Temple allure makes the design ideas look elegant and trendy, even if some of them probably aren't.

It's quite a trick to pull off and no doubt one of the elements that help explain the success of Italian design worldwide. Yes, it is one of Italian design's best kept secret: how they are able to exploit the old to the benefit of the new. And of course, how they are inspired by the past to look to the future and invent news ways to do old things.

In one corner of the hall, I came across this surprising stand that confirmed my insight. Here it is:

Set between two small columns, a big "C" on a black background stands out  - the trademark for Archivio Cicconi, a collection of over 7 million photographs spanning the whole of the 20th century. It is reminiscent of Gucci's double "G" but much starker in its simplicity. Next two it are two of the products one young and inspired artist has ingeniously derived from the old photographs, with a process that was in use at the end of the 19th century.

Here's the artist, Edoardo Cicconi:

He explained to us that since these photos are reproduced with a handmade process, no two photos are ever alike, thus ensuring that it is an unrepeatable artwork. And they can be made any size, even big enough to cover a whole wall in your living room!

Here is one, derived from a photograph of models in 1948:

And here's the bizarre zeppelin floating above Piazza Venezia, looking surprisingly ominous:

And here's the most extraordinary of the three - a procession of nuns walking through Rome in 1950, like a black pond filled with white balls:

And here's a close up of the material on which the photographs are printed - 100% cotton and you can clearly see the brush work that leaks beyond the edge of the photo:

There were also other interesting things on the Cicconi Archives stand, like this old camera:

There were piles of their new catalogue - here's the cover:

Gregory Peck in 1959 - on the terrace of the Hassler Hotel, with St Peter's in the background. Inside, lots of American celebrities - including this one of Louis Armstrong and his wife, vacationing in Rome:

And here's Pino er Pasticciere (Pino the Pastry chef) serenading a very young  Ursula Andress:
We're in 1958...I met Pino at a party many years later (he came to our house in 1986) and he still had a remarkable voice and oodles of charm.

By 8 pm, the fair closed and we were out on the streets hunting for a restaurant. Actually, there were many, and since the temperature was so mild - in spite of this being January - many people were dining outdoors:
I prefer indoors in winter, no matter what. So we walked on and came to the Pantheon:

Turning the corner, on Via del Seminario, we came to this old restaurant (established in 1946) that my husband knew from his Dolce Vita days (!):

He told me their pizzas were excellent, and so they were:

Crisp and tasty - that stuff on the left side of the pizza are zucchini flowers...What struck me though was the fact that this restaurant is still in the hands of the same family. Now the third generation, and still fondly looking after their clients:

The family touch...that's what makes the difference!

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